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Keynote: Bill McKibben

Sporting a gray T-shirt emblazoned with the number 350, author and environmentalist Bill McKibben kicked off the Expo West keynote address Saturday morning with an exhortation for the large audience to “push hard and fast for deep and systemic changes” in climate control.

McKibben, founder of the international climate campaign 350.org, made it clear that global warming stats “aren’t trivial.” Scientists have established the number of 350 parts per million as the red line for carbon production—higher numbers are detrimental to life on Earth, he said, pointing out that the “air outside this hall is 390 parts per million and rising about 2 parts per year.”

Noting that he was speaking to the choir, McKibben joked that “I could go on [about the dangers of global warming] all morning, but you’d just be so depressed you’d have to go downstairs and line up at one of the chocolate [booths] to recover your equanimity.”

Instead, he concentrated on the activities of 350.org. “We’ve taken this obscure scientific data point as our rallying cry,” he said, because the number 350 has the virtue of holding politicians to an actual target, and Arabic numbers cross language lines—they have the same meaning in Argentina as Anaheim.

350.org’s latest rally was Oct. 24, 2009, when people in 181 countries held 5,200 simultaneous demonstrations against global warming. CNN called it “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.”

McKibben showed the audience a series of slides of people in everywhere from Addis Ababa to his hometown in Vermont spelling out the number 350. Noting that “these are people who share your basic take on the world,” he said the global rallies show that environmentalism isn’t just for young, white people, but encompasses all ages and races.

As successful as the rally was, “I wish I could tell you that this had been enough to carry the day,” McKibben said. “In some ways it was enormously politically powerful,” carrying momentum into the recent Copenhagen climate talks. “But the richest, most powerful and most addicted countries weren’t ready to deal with that kind of reality, which means that we have a lot of work left to do. We have to keep building this movement with your help,” he said.

He urged audience members to participate in and promote 350.org’s next big event, “a huge global work party” on Oct. 10 (10-10-10). The day will feature people around the world combating climate change through activities like insulating homes and installing solar panels and wind turbines. “It’s a combination of the practical and the political,” McKibben said. “That day will allow us to say to our leaders, ‘Hey we’ve gotten to work, what about you?’”


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