By Mike Johnson
I vividly remember my daughter Paloma at the age of six asking me if an atomic bomb hit the house next door would it also destroy our house.
It was an excruciating moment for both of us. Clearly, she’d just heard of atomic bombs and was anxious.
‘Darling,’ I said, ‘It would destroy the whole city.’
What else could I say?
A look of dread and wonder came over her face. She was struggling to grasp the concept. I felt sick at heart. How do you tell your kids?
I have a similar but less gut-wrenching memory of my son Rowan, about the same age discovering a bright light over the horizon long after the sun had gone down. He suggested that the sun’s glow could still be seen. A very natural thing for him to think. ‘No,’ I said, ‘that’s the city. The glow of Auckland’s lights.’
He didn’t believe me. He couldn’t conceive that the human made city could create such an effect, enough to rival natural events.
There’s a sense in which we are all children when it comes to trying to imagine that massive effects on the climate could be caused by an otherwise harmless gas that is an intrinsic part of the carbon cycle. Much of what we call climate change scepticism or denialism boils down to a sense of personal incredulity. It is a failure of the imagination. The problem is turning the dry glyphs of the scientists into a form that can open the imagination.
Science writer Bill McKibben, when founding the climate action group 350.org had to confront the problem directly. How to dramatise the C02 content in the atmosphere. He has attempted to turn a number into a metaphor, a universal signifier. Taking his cue from Senior NASA climate scientist, James Hansen, who has said that, to sustain human life, the maximum carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere should be no more than 350 parts per million, McKibben is attempting to universalise 350 as a symbol for the urgent need to stop putting greenhouse gasses into the biosphere. Part slogan, part logo, part scientific code, 350 aims to go beyond language. McKibben relates how he arrived at the idea:
After expressing his frustration with the host of metaphoric phrases he’d used in his writing, he continues,
Describing Hansen’s 350 as a “revelation” and “a bright line,” he makes clear the political agenda,
Chilling to think that we are now over 400 parts per million.
How successful he has been in installing the meaning of 350 ppm into our imaginations may be matter debate, but 350.org has created some of the most thoughtful and innovative ‘protest installations’ yet seen, including a website apt enabling the visitor to 350.org to create their own climate change artwork.
Here are a few examples of 350’s imaginative approach to climate activism. Here’s one for sea-level rise:
Subtle play with the idea of inner light and warmth and collective action in this photo of monks spreading the meme:
350.org inspirited mass event to dramatize climate warming in Budapest.
Below, note the coincidence of 350 with the number of months passed since we have experienced a month in which temperatures have dropped below the 20th Century average.
All quotes taken from Bill McKibben. “When Words Fail: Climate change activists have chosen a magic number” Orion Magazine, July/August 2008. See www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/3059/
Photos available for public download via 350.org.
See James Hansen “Climate target is not radical enough.” (7 April 2008)www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/apr/07/climatechange.carbonemissions (accessed 6/62009).