Letter from Tällberg: Turn Back, O Man

Here at the Tällberg Forum— Sweden’s annual festival of words and music, science and dreams about sustainability and globalization — things are getting a little clearer. This is the last day, so it’s just in time.

Tallberg%20final.jpgTake 350, for example. This morning I went to the great big tent to join a very small group in a “Hosted Conversation” on the topic of communication and climate change. Bill McKibben, originator of 350.org, was there. So was Mark Lynas, who wrote Six Degrees, as well as two of Sweden’s TV meteorologists (the weather is so important here that weather reporters have become key climate change communicators). And the King was there as well, with a surprisingly small retinue, just listening. We heard from a businessman who had been a reluctant, slow convert to the cause (he now dedicates 50 percent of his time to the issue); a bishop who sparked off talk about the nearly taboo (in Sweden) topic of religion as a force for change; and a young activist who is trying to get everyone to paint one finger green as a badge of commitment.

Thanks to that discussion, I finally understood more clearly the rationale behind the 350 campaign. The science was already clear enough: a level of 350 parts per million carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere appears, from the paleoclimatic evidence, to be the limit for maintaining the kind of global climate regime that gave rise to human civilization. We are already over 385 and rising. Meanwhile, most political goal-setting for stabilizing CO2 has hovered in the 450-550 range. Jim Hansen has led a growing chorus of scientific voices in saying that those numbers are too high, and that 350 is — from a natural systems perspective — the necessary goal, regardless of what has previously been considered as politically and economically feasible.

But the logic behind 350 as a campaign was still a bit fuzzy to me, until McKibben explained it. First, the number: it turns out that Arabic numerals are one of the few symbols that can travel into virtually any language and culture and be understood. People may not understand “ppm” (parts per million, which means that 350 can also be interpreted as 0.035 percent of the gases in our atmosphere), but they can understand the number anyway — just as they understand that they have to keep their cholesterol under a certain number, even if they don’t really know what cholesterol is. So 350 makes a certain universal outreach possible, in a way that anyone can respond to.

Second is the quality of response. According to McKibben, they were first worried that people would react to the news that we are already past the limit with despair. Instead, he says, it seems to be strangely empowering. It makes it clearer that the changes we are talking about must happen now, and must be big, just as a worrying medical report on your cholesterol level jolts you into taking action now to avoid the near-certainty of a heart attack or stroke. Number like 450 send an ambiguous message about slowing down slowly or “stopping in time.” It’s hard to get excited about that. But 350 says simply, “turn back.” And as centuries of religious teaching might suggest, calls to repent now (“repent” means “turn back”) are more galvanizing than calls to slow down eventually.

Third, 350 makes a number of very creative responses possible: churches ring their bells 350 times. A farmer in Cameroon plants 350 trees. The number can easily achieve iconic status and be interpreted, both symbolically and practically, in myriad ways — which is precisely what’s happening. After a rollicking discussion about whether people should be marching in the streets or doing home energy conversions, McKibben says that he’s come to the conclusion that symbolic actions are, now, the most practical ones, because they have the potential spark the political actions that will drive large-scale systems change.

Bill, who started his public life as a writer, has become a true leader, including notching one of the first public arrests in America for protesting on global warming, about a decade ago. But he is also a climate intellectual, and a leading interpreter of the science. So I feel compelled to ask him (privately, afterward) what he thinks about geoengineering. He’s not happy that I’ve asked the question, judging by his body language; and he’s on record as saying that we need “policy engineering first,” and I strongly agree with that. These are clearly his priorities. He doesn’t believe in shooting sulfur into the upper atmosphere either, for example. But he seems less reluctant to agree that we may eventually find ourselves needing to look at geoengineering options, just to save lives in the near term, as we radically reengineer policies and energy systems and lifestyles in the mid-term, in order to secure sustainability for human and natural systems in the long-term.

This talk on climate in the tent does seem a bit male-oriented, though. I came here thanks to Maiken Winter, a German activist and a member of Al Gore’s corps of presenters, who lives in Ithaca in the US. She and I were chatting at breakfast. I was planning on retreating into a cafe to work, but encouraged over the to the tent — for which I’m grateful. But the Swedish bishop was the only woman to speak, I realize now. And this worries me.

Last night’s plenary session in the big tent was the highlight of the Forum, I believe, and it consisted mostly of a few women talking. Two of the women were from Africa — women of obvious greatness in their bearing, women of great warmth and intelligence and power in their way of speaking — who came with a simple message. It is the women who have ensured that Africa is still standing. And if you want to help Africa, help the women. They rose the roof with simple, humorous, wise words. “I was talking to the elders in my village about climate change,” one of them recounted, “and they said, what, this is news? We have known about this for twenty years.” They knew because of changes in water availability, rain, and more. The African villagers find it almost funny that people have to fly to a meeting in Sweden because some people are only understanding this now.

Turn back, O man … Back to 350. And men, turn to the women. Hand them the talking stick, and just listen.

Also published on Worldchanging.com. Here’s a link to the guide my company prepared called 350: What it Means, What to Do.

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