In the past month Bill McKibben has been in India, the Maldives, Lebanon, Oman and Dubai. And last weekend he seemed delighted to be in Newcomb, population 472, catching up with Adirondack friends. The writer told Nature Conservancy members gathered at the Newcomb school for the Adirondack Chapter’s annual meeting how new information on atmospheric carbon has made him a global activist, and why he’s spreading the message that we must do more than install low-watt bulbs if we are to keep climate change from spiraling entirely out of control.
Two years ago arctic ice began melting dramatically faster than computer models had predicted, McKibben said. Scientists had projected that the natural systems that gave rise to civilization and the current array of life on earth would be disrupted when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 450 parts per million. A recent paper by NASA scientist James Hansen and others puts that tipping point at 350 parts per million. The planet is already at 390 parts per million.
McKibben referenced several places where life as people know it is changing, perhaps irrevocably: Glaciers that feed rivers supporting hundreds of millions of people in Asia are melting. The Maldives, a nation of coral islands preparing to be swallowed by the Indian Ocean, is essentially shopping for a new homeland. “Hundred-year” rainstorms are becoming routine. A problem that McKibben thought would manifest in the time of his children and grandchildren appears to be unfolding now.
“We need to make [the transition away from fossil fuels] happen quicker than is economically or politically comfortable,” McKibben said. And that means more than reducing personal carbon emissions; citizens must pressure government and industry to change, he argued. “We all need to play a role of some kind in that solution.” Action taken in the next couple of years will determine “whether we get out of it at all,” he said.
McKibben is trying to engrain the number 350 in the minds of policymakers and citizens worldwide. As director of 350.org, he’s organizing a day of global activism on Saturday, October 24, encouraging people to go public in support of the 350 ppm goal. So far, 1,323 actions in 91 countries are planned, including some in the Adirondacks.
The Adirondack Council, based in Elizabethtown, is looking for 350 or more people who will commit to an alternative commute to work or school the week before Oct. 24. Paul Smith’s College, which coincidentally will have an incoming freshman class of 350, is organizing an event, details still to come. The Adirondack Green Circle in Saranac Lake is planning to do something as well, and other communities are early in the planning stages. You can visit 350.org to find an action near you or to register your own.