With urgency, McKibben calls for global action to make 350 the target in climate change

Bill McKibben speaking at Goshen College

GOSHEN, Ind. – Bill McKibben hopes that the world is ready to act fast, and aim for 350 – “the most important number in the world.”

“Anything more than that is not compatible with life on this planet,” the environmental author, educator and activist said. The number 350 refers to the parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which McKibben called the “red line” based on the most recent science when he spoke at Goshen College on March 11.

Before the Industrial Revolution, McKibben said, the amount of carbon in the air was fairly stable at around 270 ppm. But the current number is already at 387 ppm, and increasing each year. If that is not reversed soon, “the possibilities of what lies down this path are enormous,” he said, pointing to more melting of ice caps and glaciers, more droughts and more flooding around the world that would cause “huge and irreversible damage to the earth.”

“We have had the 10 warmest years on record since global warming was determined to be caused by humans,” McKibben said. “It is an emergency like never before” for human civilization.

“Amongst scientists who study climate, there is no disagreement on this,” he said during his Yoder Public Affairs Lecture, noting that the 350 limit comes from NASA scientist and global warming expert James Hansen.

Though he didn’t claim to be a theologian, McKibben – who serves as a Sunday school teacher at his Methodist church – appreciated speaking to people of faith, rather than the secular audiences which he normally does. “This is more than a scientific problem. It has a strong moral and theological dimension,” he said, pointing to the book of Job and claiming that we are experiencing the “story of decreation” now.

“The most immediate victims of this are poor people who didn’t cause this,” said McKibben, whose first book was The End of Nature (1989) and his most recent book was Deep Economy: the Wealth of Community and the Durable Future (2007).

After a sobering assessment of the state of global warming and its impacts, McKibben offered hope and called on the audience at Goshen College to join him and his international campaign, 350.org. He shared stories of how collective political action he has been involved with has brought about change. And he believes that that is the only thing that will make any difference at this time in bringing down the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million.

As a non-partisan endeavor, McKibben said that the political goal of 350.org is to urge policymakers and governments to take action that would have broad, global affects. “The only thing governments should do is set a cap on carbon emissions, and then let the markets make the decisions,” he said. “There is something very conservative about saying ‘let’s slow down and preserve the world in a form similar to what we have known.'”

The target for the political action is Oct. 24, 2009 – “a big day of global action,” McKibben said. “We need something beautiful and meaningful in your community. The participation of faith communities is so important to this. It needs to go beyond typical political ideology.” The activism – which will include people holding signs on top of the Himalayan mountains and underwater in the coral reefs – would aim at influencing action to be taken at the December 2009 global climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. “It sets a real limit. It forces people to say this plan does or does not get us back to where we need to be,” McKibben said.

To get involved, McKibben suggested the following actions: research more at 350.org, and learn how to help; educate others about what the number 350 means; plan events for Oct. 24. “If we don’t get it right” at Copenhagen, McKibben said, it will be too late.

“The real reason I wanted to come here today is because I know this community has tremendous links all around the world,” he said. “You have just what we need: links to who can hear and help with this message.”

But, “I can’t promise this will work,” he said. “It is kind of a Hail Mary pass as the end of the [football] game.”

Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or jodihb@goshen.edu.


Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S.News & World Report‘s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit www.goshen.edu.