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The Global Climate Movement Comes of Age

The global grassroots climate movement is finally here, and huge.
Climate activists have been waiting two long decades to see what a global climate movement would look like. As of last Saturday, we know. And as movement mentor and co-founder Bill McKibben wrote in an email after watching photos of grassroots actions around the world projecting from the giant, iconic screens of Times Square, "it looked diverse and creative and beautiful."

Diverse? There were events on every continent and in all but 14 of the world's countries-from Americans at home to soldiers serving in Afghanistan; from England to Lebanon; from dirt-poor Tanzania to fast-developing India to oil-rich Abu Dhabi. Creative? How about Malaysian scuba divers removing invasive starfish from a local reef. Or 350 synchronized swimmers diving into a public bath in Hungary? Or taking the Saturday college football spotlight and forming a giant 350 at midfield during halftime of the Syracuse game.

Beautiful? Look no further than the shrinking Dead Sea, where activists from Palestine, Israel, and Jordan put aside their political differences and formed an enormous 3, 5, and 0 on their respective shores.

Saturday, October 24, 2009, will surely be remembered as the day that the global grassroots climate movement finally came of age and settled on a number. By my most recent count, there were 5,245 events taking place in 181 countries, all of them driving this single figure home: 350. As in, the 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide that science tells us is the safe upper limit to have in the atmosphere, if "humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted." (Unfortunately, and as we've mentioned before, we're already past it.)

This day has been a long time coming. Ever since the late 1980s, when climatologists first proved absolutely certain the dire potential of what was then called the "greenhouse effect," anyone following the science has been slapping his head and scowling at the lack of international mainstream attention. For about 15 years, anyone trying to convey the urgency of the threat had the feeling that he was screaming down an empty hallway. Sure, there were meetings-the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, for instance-but there was never anything of a movement to parallel or empower the diplomatic processes. And now there is.

As the talks leading up to COP15 head to Barcelona next week, delegates will be presented with photos, fact sheets, and statements of support gathered from across the globe. Negotiators and heads of state alike are being bombarded with the clear-and unprecedented-message that these talks cannot fail, that we need an international agreement, and that this agreement must live up to the ambition that science demands.

October 24 was just a start, and Copenhagen will be far from the end of the fight. It will take a generation's worth of sustained global effort to return our planet's atmosphere to safe levels of carbon dioxide concentration. The good news is that we now have a true global movement-a movement that rises above individual national interests, a movement that understands the gravity of the threat and the depth of the scientific challenge; a diverse, creative, and beautiful movement-and this movement is just hitting its stride.

Photos courtesy of 350.0rg; see more at its Flickr set. Top: 2,000 students from Massey High School in Waitakere City, New Zealand, assemble on their field to show their support for 350. Photo by Steve Campbell. Middle: Students at Syracuse University take to the field. Photo (cc) by Lauren Schuester. Bottom: People gather in Jordan, Palestine, and Isreal (left to right). Photo (cc) via

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