Where did this 350 number come from?
Dr. James Hansen, of NASA, the United States' space agency, has been researching global warming longer than just about anyone else. He was the first to publicly testify before the U.S. Congress, in June of 1988, that global warming was real. He and his colleagues have used both real-world observation, computer simulation, and mountains of data about ancient climates to calculate what constitutes dangerous quantities of carbon in the atmosphere. The Bush Administration has tried to keep Hansen and his team from speaking publicly, but their analysis has been widely praised by other scientists, and by experts like Nobel Prize winner Al Gore. The full text of James Hansen's paper about 350 can be found here.
Isn't America the biggest source of the problem? What about China and India?
Yes—America has been producing more CO2 than any other country, and leads the industrialized world in per capita emissions. Even though China now produces as much CO2 annually, the US still produces many times more carbon per person than China, India, and most other countries. And America has blocked meaningful international action for many years. That's why many of us at 350.org have worked hard to change U.S. policy—we staged more than 2,000 demonstrations in all 50 states in 2007, and helped spur Congress to pass the first real laws to reduce CO2. Now we need help from around the world to persuade both the U.S. and the U.N. to continue the process.
China and India and the rest of the developing world need to be involved. But since per capita they use far less energy than the West, and have been doing so for much shorter periods of time, and are using fossil fuels to pull people out of poverty, their involvement needs to be different. The West is going to have to use some tiny percentage of the wealth it built up filling the atmosphere with carbon to transfer technology north to south so that these countries can meet their legitimate development needs without burning all their coal. A great resource for thinking about these questions is the paper prepared by the Greenhouse Rights Network, which can be found here.
And what about all the other targets people are aiming for?
Here's Bill McKibben's response to this question:
The question of what target to aim for in the fight against global warming has always been vexed, and for one simple reason: filling the atmosphere with carbon is at base a huge experiment, one we’ve never conducted before. It’s always been tough to judge exactly where the danger lies.
At first in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the number we routinely used was 550 parts per million CO2—mostly because it was double the pre-Industrial Revolution concentrations and hence easy to model. But it became something of a red line through dint of sheer repetition—I remember writing an op-ed for the New York Times excoriating the Clinton administration for hinting that it might be okay to go past a 550 ceiling. As time went on, it became clearer that the dangerous thresholds lay somewhere lower, and we began to use—almost interchangeably—450 parts per million, or 2 degrees Celsius. Science doesn’t actually know if 450 ppm and 2 degrees are the same thing, and no one knows how much change they would produce. Again, these were guesses for the point at which catastrophic damage would begin—they were more plausible, but still not based on actual experience. They also reflected guesses of what was politically possible to achieve. They were completely defensible, given the lack of data (though the 2C target was always problematic strategically since Americans don’t use centigrade measurements and hence have no real idea what 2 degrees Celsius means.)
In the summer of 2007, though, with the rapid melt of Arctic ice, it became clear that we had already crossed serious thresholds. A number of other signs pointed in the same direction: the spike in methane emissions, likely from thawing permafrost; the melt of high-altitude glacier systems and perennial snowpack in Asia, Europe, South America and North America; the rapid and unexpected acidification of seawater. All of these implied the same thing: wherever the red line for danger was, we were already past it, even though the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was only 390 parts per million, and the temperature increase still a shade below 1 degree C. In early 2008, Jim Hansen and a team of researchers gave us a new number, verified for the first time by real-time observation (and also by reams of new paleo-climatic data). They said that 350 parts per million CO2 was the upper limit if we wished to have a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” That number is unrefuted; indeed, a constant flow of additional evidence supports it from many directions. Just this week, for instance, oceanographers reported that longterm atmospheric levels above 360 ppm would doom coral reefs worldwide.
It is, therefore, no longer possible to defend higher targets as a bulwark against catastrophic change. The Global Humanitarian Forum reported recently that climate change was already claiming 300,000 lives per year—that should qualify as catastrophic. A new Oxfam report makes very clear the degree of suffering caused by the warming we've already seen, and adds "Warming of 2 degrees C entails a devastating future for at least 600 million people," almost all of them innocent of any role in causing this trouble. If the Arctic melts at less than one degree, then two degrees can’t be a real target. This is simply how science works. New information drives out the old.
You could, logically, defend targets like 450 or 2 degrees C as the best we could hope for politically, especially if you add that they represent absolute upper limits that we must bounce back below as quickly as possible. But even that is politically problematic, because it implies—to policy makers and the general public—that we still have atmosphere left in which to put more carbon, and time to gradually adjust policies. We don’t—not with feedback loops like methane release starting to kick in with a vengeance. It is, we think, far wiser to tell people the best science, in part because it motivates action. It’s the difference between a doctor telling you that you really should think about changing your diet and a doctor telling you your cholesterol is already too high and a heart attack is imminent. The second scenario is the one that gets your attention.
