Demonstrating What 350 Means To Climate Change

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On Saturday activists are staging more than 4,000 demonstrations around the world in an attempt to bring attention to global climate change. They're uniting around the number 350, which they say holds the key to halting global warming. Host Scott Simon speaks to NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris about what this number means for the environment and whether or not it's possible for activists to meet their goals.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Today, climate activists will hold more than 4,000 events around the world. They're trying to draw attention to a number, 350, that they say is key to global warming. So, 350 scuba divers will hold an underwater demonstration in the Maldives. Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians will gather around the Dead Sea to form the numerals 350 with their bodies. And 350 people in Seattle will gather to perform Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance together.

We're now joined by NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Richard, thanks for being with us.

RICHARD HARRIS: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: So what's the deal with this number, 350?

HARRIS: Well, 350 comes from an organization that is, appropriately enough, called 350.org. It's the brainchild of author-activist Bill McKibben, and that number relates to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Now, I don't want to overwhelm you with numbers, but let me give you a couple of them. Before the Industrial Revolution, the atmosphere was 280 parts per million. Now, after burning all this fossil fuels we're up to 390 parts per million. So we've added a lot of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

In fact, these guys argue we've already added too much, and not only do we have to stabilize it, we actually have to bring it down, back down to 350. And that's based on a scientific paper that was written by Jim Hansen, a famous NASA scientist who basically argued that anything above 350 actually puts the world at one of those tipping points, where we might get, like, melting ice sheets and things like that and have essentially irreversible changes to the planet.

SIMON: But how does that goal of 350 compare with the climate legislation that's making its way through Congress now or international talks on a climate treaty?

HARRIS: 350 is actually much more aggressive. The major international players like the United States and China have actually not been talking so much in terms of parts per million in the atmosphere. But they've come to a fairly remarkable agreement that the Earth should not warm by more than two degrees Centigrade, which is about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, something like that.

So, the question is how do you get to that number? And there's some scientists that says there's basically a 50/50 chance that we can still increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by a fair amount, up to maybe 450 parts per million and we'll still have like a 50/50 chance of staying below that magic two degrees change.

But it's also possible that that's, you know, 50/50 chance - if you're betting the world, maybe you don't want to - maybe you ought to improve your odds. And I think that's what the point that Jim Hansen made in his paper when he said it really should be 350 parts per million.

SIMON: And how hard would it be to achieve those goals, given some of the avenues that are being contemplated now?

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, I think a lot of people came into this assuming that 450 parts per million would be really, really difficult to achieve. So 350 would be even much harder. And that's because you basically have to rewire the entire global economy. You've got to get rid of coal in the next 20 years entirely, or at least bury the carbon dioxide, if you can figure out a way to do that. And there are a number of economic studies that show that you could probably do this without creating ruinous economic problems.

But the real problem is that there are winners and losers. And the people who stand to lose, like the coal-burning utilities, of course, are very, very unhappy about this and they're fighting hard not to change the status quo. So you would have windmill producers who would say, yeah, we would have a huge new market if we weren't competing with coal. But the coal producers say, we don't want to go this way.

SIMON: All of these events today, of course, are aimed at attracting the interest of the public. And what's your reading as to how interested the public is in some of these issues right now?

HARRIS: Well, I read a poll this week which suggested the public is actually losing interest in climate change. In January, the American public ranked global warming - addressing global warming as the very bottom of the 20 issues that they care most about. It was number 20.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

HARRIS: And a poll this week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found a very sharp drop in the percentage of Americans who say there's, quote, "solid evidence the Earth is warming." So actually it seems as though -as the international world is gearing up for the climate talks in Copenhagen, and as the Senate prepares next week to start talking about new climate legislation - the public is saying, maybe not so interested.

SIMON: What do you attribute that dip in interest to?

HARRIS: That's hard to say but I think part is that throughout the 1990s, the world was getting dramatically warmer. We had a lot of hot summers. We had a very rapid and noticeable increase. It's not been so much true in the 2000s. And people, I think, say what's happening to the climate? They sort of put their hand out the window and say, it's not too much hotter than it was last year. And they forget that they can't see what's happening at the North Pole, which is extremely dramatic, and other places around the world.

So I think people's perceptions of global warming are determined really by local things that are happening over the period of a couple of years, when we really need to be thinking in terms of what the planet is going to look like in a matter of decades.

SIMON: NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris, thank you.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

SIMON: And you can see videos, some of the climate change 350 events on our blog, npr.org/soapbox.

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