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The Most Important Number on Earth


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:53 pm

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If we get that check every month to cover some of the damage, it will help attenuate the very real heat-or-eat dilemma that will grip many people this coming winter, but the incentive to change will still be there. Buses and bikes. Smaller homes that are easier to heat. Solar panels, bought on the installment plan with loans paid off from the power generated on your roof. Local food (and lots more local farmers). Vacations in the neighborhood—no more jetting off for the weekend.

You can see every one of these trends in embryo already, driven by the run-up in energy prices that we’ve seen so far. The quick contraction of the airline industry. The collapse in home values in the distant suburbs, while homes along the commuter rail lines fare better. Again the question is all about pace—what will make them happen fast enough, across a wide enough swath of the planet. Al Gore set the example with his call for a 10-year conversion to noncarbon electricity. It’s at the outer edge of doable, and the outer edge is where we need to be. We’ll have plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on sale by 2010. The question is, can we have nothing else on sale by 2020? We built more than half of the interstate highway system in a decade. Would rebuilding our rail networks to a European standard be all that much harder? Can we get the price of energy up quickly enough to get markets on the task of finding a low-carbon way of life that works? And by works, I mean reverses the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. Because physics and chemistry won’t reward good intentions. Methane is seriously uninterested in compromise. Permafrost, notoriously, refuses to bargain. Even the absolute political power represented by King Canute couldn’t hold back the rising seas. Those forces will only pay attention if we can scramble back below 350.

Forcing that pace requires a new kind of politics. It requires forging a consensus that this toughest of all changes must happen. The consensus must be broad, it must come quickly, and it must encompass the whole earth—they don’t call it global warming for nothing.

Coke Is It
The list of things on which we’ve achieved a broad and deep global consensus is pretty much limited to...Coke Is It. And that took billions of dollars and several decades, and it involved inducing people to drink sugar water. The odds against a strong global movement about anything tougher than that are low, with language barriers, religious barriers, cultural barriers. And we start from such incredibly different places—Americans use 12 times the energy of sub-Saharan Africans.

And yet we do have this one tool that at least offers the possibility, a tool that wasn’t fully there even a few years ago. The Internet—and its attendant technologies, like cell phones and texting—does link up most of the known world at this point. You can get pretty far back of beyond in most of the world, and someone in that village has a mobile.

And we have a number—350. The most important number on earth. If the Internet has a cosmic purpose, this could be it—to take that number and spread it everywhere on the planet, so that everyone, even if they knew little else about climate change, understood that it represented a kind of safety, a bulwark against the monsoon turning erratic, the sea rising over their fields, the mosquito spreading up their mountain.

I’m part of a group of people calling ourselves Our goal is simple—to try to get people everywhere to spread that number. We’ve started finding musicians and artists, athletes and video makers, and most of all activists, the kinds of people who are working to save watersheds or babies, or to educate girls or to block dams, or any of the other thousand lovely things that won’t happen if we allow the basic physical stability of the planet to come unglued. We need a lot of noise, and we need it fast, in the scant months—14 now—before the world meets in Copenhagen next December to draw up a new climate treaty. Because one clear implication of 350 is that that treaty is our last real chance to get it right. If we don’t, then all we’ll be dealing with is the consequences. Once the ocean really starts to rise, dike building is pretty much the only project.

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