Student Activists Make Public Displays to Raise Awareness About Climate Change

A group of environmentally-inclined Pomona students performed the Macarena on chairs in Frary dining hall on Oct. 24, some of them adorned with body paint. Half an hour later, they assembled to form the digits “350” in Bixby Plaza.The event was suggested by, an open-source, online campaign started by American author Bill McKibben, as an “International Day of Climate Action.” The organizers hoped the event would motivate world leaders to agree to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The United Nations is meeting to discuss climate issues in Copenhagen this December.This reduction should stabilize the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and bring them back towards 350 parts-per-million, a number that the campaign suggests is a “safe concentration.”In more than 5,200 gatherings in 181 countries, individuals, organizations, and spontaneous groupings of people took part in events similar to those at Pomona in an attempt to make themselves heard on the first International Day of Climate Action.Egyptians posed in front of the pyramids at Giza, Mongolians on horseback held 350 pennants, and Iraqis displayed a representative 350 sign in Babylon. Tahitians came together to form “350” on a beach, where the 0 trailed off into the water in a suggestion of the fragility of the island paradise in the face of climate change and rising sea levels.Surfers in New Zealand waved their support, Chinese on a rooftop in Shanghai formed an aerial message, Americans in Yosemite and Glacier National Park lifted the 350 banner, and Africans in the Democratic Republic of the Congo held a sign that read, in French, “We want to be at 350 parts-per-million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”Citizens of the Maldives, the country with the world’s lowest maximum elevation (there are no points on the islands over eight feet above sea level), turned out in force, sending in several pictures which each involved more than a hundred people.Pomona College’s 350 event was organized by the Pomona College for Environmental Activism and Responsibility (PEAR) and was spearheaded by Lena Connor PO ’13, Grace Vermeer PO ’10, and Joanna Ladd PO ’10, among others.A veteran environmental organizer, Connor was previously involved with the Sierra Student Coalition and Bill McKibben’s April 2007 “Step it Up” campaign. She also attended two Power Shift Conferences, and worked for Minnesota’s “Summer of Solutions.”However, she contends 350 is unique.“350 is the first global grassroots initiative to deal with climate change,” she said. “And that kind of global coordination is something that the world desperately needs; something it has lacked up until this point.”While some scientists, economists, and politicians have called 350’s goal unrealistic and thus an ineffective rallying point for action, Connor pointed out that setting an ambitious goal would at least allow the possibility of significant change.“Congressmen will say, ‘this goal is so unattainable we might as well not even try,’” Connor said. “To me, that kind of attitude is so defeatist. When you’re faced with a problem, why not get energized? Giving up isn’t an American thing—no one says our foreign policy is easy, and you don’t hear anyone recommending that we give up on that front. And climate change is clearly as important, and connected to issues like foreign policy.”Connor added that criticism of environmentalists’ efforts failed to consider the potential advantages of establishing a more sustainable society.“Critics fail to see the long-term economic, political, and social benefits to society—from environmental justice to energy independence,” Connor said. “It seems so narrow-minded to only think about short-term costs.”Geology Professor and Environmental Analysis Coordinator Rick Hazlett said that even though 350 might be an unrealistic goal in the short term, and is just a number, it has a real basis in science—keeping CO2 concentrations around 350 is important for stabilizing the climate.He also said that if the event built awareness, it achieved its main goal. Using the internet, Hazlett said, the organization allowed the science to jump straight to everyday people. The campaign and its images let individuals directly communicate their support for strong action on the issue to politicians and decision-makers.But in order to heed the essential message of 350, Hazlett said, “economists had better get together with environmentalists, politicians with scientists, and really try to rein this problem in.”“Critics are probably just expressing their own cynicism,” Hazlett said. He acknowledged the possibility that these critics’ cynicism may be accurate, but said that efforts to oppose climate change deserve recognition nevertheless.“It may be too late. Perhaps nature will have to run its ugly course over the next three to 15 centuries. But our actions today are still significant and meaningful; countless lives, cultures, and species are at stake.”Environmental economist and Pomona College Assistant Professor of Economics Bowman Cutter also suggested that the goal of 350—the level at which major environmental feedback loops can be avoided—is a good idea in terms of avoiding runaway climate change. But he highlighted the importance of timing and of the path taken to get to the targeted CO2 concentration.“If we try to get to 350 parts-per-million by 2050, that strikes me as too soon,” he said. “But if we tried to stabilize at 350 by 2200, that would be better, both giving us time for course adjustments and ensuring that mitigation won’t be terribly expensive. It seems to me that setting a hopeful goal is better than just trying to avoid the disastrous scenarios that are predicted for higher levels of emissions.”The current atmospheric CO2 concentration is 387 parts-per-million, and it is increasing at a rate of about 2.5 ppm per year.

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