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Catastrophic Weather Events Are Becoming the New Normal -- Are You Ready for Life on Our Planet Circa 2011?

For two decades now we've been ignoring the impassioned pleas of scientists that our burning of fossil fuels was a bad idea. And now we're paying a heavy price.

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So far, of course, we haven't taken that dramatic action--just the opposite. The president didn't even mention global warming in his State of the Union address. He did promise some research into new technologies, which will help down the line--but we'll only be in a position to make use of it if we get started right now with the technology we've already got. And that requires, above all, putting a serious price on carbon. We use fossil fuel because it's cheap, and it's cheap because Exxon Mobil and Peabody Coal get to use the atmosphere as open sewer to dump their waste for free. And today you can see the results of that particular business model from outer space.

Overcoming that will require a movement--a movement that is slowly beginning to build. In 2008 a few of us started from scratch to build a campaign with an unlikely moniker: we called in 350.org, because a month earlier this particular planet's foremost climatologist, James Hansen, had declared that we now knew how much carbon in the atmosphere was too much. Any value higher than 350 parts per million, he said, was "not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted." That's troubling news, because right now the atmosphere above Chicago and Cairns and wherever you happen to be is about 390 ppm co2. In other words, too much.

At the time, some of our environmentalist friends said that science was too complicated for most people to get--that the only way to talk about these issues was to simplify them. But we thought people could understand, just as we understand when a doctor tells us our cholesterol is too high. We may not know everything about the lipid system, but we know what 'too high' means--it means we better change our diet, take our pill, lace up our sneakers. And indeed 350.org has now coordinated almost 15,000 demonstrations in 188 countries, what Foreign Policy magazine called 'the largest ever coordinated global rally" about any issue.

That's just a start, of course, and so far not enough to counter the power of the fossil fuel industry, the most profitable enterprise humans have ever engaged in. So we'll keep building, and hoping others will join us. But the good news is simple: more and more of this planet's inhabitants are remembering that they actually live on a planet.

We've been able to forget that fact for the last ten thousand years, the period of remarkable climatic stability that underwrote the rise of civilization. But we won't be able to forget it much longer. Days like yesterday will keep slapping us upside the head, until we take it in. The third rock from the sun is a very different place than it used to be.


Bill McKibben is founder of 350.org, the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, and author most recently of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

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