A number of small island nations and less developed country governments have joined leaders like Al Gore in enunciating firmly the 350 target, and equating it with survival. Climate coalition groups like TckTckTck have also endorsed the target, as have a growing coalition of hundreds of organizational allies.
Here's the important thing to remember: arguing for 350 is not making “the perfect the enemy of the good.” It’s making the necessary the enemy of the convenient. We are aware that we won’t get an agreement at Copenhagen that rapidly returns us to 350—even if we do everything right it will take decades for the world's oceans and forests to absorb the excess carbon we've already poured into the atmosphere. But that's why we've got to get going now—and at the very least we'll have a number to explain why the agreement that does emerge is insufficient and needs to be revised quickly and regularly. We can use it to make Copenhagen a real beginning, not an end for years to come the way Kyoto was.
In the end, everyone needs to remember that the goal at Copenhagen is not to get a “victory,” not to sign an agreement. It’s to actually take steps commensurate with the problem. And those steps are dictated, in the end, by science. This negotiation, on the surface, is between America and China and the EU and India and the developing world; between industry and environmentalists; between old and new technology. But at root the real negotiation is between human beings on the one hand, and physics and chemistry on the other. Physics and chemistry have laid their cards on the table: above 350 the world doesn’t work. They are not going to negotiate further. It’s up to us to figure out, this year and in the years ahead, how to meet their bottom line.
Why October 24th?
The timing here is crucial—there is a narrow window when we can have the most influence in international climate politics. Too early and we're irrelevant, too late and we've missed our chance to have a real impact.
Though the final climate meeting in Copenhagen doesn't take place until December, governments will be finalizing positions before the meeting takes place. Late October may well be our best chance to influence the treaty, a chance to make our voices heard before UN negotiators receive final marching orders from their national leadership.
With creative actions happening all over the globe, and photographs of those events appearing online, in the media, and on politicians' desks, we will change what these negotiators think they can achieve right before they make the important decisions of the UN treaty. Right now most of them know the science of 350ppm, but they don't think it is politically possible. On October 24, we are going to show them that not only is it possible, but it is what everyone all over the world is demanding they do.
It's also worth noting that October 24th is UN Day, a major event in much of the world.
Do you measure 350 in CO2 or CO2e?
First, let's define the term: CO2e is a calculation used by climate scientists to account for other greenhouse gases—like methane—that contribute climate change. It converts those gases to "equivalent carbon dioxide," and is often used by scientists and policy makers to offer a single metric that can be used for all greenhouse gases.
The initial catalyst for the 350 campaign was James Hansen's landmark paper. "Target CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?" In this paper, Dr. Hansen identifies 350 ppm as the upper boundary for CO2 concentrations — not CO2-e.
Hansen focused on CO2 as the key greenhouse gas because it is the most prevalent in our atmosphere, has the longest life-cycle, meaning we'll be dealing with the consequences of our actions today for over 100 years, and it is most integrated into industrial economies. In other words, cutting CO2 is the key challenge in combatting global warming, and will be the key feature of any international climate treaty.
Since 350.org formed a year ago, two things have led 350 supporters to take other greenhouse gases into account and start seeing 350 ppm in terms of CO2e. First, we've seen the impacts of climate change happening even more quickly than predicted. Just in 2009 there have been increased floods across Southeast Asia, a key ice bridge in the arctic melted years ahead of schedule, and places like Australia continue to be ravaged by drought. Scientists are increasingly focused on the role of potent, short-term greenhouse gases, such as Methane (which is 25 times as potent as CO2—though there's far less of it). As we think about how to combat climate change in the short term, taking these gases into account makes more and more sense.
Second, as the 350 movement has grown more and more of the groups involved, particularly groups in developing countries, do work that focuses on greenhouse gases other than CO2. These include large scale meat production or improper waste management, both leading sources of methane, industrial production of CFCs and other dangerous chemical pollutants, and more. Many of these non-carbon pollution sources have profound local impacts on humans and the environment, as well as being contributers to climate change.
These considerations have led 350.org to see the 350 ppm target not only in terms of CO2, but CO2e. On a technical level, this becomes a more ambitious target, incorporating other greenhouse gases. On a practical level, it signifies the same priorities 350 has embodied all along. Any climate target lower than where we are right now—be it 350 CO2e, 350 CO2, or anything else—represents a transformative shift in how the world operates. Targets of 350 CO2 and 350 CO2e—both greenhouse gas concentrations significantly lower than current levels—have the same essential policy implications: we will STOP burning coal and other fossil fuel and we will START rolling out clean energy and other sustainable development strategies around the world.
Either way you slice it, in terms of CO2 or CO2-e, 350 is the mark of a completely new direction—and the movement that will get us there.