UNC-Asheville senior Ellie Johnston wonders what her world will be like in the year 2050. That's the target date currently bandied about by world leaders for halving greenhouse-gas emissions. By that time, most of those world leaders will be, well, dead and gone. Johnston, on the other hand, will be a spry 63, she calculates. "Hopefully, I'll be alive and well, but these [emission targets] are about future generations — my adulthood and the children who come after me," she says.
With that in mind, Johnston has joined a worldwide movement urging those leaders — Americans included — to aim for a far more ambitious, much quicker reduction in emissions. Lead by 350.org, the movement aims to reduce carbon-dioxide levels to 350 parts per million. That's the level that "scientists are telling us is safe for humans and other life on the planet," says Johnston. Citing some of the latest data, she argues that we need to target that figure now if we're to prevent drastic species loss, wide-scale melting of the polar ice caps and a dramatic sea-level rise that floods lowland cities and countries.
Johnston has been picked by SustainUS.org to travel to Copenhagen, Denmark, this December as part of a global youth delegation charged with bringing the issue to the attention of the world leaders as they negotiate a climate-change treaty. And, joined by Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy and local climate-simulation expert Drew Jones, she will also be speaking at a Saturday, Oct. 24, event in Asheville, sponsored by the Western North Carolina Alliance. The gathering will be one of almost 2,000 demonstrations being held in 145 countries for the International Day of Climate Action.
She met with Xpress to discuss the event, which will be held from 2-4 p.m., and the 350 target. Fellow event organizers Tracy Kunkler and Jim Barton joined in the conversation.
"Throughout most of human history, CO2 levels have been at about 275 ppm," says Kunkler, representing the Alliance. But those levels started a meteoric rise with the advent of industrialization in the 19th century and, more recently, the doubling of human population in the last 50 years to almost 7 billion, she explains.
About the time Barton was born in the 1950s, CO2 levels were at 308 ppm. Now we're pushing 390 and seeing some alarming signs of climate change, such as faster-than-expected ice melts at the poles, says Barton, founder of the Smith Mill Permaculture School in West Asheville.
Johnston likens the movement's urgent message to "telling someone who has untreated high blood pressure, 'You're not dead yet, but if you don't do something, you will be.'"
"We're at the point now where we must take action or have runaway climate change," says Kunkler.
Are changes at the individual level — opting to bicycle to work, switching to energy-saving light bulbs and the like — enough to slow climate change?
Probably not, say all three. "We have to have consider changes at the policy level," says Kunkler.
"At every level," Johnston interjects. "From the grassroots, individual level to North Carolina energy-efficiency legislation to [related bills] in the U.S. Congress to the Copenhagen negotiations, all of those things have to happen," she insists.
The climate-change issue was made more real for Johnston during two fairly recent trips: On a school-break hike in the Pacific Northwest, she recalls approaching an area marked on a current map as having a huge glacier, "but we came over the peak, and there was nothing but a small ice field. [That] was all that was left." She found a similar situation in a Peruvian valley dubbed by natives "the blanket of the lion," except that the blanket — a glacier — had receded, leaving the rocky "lion" exposed.
Kunkler acknowledges the high level of youth involvement in both the local event and the worldwide efforts urging 350 as our target and not the higher numbers accepted as little as two years ago. She tells Johnston, "You recognize this problem as your future, [but] many people think we still have 10 or 20 years left to address it — even those informed about climate-change. There's a kind of fog." The time for changing our path is right now, Kunkler urges.
Johnston agrees, noting that state, federal and international policy makers are all currently debating bills and treaties that address various elements of climate change. Asheville's Oct. 24 event will be focusing on the 350 target and sending a message: At 3:50 p.m., in front of City Hall on the new Roger McGuire Green, participants will arrange themselves as the number 350, take a picture from above and add it to a "gigantic, global, visual petition" to those leaders, she explains.
Barton adds another perspective, mentioning that he was in the sixth grade when the first Earth Day was held and a grown man when NASA scientist Jim Hansen warned of climate change in 1988. He thought then and he's convinced now, "Climate change is real, and we should do something."
For more information, visit asheville350.org
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