Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Getting to 350 Amid All the Carbon

With the beginning of the end in sight for this most recent economic crisis, Big Thinkers are turning their focus back to even bigger problems – climate change chief among them.

Again here, Vermonters can lead the way to a better life, as we have done historically on independence and abolition, and more recently on child healthcare and marriage equality.

This time around the stakes will be a lot higher than they were in one Vermont Republican senatorial primary, when the key question was how many teats there are on a cow.

In the U.S., Congress is struggling with a “cap and trade” bill that might slightly cut carbon emissions, which come primarily from burning oil and coal. Yet few leaders are ready to vote for what is truly needed: a tax on carbon to drastically cut emissions, with a corresponding dividend regularly paid back to every American.

Internationally, the focus is on a meeting of the “G20” leaders in July. After that, everyone is gearing up for the December meeting in Copenhagen that will supplant the Kyoto goals on global warming.

And in places as far flung as Lebanon, India and South Africa, an intrepid band of activists, who have their roots in Addison County, is organizing a planetary effort to place in every thinking person’s mind the number 350 – that is, 350 parts per million of carbon.

Scientists have concluded that 350 ppm is the maximum amount of carbon the atmosphere can hold and still support human life as we know it.

Here’s the bad news: We’re already above 380 ppm and rising. There is so much carbon already loaded into the atmosphere that many levelheaded experts think we can’t avoid at least some of the drastic impacts.

Left unchecked, climate change will melt the icecaps, flood our coastlines, imperil our food supply, bring us Katrina-level hurricanes on a regular basis, and drive many species into extinction. Nature’s rich beauty will fade to deserts, dead seas and autumnal maples that are a drab brown.

Against that backdrop, a tribe of climate-change activists gathered earlier this month at Middlebury College to contemplate “getting to 350,” achieving a better life organized around sustainable communities rather than unsustainable consumption.

(For more on the basics and to see what you can do, see www.350.org.)

Organized by the steadfast professor Jon Isham, the conference drew native Vermonters, a few hangers-on like myself, and Midd grad activists who, like our president, are proud to call themselves organizers. They spend their days and nights lobbying Congress and the G20 nations, impressive young adults who earned their climate stripes as students here.

We heard top NASA climatologist James Hansen lay out the irrefutable evidence that unless we act now, catastrophe awaits us. We contemplated the frightening gap between the destruction that the science says is approaching, and the public’s heedlessness of this threat.

One recent national survey on the top issues found Americans don’t even rank “the environment” in the top 20. Indeed, many conference participants confessed in private that they feel humanity will only take meaningful action to curb climate change once the inevitable catastrophes and “die off” begin to occur.

Looking battle-hardened and prophetic, Ripton resident Bill McKibben was Skyped into the conference from New Zealand. He’s been there and in many other nations as part of the 350 campaign, organizing surfers and scuba divers, mountain climbers and ordinary citizens, to gather in hundreds of events on Oct. 24.

On that day six weeks before the Copenhagen conference, we’ll convene in iconic natural settings and simple parks and squares around the glob, in hopes of impressing those three simple digits –3-5-0 -- upon the world’s consciousness.

Surprisingly, the mood at the conference was a hopeful one though we contemplated the most dire of fates.

The younger activists reminded us that climate change is both peril and opportunity, because it is forcing us to rethink how we organize our communities and our economy. And in this movement as in so many past ones, the youth have a lot to teach their elders.

Gatherings like this one inevitably focus on Big Ideas and Big Projects. Lew Milford from Clean Energy Group pointed to the need for “distributed innovation” around the globe to developing carbon-free energy. Charles Baron from Google, a Middlebury College grad, mapped out the search giant’s commitments to help meet its energy needs by developing massive geothermal energy production.

But in this inevitable focus on Big Ideas, a couple of them were overlooked.
Along with Native American climate activist Kandi Mosset of the Indigenous Environmental Network, I gently reminded the conference that the local food movement is already making a difference well beyond the conference rooms. (For more on how this is happening in Vermont, see “On the Importance of the Local” by Suzanne Richman, at www.vtcommons.org).

Another idea that was overlooked, as it usually is, was the ever-unpopular topic of population control.

Hansen for example, proudly showed us photos of his young grandchildren, as he called for a moratorium on new coal-fired plants and outlined the carbon-reducing virtues of “fourth generation” nuclear power.

Yet that kind of nuclear won’t come online for decades. And during that time the human population is exploding toward 10 billion – a number that itself portends unending climate change.

There was nary a word from Hansen or anybody else about taking the pressure off the planet in the coming decades by reducing our numbers.

As urgently as we need to get to 350, in my view we also need a “getting to 4 billion” conference. The goal: Figure out how we can, by reducing our numbers from the present 6 billion-plus, take full advantage of the challenging opportunities that climate change presents us.

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