350: More than a number

Originally posted 10/26/2009

Before you read this, take the time to watch this six minute speech delivered by Severn Suzuki, daughter of environmental activist David Suzuki, at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development:

The girl who silenced the world for five minutes

That was 17 years ago. Since then, over one million people have heard this girl’s speech, but how many have actually listened?

I’ll admit I feel jaded. With media buzzwords like “climate change” whizzing through my brain on a daily basis, it’s easy to begin ignoring them. Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it a thousand times… we’re polluting our ozone, poisoning our water, deforesting the Amazon, killing the coral reefs, endangering who knows how many species, and the list goes on…

When phenomena like global climate change and the war in Iraq continue, undeterred, for so long, media coverage of these issues begins to seem almost petty. Is it because we feel powerless in the face of these monster problems? They roar in our ears until we become deaf.

Finally, there has been a wakeup call, and people have heard it, and responded. On Saturday, October 24, 2009, people from 181 countries united in over 5200 events around the globe to bring attention to the number 350. Participants formed human numbers to provide striking aerial shots of the number 350. Signs were held high in group photos, all displaying the number 350. The media are calling it the “most widespread day of political action in history.”

What is it, exactly? Essentially, it’s a reminder to everyone that we have not forgotten, and cannot ignore, the need for drastic change in the way our world currently operates. It’s a global plea to international political leaders to draft more than just a spurious agreement to mitigate climate change when they come together for the climate conference in Copenhagen in December.

350 represents the number of parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere that scientists say is a safe upper limit for the planet. Currently, the atmosphere is concentrated with 387 parts per million. To avoid climatic catastrophe, 350 ppm is the ideal target for CO2 levels.

What our leaders must understand—what citizens of the world tried to tell them on Saturday— is that we the people are ready for those drastic changes. So make those changes already. The 350 October 24 event was a reminder to international decision makers that our lives, our children’s lives, are in their hands.

Climate change isn’t something that’s going to happen. It’s something that’s definitely happening. President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives is one of the few political leaders taking radical steps to confront the threat of climate change. He is acutely aware of the effects rising sea levels will have on the archipelago. President Nasheed has said even a minute rise in sea levels would submerge a large portion of the island nation. Nasheed has created a “sovereign wealth fund” from revenue generated by tourism, which will be used to purchase land in Sri Lanka and India in the event that a mass relocation of Maldives residents becomes necessary.

The implications of climate change are, indeed, frightening. Scientists are now predicting the Arctic will be ice-free between the years 2011-2015, which is 80 years prior to what scientists estimated several years ago.

The scariest part of all this: we don’t yet know the full implications of climate change. Or maybe the scarier part is that given what we can predict, our actions to curb humanity’s contributions to the problem have been minimal.

Perhaps the way we have framed the problem is too daunting. “Combating climate change,” sounds more like a colossal, impossible feat than a slogan for international action. Maybe if we whittled down our goal to something more manageable—sliced and diced the problem into the hundreds of contributing issues—then perhaps the mission would not only seem less intimidating, but also achievable.

For example, rather than “combating climate change,” we should frame the struggle as reducing CO2 emissions in Los Angeles, promoting sustainable forestry in Western Washington, limiting pesticide use on banana plantations in Colombia, returning to small-scale ranching operations in Brazil to minimize damage to the Amazon, and the list goes on.

I believe the solution to climate change is twofold. Umbrella regulations are needed on an international level to hold countries accountable for their actions. However, smaller, grassroots movements are also necessary to avert disaster. Macro and micromanagement of the problem will facilitate positive change. While fighting global climate change might seem an impossible task for an individual person, volunteering for an ecological restoration organization of interest is a more manageable, and less intimidating, goal.

If international leaders can do their part, people’s passions for the hundreds of different movements will do the rest. The call to action has sounded, and judging by the unprecedented global response on Saturday, people have listened.

I highly recommend perusing through inspirational photos posted from the 350 event at:

350 Photos and More Information

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About devon

Devon Fredericksen is a freelance writer who specializes in environmental issues, social justice, and book reviews. Her work has been published in Indian Country Today Media Network, The Sheet, Eastside Magazine, The Planet, The Western Front, and Huxley College's book, Green Fire, a collection of environmental profiles. She holds B.A. degrees in environmental journalism and Spanish from Western Washington University. She currently lives in Bishop, CA.
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