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We must fight CO2 fast

| Sunday, May 24, 2009

SYDNEY, Australia

All around the world, national governments are trying to finalize their global warming policies, preparing for the United Nations' climate-change conclave in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the end of 2009. And in too many places, the effort seems to be going nowhere.

Here, for instance, the government decided to postpone any real action for another year, citing the recession. It weakened major elements of its "emissions trading scheme," bowing to pressure from the coal industry, the country's biggest exporter.

In Washington, the Obama administration is valiantly helping to push a bill through Congress that would finally set a cap on U.S. carbon emissions. But it could be watered down with lots of loopholes and compromises.

The trouble is, physics and chemistry aren't adjusting their schedule to fit our political and economic convenience. Each week brings new accounts of crashing ice sheets and spreading droughts. But as politics gets slower, global warming speeds up.

The problem isn't feckless officials. And the problem isn't that environmental groups aren't working hard enough. The problem is pretty simple: The environmental movement isn't big enough.

It's nowhere near big enough to take on the fossil fuel industry, the biggest player in our global economy. It's like sending the Food and Drug Administration to fight the war in Afghanistan.

I'm in Australia, organizing people for a new campaign called 350.org. We take our name from the most important number in the world, a number that scientists only identified about 18 months ago.

It's the amount of carbon dioxide, measured in parts per million in the atmosphere, that scientists now say is the safe maximum for the planet -- a maximum we're well past. Currently, our atmosphere holds 387 parts per million, which is precisely why the Arctic is melting, precisely why Australia is catching on fire.

Our plan is simple. We asked people around the world, through our Web site, to hold organized actions on Oct. 24. Environmental groups from across the spectrum have pledged to help, as have human rights organizations such as Oxfam, and big networks of young people in the developing world, and leaders from every faith community -- hundreds of churches have pledged to ring their bells 350 times on Oct. 24.

The news coming out of world capitals makes it clear that we need more than lobbying by environmentalists to get the changes the science demands. We need a movement, a groundswell, to give those lobbyists the clout they need. But we can make it happen only if we join together fast.

Bill McKibben is scholar in residence at Middlebury College and founder of 350.org.

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