350 and Counting

For a growing number of people in the world, 350 is no longer just a number. In the past year several nations have waged a campaign to reduce the presence of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere to 350 parts per million. Scientists say this level is the safe limit for humanity due to the effects of this greenhouse gas.

Journalist Bill McKibben took this apocalyptic piece of scientific data and used it to launch a worldwide campaign to fight global warming. The founder and director of 350.org, McKibben visited Israel this week as a guest of a coalition of local environmental organizations.

McKibben, 48, came to help local activists prepare for 350.org's International Day of Climate Action on October 24, which coincides with United Nations Day. The organization is timing the event, which will involve thousands of rallies across the world, to influence global leaders finalizing their positions ahead of December's UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

"I know it won't be a perfect agreement, and it will be hard to implement it," he says. "But, in contrast to the previous pact, this time it will be clearer what's at stake."

Long road to activism

The road to environmental activism for McKibben began two decades ago after he left his writing position at the New Yorker. "I started getting interested in climate change, and at the same time I traveled and got to know one of the most beautiful wildernesses of the U.S., New York's Adirondack Park," he recalls.

His experiences led him to write "The End of Nature" in 1989, a popular book which has been translated into 20 languages, including Hebrew. McKibben continued publishing but eventually concluded that writing was not enough. "The U.S. emits 25 percent of all greenhouse gases," he says. "I was visiting Bangladesh and saw 100 people in a hospital who had died from a mosquito-borne dengue fever spreading rapidly as the climate warms. It hit me we were responsible for the deaths of a quarter of them."

McKibben's first foray at organizing the masses against global warming was a walk across Vermont, where he lives with his wife and daughter. His "Step It Up" campaign in 2007 involved 1,400 demonstrations at famous sites across the United States. "Some friends and I organized rallies and protests that I think were one of the factors that made [Hillary] Clinton and [Barack] Obama change their energy policies during the presidential campaign," says McKibben.

The mass meltdown at the polar caps a little over a year ago pushed McKibben further. James Hansen, NASA's top climatologist, used scientific data to demonstrate in his 2007 book "Climate Code Red" how carbon dioxide levels above 350 ppm are not compatible with the survival of human civilization.

"I realized that what I had written in my book was wrong," he says. "What was supposed to be a future disaster was already an emergency situation. It was the first time someone had given us a number." McKibben stresses that even if the number is not precise, it is still important to bring the figure down from its current level, which is above 389.

Just like Noah

The 350 campaign consists of student groups that coordinate their informal actions with McKibben, demanding a return to 350 ppm through creative initiatives and with the support of a number of foundations.

"It's a strange campaign because it takes a scientific number and tries to raise it in public debate," says McKibben. "We're trying to help people of all ages take action - anything from giving a presentation to staging a rally or a march." He says he knows the campaign is succeeding because he has heard Al Gore cite the number on several occasions, as well as the head of the UN's team of climate experts.

McKibben sees progress in the developing world - from the prime minister of the Maldives leading a demonstration of 350 divers to thousands of children in China marching against global warming.

A number of Israeli environmental groups have announced activities for October 24, and there is added interest as the date coincides with the reading of the Torah portion about Noah, who himself had to cope with catastrophic climate change. The group Yisrael Bishvil Ofanayim (Israel for Bikes) is planning a ride for 350 cyclists, while Teva Ivri (Hebrew Nature) said it would conduct tours and study sessions on the story of Noah.

McKibben sees a direct connection between the global financial and environmental crises. "The financial crisis showed that not only is our ecological system breaking down, but that our financial system is baseless. When the price of gas rose, people in the U.S. realized suddenly how impossible it is to live in such large homes and to commute an hour and a half to work."

The world cannot sustain nine billion people living the suburban American lifestyle, according to McKibben. The question is how to live a decent life - and he asserts that it's not only possible, but will make people happier.

"In a world where we'll no longer be dependent on oil, we'll rely on one another more. We will produce more food locally instead of importing it - and that requires cooperation between people."

McKibben says that if he meets with Israeli government ministers, he'll tell them they need to partake in the global effort - for example, dropping the plan to construct a coal-firing power plant in Ashkelon. "Every country has big problems, but global warming is everybody's big problem," he adds, "and clearly Israel will have a hard time adapting to dangerous climate change - that's why we have to take action now."