Three Digits The 350 Campaign Has Global Warming's Number

Skier Bode Miller is wearing the bright-green sweatband. Cyclist Adam Craig sports one. Surfers, speed skaters and hockey players have picked up on the trend. And if Andrew Gardner reaches his goal, exactly 350 world-famous athletes will soon be wearing the eye-catching color.

Each wristband bears the number 350, the same as Gardner’s goal. And he wants it all to be done by December 24, 2008, 350 days before the United Nations convention in Copenhagen. The number represents the parts per million (ppm) of carbon emissions that climate scientist Dr. James Hansen says we have to return to in order to sustain life on Earth as we know it. It’s also the name of the umbrella campaign that Gardner’s work falls under—a worldwide network of people and climate change organizations committed to following Hansen’s advice.

“The culture of athleticism is imitation and idolizing, and we’re hoping to take that network of people and turn them into folks who are spreading the word about 350,” Gardner says.

Gardner, a Nordic skier and environmentalist, is also friends with Bill McKibben, author of the first book on global warming and founder of the larger 350 campaign. McKibben and a crew of recent graduates from Middlebury College in Vermont launched earlier this year to make the importance of the number stick. Although there are a few offices scattered throughout the country, the largest in San Francisco with a staff of four, the campaign depends on the ground efforts of people as far-flung as India, Poland, the Maldives and Mongolia.

The goal: Pound that number into as many people’s heads as possible before it’s too late.

Global warming activist and author Bill McKibben, who started 350. © Nancy Battaglia

“We are having people do cool actions around the number 350. Churches are ringing their bells 350 times. There are huge 350 quilts. We got an e-mail from farmers in Africa who are planting 350 trees on the edge of their village. Polar explorers and high-altitude climbers have 350 banners flying from the top of faraway peaks,” McKibben says. “Over the next 18 months, we want to make that number ubiquitous.”

McKibben began the campaign after the melting of the arctic ice last summer and the success of his previous effort, Step It Up, which mobilized more than 2,000 organizations around the country. The difference with 350 is that it’s on a global scale. To do that, it’s “using this new technology they call the Internet” to connect everybody, says McKibben.

The campaign’s website is in 10 languages and has a 90-second wordless video to explain both the science and politics around the number. Middlebury grads in the campaign offices spend most of their time e-mailing, organizing and updating the site’s blog on what actions people are taking across the world.

“It’s important that all diverse approaches have a common target. It’s a quick three-digit, go-to symbol that can be translated across different countries,” says Jamie Henn, co-coordinator who works in San Francisco. “The United States is responsible for way more emissions as a whole. It’s up to us to help, but we add an international aspect.”

Middlebury College students launch©

Along with just spreading that number, the group is also working to inspire leaders to act at the December U.N. climate meeting in Poland. “It represents the biggest, most high-profile meeting following the U.S. general election. It’s an important meeting for the U.S. president to show reengagement with the international community as a whole,” says May Boeve, who is heading up an online “invitation” to the new president to attend that meeting with 350’s goal in mind.

The invitation asks for the president to commit the U.S. to mandatory reductions in emissions and to help developing countries build sustainable economies. The group is also in the process of choosing a day for mass mobilization around the world. “We hope it represents a climactic moment in the climate movement to show that people around the world are watching the outcome in Copenhagen,” Boeve says. “We need a strong treaty to get us to a safe level. We are ultimately building toward that point.”

Getting enough people for that day probably won’t be difficult. 350 has risen faster and gotten more media attention in a shorter time than Step It Up did, McKibben says. It’s probably because the framework is already in place; 350 is just giving everyone a common denominator to rally around.

“The good thing about 350 is that because it’s a universal goal, it’s not perceived as doing things in one correct way. It accepts everybody and hopes in whatever way folks are getting the word out that they’re doing it with this number in mind,” Gardner says. “It’s a clearinghouse of good ideas.”