Long-time environmental writer turned climate change activist Bill McKibben says he’s about given up on words for convincing his readers to take climate change (“the greatest challenge humans have ever faced”) seriously.

So he now sees the challenge as “essentially a literary problem, … a crisis in metaphor, in analogy, in understanding.”

“We haven’t come up with words big enough to communicate the magnitude of what we’re doing,” he wrote in the July/August 2008 issue of Orion, published by The Orion Society in Great Barrington, Ma.

So McKibben is teaming up with others to advance broad public awareness and understanding of the issue by widely promoting the number 350 – what NASA climatologist Jim Hansen has described as “the absolute upper bound of anything like safety – above it and the planet would be unraveling.” (McKibben’s words from his Orion column.)

“For me, the number was a revelation,” he wrote, acknowledging that the world currently is at 385 parts per million and growing.

McKibben wrote that “My friends and I were having a terrible time seeing how to frame” the next phase of the public policy debate. “But a number works. And this is a good one. Arcane, yes – parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. But at least it means the same thing in every tongue and even bridges the gap between English and metric.”

“And we settled on our mission: To tattoo that number into every human brain. To make every person on Planet Earth aware of it.”

The challenge now, McKibben wrote: “to take a mere number and invest it with meaning …. It makes sense that we need a number, not a word….Say it out loud: 350. Do everything you can,” McKibben and his new 10-language web site exhort.

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