October 24th: A Model for the Buildup of People Power
Last Saturday (October 24, 2009) was the International Day of Climate Action. Over a year in the making, it was without any doubt “the largest political action in human history,” in the words of 350.org’s founder, Bill McKibben. Over 5,200 actions in 181 countries showed world leaders that people everywhere have made a bold commitment to accept serious action that will mobilize society to eliminate its greenhouse gas emissions and help the planet’s biophysical systems absorb the most carbon dioxide possible. This massive demonstration of the number 350 reached every corner of the planet, placing that same number all over the press, the Internet, and especially in the movement’s own website: 350.org.
This day will definitely have a huge impact on the climate change negotiations that will take place next December in Copenhagen. It will either accelerate the seemingly slow pace of the negotiating process, make the commitments by controversial countries stronger, or both. But more than anything, this day of action represents something bigger for society. It represents the power of people to take an idea, spread it across society in a short period of time, and make of it something that can’t be ignored by world leaders. It shows that visionary, forward-looking movements can be sort of contagious in the sense that they can spread like fire and inspire millions of people very quickly. And that’s exactly what 350.org did.
A year ago, in the face of total hopelessness because of the global economic recession, who would have thought that a year later the world would come together as one people to call for bold action on climate change in line with the latest science? With the world economy still hurting for billions of people, 350 was able to spread quickly enough to reach a tipping point where it had enough of a trendy feeling to just kick into fast gear and literally get into the minds of millions of people.
I think there were a few things that made this international effort very successful. First of all, it had an amazing team of young people dedicated to fighting climate change and taking risks to spread this number to every region of the world. This is the team that got the target of “80% by 2050” into the current climate change bills passing through Congress. Back in 2007 and then in 2008, this impressive team of young people (largely students/alumni from Middlebury College led by renowned author Bill McKibben) organized Step It Up and Step It Up 2, which mobilized thousands of events across the U.S. to change public opinion and make “80% by 2050” mainstream. So the first ingredient really was the amazing people behind the idea of putting 350 everywhere on the world’s map.
Second, it was literally the name of the campaign. Think about it? 350. It’s simple, very easy to get no matter where in the world you are, and therefore has a big potential to spread like wildfire. Scientifically, it’s also a very clear target that separates future catastrophe from future hope. People quickly understand that above 350ppm, sea level could rise uncontrollably, hurricanes could devastate the tropics, and infectious diseases could spread rapidly. Below it, we’re pretty much safe from all the above and more. In 2007, the IPCC couldn’t do what 350.org did, even though they had the most authoritative piece of scientific proof at the time. It just wasn’t as catchy and virulent as the number 350 itself is.
Lastly, the world was already reaching a tipping point on this issue. Years and years of debate and constant news without any action to match what was being learned forced people to say “enough.” Support for bold climate change action was so widespread that people really were ready to tell their leaders they needed to act boldly. And 350.org was exactly that opportunity at the right time. People’s conscious joined 350.org’s team and virulent message to tell world leaders that Copenhagen better be the place where they got serious about climate change. I have no doubt that’s exactly what’s going to happen after this inspiring day. Looking at the amazing pictures floating across the web, especially on 350.org, it’s hard to not feel very hopeful about where the world will go on this issue. This won’t be done so much more because of the science as because of the power of people to influence change.