Four years ago, environmentalist Bill McKibben and seven college students in Vermont used a simple number to start a movement to change the world's understanding of global warming.
To capture the world's attention -- in every language -- they created 350.org, spreading the message through letters, email, phone calls and word of mouth about the number leading climatologists set as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, in parts per million, that would indicate global warming had arrived. That number since has come and gone, McKibben said during a talk at Franklin & Marshall College Thursday.
"We decided we were going to have to start a global movement to solve a global problem," McKibben told a packed house at Mayser Gymnasium, during a lecture titled "350: The Most Important Number in the World." The talk was part of Common Hour, a weekly series held midday each Thursday during the academic year, when no classes are in session.
The series is intended to bring the entire F&M community together for culturally and academically enriching events and to promote dialogue on vital international, national, local and institutional issues.
The 350.org movement has grown into an effort that involves people from just about every nation, McKibben said, calling not just for conservation but also for a rejection of fossil fuels in favor of more sustainable alternatives such as wind and solar power.
McKibben, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College and author of 12 books, including "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future" (2007), said the world already has reached a level of 395 parts per million of carbon dioxide, and that level is rising at a rate of two parts per million per year. The temperature of the earth also has increased by 1 degree, which is enough to have caused extensive melting of Arctic ice, rising oceans, and the worst drought in 30 years during the summer of 2012.
"That would be bad enough, but some scientists tell us unless we get our act together…, that 1 degree will be 5 degrees before the young people in this room reach the end of their careers," McKibben said. "We can't allow that to happen."
McKibben now is taking on fossil fuels, asking churches, schools and others to divest from the oil and gas industry.
"The problem is not that we're not putting in compact fluorescent light bulbs. We should continue to do that, but that's not enough," he said. "What I hope we can launch here is a focused campaign on the economic might of these companies …. None of this will be easy, but it won't be anywhere near as hard to successfully inhabit the planet if we don't do these things."
First-year student Phoebe Walsh, who is considering a major in environmental studies, said she found it inspiring that a small group of college students could help bring about a movement as powerful as 350.org.
"They wanted to do this, and they had no idea how to do it. They just had this goal," she said.
Adam Polis, a sophomore majoring in geology with environmental engineering, said that in addition to changing ideas, college students should set an example on their campuses.
"We need to work smart, not just work hard," he said.