Playing the Climate Wild Card: The Global Movement for 350

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["350 supporters rally on Capitol Hill, March 09" - ed.] photograph courtesy of

Here's the thing. We've tried almost every approach in dealing with climate change: the scientists have told us what needs to be done, the engineers have told us how to do it, the economists have certified that we can afford it (and that we can't afford not to). We've had great political leaders like Al Gore, and we've had movie stars like Leonardo DiCaprio. And we've basically gotten nowhere--right now, for instance, we're headed towards a weak bill in the Congress and a weak agreement in Copenhagen even as scientists scream ever louder about the peril.

So time to try the one thing left: a real, global, citizen's movement--something to give some solid backing to all those scientists and engineers and economists. Something big enough and together enough to apply a bit of counter pressure to the oil companies and the coal companies and the others who have been winning this battle for two decades.

Except in western Europe, there's never been a popular in-the-streets movement about global warming--the first really widespread demonstrations in the U.S. (as opposed to rock concerts and corporatized Earth Day pageants) came in the spring of 2007, when StepItUp organized 1,400 simultaneous rallies. And what do you know, it worked--within days both Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton had agreed to what we asked of them, promising to work for 80% cuts in carbon emissions by 2050.

But the science has gotten darker since, and those targets are now too tame, and anyway we realize that action will need to be global. Hence it's lucky to see people responding so viscerally to, as we head toward the huge global day of action on October 24. (A week from Saturday, that would be).

The International Day of Climate Action looks like it will be the single most widespread day of political action on any topic in the planet's history--we're headed towards 170 nations with rallies and events, right down to a demonstration at the ruins of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in Iraq. Every one of those thousands of actions will be focused on that wonky scientific data point: 350 parts per million co2 is as much carbon as the atmosphere can handle, or so the scientists now say. We've got to drive that most important number home.

And if we can, it may make a difference. A popular movement is one of the few wild cards left in this game, which often seems like a scripted performance designed to yield a mediocre agreement in Copenhagen, a pact just presentable enough to let world leaders slink home insisting they've tackled the problem. But if, all of a sudden, there are people everywhere who know what the scientists know, who demand that we deal with scientific reality instead of political convenience--well then, who knows?

It won't solve the problem by itself. Copenhagen isn't going to produce a great treaty no matter what we do. But the movement now building around the planet is like the immune system in your carcass: the antibodies are finally recognizing the threat and beginning to assemble. It's a new moment.

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