Bill McKibben’s 350ppm at 46 South

Posted on May 1, 2009


mckibbenWe had Bill McKibben visiting work yesterday.    He gave a good talk and stayed for lunch.

Bill has been in Wanaka and started his talk with a compelling story of an experience in Tibet, of glaciers melting and significantly changing landscape in an area that provides the water supply for a huge proportion of mankind.   He talked about a feeling of helplessness that he didn’t like and how now he is committed to achieving real change. 

The opportunity to do something on a scale that might actually matter

Talking to about 200 of  Dunedin’s committed sustainability folks, Bill read his crowd  and didn’t dwell on “how deep in trouble we are”.  He did, though, talk about feedback loops “once things start happening, they take on a hideous life of their own”.    As an example here he talked about Boreal forest dieback and the pine beetle (of much interest to me as I once worked as a landscape ecologist studying forest dynamics in the Boreal forests in northern Manitoba – hence me spending too long reading about that tangent this morning).   He talked of the Epic drought in Australia and America and so on. 

He says that unlike previous environmental issues, carbon is not marginal to the economy – there’s no way around it except by addressing the combustion of fossil fuels.   If aliens were to visit earth today, he says, their report would be that “the planet is covered with flesh colored devices for the combustion of fossil fuels”.   Carbon is “so fundamental to the economy, it is defended both by inertia and powerful vested interests”.  

“Time is short”, he says, and we’re at the point where even immediate responses won’t do the trick:  

While individual action is necessary, it is not sufficient, these individual actions can’t add up in time – we need to use multiplication

McKibben’s talk was called “The Road to Copenhagen – how planning and action in Dunedin can solve the global climate crisis”.    While I’m not convinced by the “solve”, the message is that by participating in the 350 movement, we can make difference.  That difference is to radically change the goals of leaders at the next climate conference (in Copenhagen).

The number 350 refers to the level of atmospheric carbon that  Dr Jim Hansen describes as necessary to avert dangerous climate change (paper, testimony).   350, McKibben says, provides a global rallying point to “drive the number into prominence”.   

We need to set the psychological bar at 350, make it difficult to have another tepid treaty

McKibben was accompanied by an entourage of young people, mostly students who are throwing a lot of effort into the NZ end of the movement:  

I would have like to see more critical discussion (what is the sensitivity on the target – would 360 do?  – some strongly argue for 300ppm 1. others argue that even unlike 350 “450. Implausible? Yes. Impossible? No” or those who say that  450 is beyond our reach).   As always, the most interesting thoughts come in the questions, when the speaker expands on the script.  Fortunately, McKibben  was more than up to it:

Q: Are the global governance models up to the ethical dilemmas that will need to be faced to achieve the goal (once set).

A: Time is short.   We don’t get to choose the world – sure it might be easier if the whole world adhered to a nature based religion, but they don’t.  The only lever large enough to move systems in the time we have is the market.  We need to inject one piece of information into the market – that carbon carries a very high price.    A 350 limit will be quickly followed by a cap on carbon, this will see an “unleashing of innovation” (reflecting Krupp’s optimism).   He acknowledges that this the

biggest challenge that humans have faced but it is our ethical obligation to the poorest and most vulnerable people and to the endless number of future generations not to leave them a planet pauperised beyond anything we can imagine

Q:  What is McKibben’s thoughts on proposals to pump sulphur into the atmosphere?


The largest experiment of all time – combusting fossil fuels – has failed, are we really suggesting that we rely on a geo-engineering experiment on an equally vast scale?  In hoping that we could moderate the temperature by creating a smog to stop light getting through in the first place,  we would see truly catastrophic consequences, unpredictable and large scale effects.  It would be enormously expensive and incredibly politically problematic.    Worse, this type of suggestion reveals the depths of our addiction – it is junkie logic.

Q: Beyond acting on a single day (24th October), shouldn’t we all become vegetarians?

A: Eating lower on the food chain is sensible.   With a price on carbon we will have to change many things.   Some will change for us,  the industry of producing low cost meat is massively dependent on fossil fuel – the American style of food will not survive that. 

Q: Should we be focussing on local organic food production?


Local distribution has a clear environmental benefit.   Perhaps more important than that is that we are the first people in our species with no need for neighbours.   The farmers’ market is a social experience.  We need to rebuild human networks to create communities that can make the changes, and survive the changes we can’t prevent.  The momentum of globalisation is at a high point built on the availability of fossil fuel.    This will change.  It is wider than food but the icons of the new world will be the solar panel and the farmers’ market


Q:  If personal initiatives are not enough, and neither are similar changes to businesses, then what are the personal and internal changes we have to adapt into lives?


This is the nub of the matter.  The chicken and the egg problem:  attitudes and circumstances.     We’ve battled for years to convince people SUVs weren’t a good idea.  Then last year four weeks of high oil prices and suddenly thousands discarded the illusion that they were forest rangers.   Cheap fossil fuels spawned a era of hyperindiviualism, now we need to move back towards community mindedness.  Those urban forest rangers have discovered that the train is actually more sensible and pleasant.  So now they’re happy that we’re investing in trains.   This is a great example that the new world is not a lesser experience – but rather a sweeter world.