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Words

350: Gnat’s all, folks

The most important number in the world

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

When it comes to activism in the face of organized, well-funded corporate denial of global climate change, well, perhaps we’re all just gnats. But only one of us little buzzing, annoying insects has a taxonomic name: Bill McKibben.

Peter Kerr, a scientist with the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s State Collection of Arthropods, recently discovered a species of gnat in California and named it after McKibben last month to honor the author’s lifelong commitment to protecting the environment. Megophthalmidia mckibbeni makes its home in California.

“I felt truly honored,” McKibben tweeted and buzzed. “I love this planet we got born onto, from the big down to the very small. To be officially connected with its great diversity—well, that means a lot.”

One of America’s best-known environmentalists, McKibben has written books that, over the last quarter century, have shaped public perception—and public action—on climate change, alternative energy, and the need for more localized economies. McKibben is the founder of 350.org, the first large global grassroots climate change initiative.

That’s an important number, McKibben relates.

“In the summer of 2007, Arctic ice began to melt far more rapidly than scientists had expected,” he notes. “Before the season was out, they’d begun to conclude that the earth was already moving past tipping points—that indicators, from the thawing of glaciers to the spread of droughts, showed global warming was a present crisis, not a future threat. Our leading climatologists even gave us a number for the red line: 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. That’s a tough number, since we’re already past it.”

In fact, we’re well past it.

In April, levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide pushed above 400 parts per million in the dry air at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Levels have been monitored there by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since 1959. Average amounts have climbed steadily, year after year, as they have around the globe.

“The annual growth rate measured at Mauna is not the same as the global growth rate, but it is quite similar,” NOAA researcher Dr. Pieter Tans notes.

Last time CO2 levels were this high was around 3 million years ago, back in the Pliocene era.

Here’s an experiment you can try at home: Take two sealed jugs of air, one with more CO2 in it than the other. Insert thermometers into each and apply the same heat source to both. Now who’re you gonna believe—corporate cash flooding to the talking heads on FOX News, or your own lying eyes?

“It’s time to stop letting corporate power make the most important decisions our planet faces,” McKibben writes. “We don’t have the money to compete with those corporations, but we do have our bodies, and many of us will use them.”

McKibben describes his journey as “the education of an unlikely activist,” but he’s frequently an activist on the brink of despair. He knows too much, you see, about the pace of climate change versus the glacial movement of federal policy in response to that change.

Sadness at that pace, he notes, has turned into a sharper-edged fear.

“You don’t need to imagine a damned thing, the evidence of destruction is all too obvious,” he writes. “Much more quickly than we would have guessed in the late 1980s, global warming has dramatically altered, among many other things, hydrological cycles.”

This is not a problem for our children, he wrote in his sobering tour guide of this emerging, soon unrecognizable new planet, Eaarth. Profound changes are occurring now, and will accelerate in our lifetimes.

The White House agrees. Last week the Obama administration issued a blistering scientific report detailing the effects of human-induced climate change being felt in every corner of the United States. Prolonged droughts, extreme weather, raging wildlfires, dying forests and more have been caused by an average warming of just 2 degrees Fahrenheit over most land areas of the country in the past century, scientists found. Yet if greenhouse gases continue to accumulate at current pace, the warming could conceivably exceed 10 degrees by the end of this century, they said.

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the consensus of scientists declared in their report.

“The debate is settled,” President Barack Obama agreed in a speech last week. “Climate change is a fact.

“And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did,” he added emphatically.

Bill Mckibben and his organization, 350.org, have a plan. But it will take the buzzing of millions of us little gnats in the roar of well-funded resistance.

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