The Common Good
May 2009

Sounding the Alarm Bell

by Bill McKibben | May 2009

The next step for the climate change movement.

For those of us who live on the back roads of New England, there’s something about a bell rope leading up into a steeple. An old rope, that you have to really haul on to get the bells pealing—I’ve watched my smaller Sunday-school kids get lifted off the ground as it snaps back after a good tug. Everyone wants a turn.

I was in the small Massachusetts town of Sherborn, near Lexington, not long ago, and there were a dozen men, women, and kids standing around the bell rope, taking turns pulling, 10 rings apiece. But here’s the thing: It was a Saturday afternoon. And they rang the bell 350 times.

It was a test—a test of a kind of global emergency alert system that we hope to put into full effect on another Saturday, this October 24. In fact, I’m going to try and explain why pulling that bell 350 times may be the most useful thing your church can do to deal with climate change, to help avert the rapid unraveling of creation.

THOUGH YOU MAY not have yet heard, 350 is the most important number on earth. A year ago, our foremost climatologist, NASA scientist James Hansen, published a study showing that the maximum concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere compatible with the “planet on which civilization developed” and to which “life on earth is adapted” is 350 parts per million. That’s a tough number, because we’re already past it (the air around you right now holds about 387 parts per million CO2). It explains why the Arctic has melted with stunning speed the last two summers and why the pH of the oceans has shifted dramatically just in the last decade. Global warming, it turns out, is not some future problem. It’s here, right now, breaking upon us.

Which is why we need action now. In December of this year, the world’s leaders are scheduled to meet in Copenhagen to draw up a new treaty, a successor to the Kyoto accords. It’s designed to slow the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere, and given what we now know about the science, it’s the last plausible chance we’ll have. If those negotiations took place today, they’d produce some kind of treaty, but it would be too weak to accomplish much—in fact, by moving too slowly it would lock the world into an ever-warming future. The power of the fossil fuel industry, and the inertia of all of us who are used to things the way they are, are right now too strong.

And that’s why we need a movement—a grassroots political movement, in every corner of the planet, among every type of human being. Which is a hard task—people insist on speaking different languages, worshipping in different faiths, following different ideologies. How to speak in one voice? The only way we know is with that number, 350, which crosses linguistic and cultural boundaries and reminds us that we have one thing indisputably in common: We are all bound to this sweet earth.

WE’VE HAD GREAT success so far, despite the fact that 350 is a very radical number—a number that would demand, in the span of two decades, that human beings stop burning coal and find other ways to power our lives. Less than a year after James Hansen first established it as a scientific fact, Al Gore announced it as a political target—speaking to diplomats assembled in Poland last December for a giant meeting, he said it now needed to be the new goal. This statement was met with tremendous applause from delegates relieved that someone was finally acknowledging physical reality.

A few days later, the Dalai Lama endorsed the 350 campaign—indeed, high in the Hima­layan mountains of Ladakh, 1,500 Buddhists formed a giant human “350” against the backdrop of the snowy peaks. We’re aiming for hundreds of images like those for our global day of action next October 24, pictures of rallies and events in every iconic place around the globe, from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef. People will be gathering their neighbors in small towns and on local beaches, in city parks, and—we sure hope—in churches, mosques, and synagogues. If we can make that happen, then when world leaders meet six weeks later in Copenhagen they will have one number in their minds, and the resulting treaty will be much stronger. It will give the world a chance.

Last fall, many United Church of Christ and Episco­palian churches in Massachusetts tested the bell-ringing approach. What we found was this: No TV or radio reporter can resist doing a story about the church bell ringing when it’s not supposed to. It takes about 20 minutes to ring the bells, but it takes a few weeks to prepare the congregation, to tell the neighbors—to spread the word about why you’re doing something a little odd. We’re hoping thousands of congregations will organize to carry out this simple task next October 24—at 350.org we can provide materials to help, but only you can get your congregation involved. If your church doesn’t have bells, seek other ways to make a proclamation that day.

AS I PULLED on that bell rope in Sherborn, I thought of a trip to Bangladesh a few years ago, which was suffering its first big outbreak of dengue fever, a cruel disease now ripping through the poor world as global warming expands the range of the mosquito that carries it. I got it while I was there, and was sicker than I’ve ever been—but I was strong and healthy going in and so I didn’t die. Lots and lots of old and young and weak people died, and here’s the thing: They’d done nothing to cause climate change. The four percent of us who live in the U.S. produce a quarter of the world’s CO2—we are, quite literally, killing our neighbors, drowning them in rising seas. When I pulled that rope, I felt like I was sounding an alarm on their behalf.

Much as it’s important to change the light bulbs in the sanctuary and in your own home, it’s even more crucial now to take the kind of political action that might bring about a big enough change in a short enough time to actually matter. Sometimes things reach that point.

I grew up near Sherborn, and two centuries ago there the bells sounded to call residents to action against the British Empire. In October we’re ringing the bells for a peaceful challenge to today’s powers-that-be—and we need your help.

Bill McKibben was an author and co-founder of 350.org, which has much more information about the Global Day of Climate Action, when this article appeared.

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