October 24, 2009, in what may well be the largest environmental action yet to occur, 350.org mobilized thousands of people to make a statement about climate change. From the Maldives sea floor to the pyramids of Giza, from the Sydney Opera House to the Eiffel Tower, from a rooftop in Shanghai to the steps of the Old Capitol on the campus of the University of Iowa — across the planet, in 181 countries — we stood, swam, danced, climbed, rode, kayaked, bungee jumped, surfed, dove, sat, lay, or did any number of other creative actions in protest and a plea.
Scientists calculate that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is currently at 390 parts per million (ppm). They also tell us that the only safe level is 350 ppm or below. We need some carbon in our atmosphere — until the Industrial Revolution it was about 275 ppm — but we’re in the danger zone now, and global warming is causing devastating changes.
Weather patterns show ever-more-powerful and destructive weather systems, such as Hurricane Katrina; the EF-5 tornado that leveled Greensburg, Kansas; Typhoon Morakot; and Tropical Storm Etau. Sea ice is rapidly disappearing in the Arctic Circle to the point that the Northwest Passage is now navigable, albeit not exactly a smooth sail on a tropical sea. Desertification is spreading. We are in crisis — a crisis of our own making — and we must remedy the situation before it’s too late.
In December of this year, leaders of governments, NGOs, and businesses will meet in Copenhagen to discuss the future of Planet Earth — your planet and mine. The topic is climate change, and what we must do to reduce CO2 in our atmosphere.
What Can We Do?
According to 350.org, the actions to take are clear:
We need to stop taking carbon out of the ground and putting it into the air. Above all, that means we need to stop burning so much coal — and start using solar and wind energy and other such sources of renewable energy – while ensuring the Global South a fair chance to develop. If we do, then the earth’s soils and forests will slowly cycle some of that extra carbon out of the atmosphere, and eventually CO2 concentrations will return to a safe level. By decreasing use of other fossil fuels, and improving agricultural and forestry practices around the world, scientists believe we could get back to 350 by mid-century. But the longer we remain in the danger zone — above 350—the more likely that we will see disastrous and irreversible climate impacts.
While each of us can and must take action to reduce our own carbon footprint, without policy change at the highest levels, we cannot do enough to counteract the steady, global rise of CO2. The goal of the 350.org demonstrations Saturday was to tell our leaders — government, business, and NGO — that it’s time to get serious and set limits.
Although some people still insist on denying the reality of climate change, the science is clear. “It is crucial,” says the 350.org website, “that decision-makers at this meeting understand and are held accountable to crafting policy that is informed by the most recent science.” The science they speak of is the limit of 350 ppm.
Taking Part in Iowa
On Saturday, the UI chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), under the leadership of president Jon Durst, organized a 3.5 mile bike ride in the afternoon. At 3:50 p.m., a group of students from the University of Iowa (UI), citizen activists, government employees, children, Blue Planet Green Living volunteers, and even a dog joined the bicyclists for a photo op on the steps of the Old Capitol building on the campus of the University of Iowa. Eco-Iowa City handed out information about the many green activities sponsored by that organization and the City of Iowa City. And ESW sold 350.org T-shirts, designed by engineering student Amanda DeHoedt, to raise awareness and pay for the event.
I asked Durst, a six-year military veteran and nontraditional undergraduate, what motivated him to organize the event. Durst joined the military after the events of 9/11, three days after he graduated from high school. He served as a nuclear technician on a submarine. While in the military, he studied and did a lot of reading about politics and activism. “What needs to happen now in the world is action, to make it more sustainable,” he said, in answer to my query.
When he first heard about the 350.org event on the Colbert Report, he was intrigued. Soon after, Elizabeth Christiansen, Director of the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability, invited the UI chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World to spearhead an event to mark the International Day of Climate Action. Durst’s response was immediate. He began to mobilize his fellow engineering students and connect with the Iowa City community.
“A city with such an active citizenry, like Iowa City, is ideal to participate in an event to promote strong action to curtail global climate change,” Durst said. He also had a more personal motive for participating. “I wanted to learn how to organize an event such as this, in order to help the future leaders of Engineers for a Sustainable World. Organizing is a skill best learned by doing.”
Durst is quick to give credit to the others who pitched in to make the local event a success. Besides those mentioned above, he thanked Lora Buckman for managing the T-shirt sale, Maeve Clark and Jennifer Jordan from the City of Iowa City, Office of Sustainability intern Sara Snyder, and photographer Linda Dunlap-Edge (who climbed to the roof of a building for photos, despite recent knee surgery).
The Real Work Begins
The many stories and photos from around the world are inspiring. You can view them on the 350.org website and in various blogs, magazines, and newspapers. If you’d like to share your own photo or story with us, please do so in the comments section below or on our Facebook fan page (Blue Planet Green Living).
But all the marches and demonstrations and photos in the world are not going to change a thing, if we don’t back them up with action. Now, the real work begins, as we all make a concerted effort to trim our personal carbon footprints.
We must also lobby our legislators to commit to changes in policy that protect our planet. Have you called your state’s Senators and Representatives to tell them your views on climate change? The Copenhagen meeting takes place in December. There’s no time to waste.
Every day must be Climate Day. Our planet’s future — and each of ours — hangs in the balance.
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