When Words Fail: A Number for Climate Change

Words packaged in prose and facts can inform and guide wise decisions. But too much of that may also impair necessary actions, like the urgent need for a decisive effort to tackle global warming. In his eloquent essay, “When Words Fail”, Bill McKibben argues that we do not need more statistics that the world is unravelling due to climate change. We already have that. What we need, he argues, is a number, a punchy number that captures the seriousness of the situation and which provides a concrete target for action. Used creatively, that one number may work where thousand others have failed. The text below is my adaptation of Bill’s essay, which is a model of succinct and persuasive writing.


The longer I’ve spent working on global warming, the more I’ve come to see it as essentially a literary problem. How do you say: “the world you know today, the world you were born into, the world that has remained essentially the same for all of human civilization, that has birthed every play and poem and novel and essay, every painting and photograph, every invention and economy, every spiritual system, is about to be …something so different?”

Somehow, “global warming” barely hints at it. The same goes for any of the other locutions, including “climate chaos.” And if we do come up with adequate words in one culture, they won’t necessarily translate into all other languages. So, in recent years, I’ve found myself grasping, trying to strip the language down further, make it communicate more. This year, I find myself playing with numbers.

When the Northwest Passage opened amid the great Arctic melt last summer, many scientists were stunned. James Hansen, our greatest climatologist, was already at work on a paper that would try, for the first time, to assign a real number to global warming, a target that the world could aim at. No more vague plans to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or keep it from doubling, or slow the rate of growth. In a PowerPoint presentation he gave at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco last December, he named a number: 350 parts per million carbon dioxide. That, he said, was the absolute upper bound of anything but safety. Above it, and the planet would be unravelling. As a matter of fact, we are already unravelling.

For me, the number was a revelation. Arcane? Yes – parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But at least it means the same thing in very tongue. And we secured the all-important URL: 350.org (easier said than done) and we we settled on our mission: to tattoo that number into every human brain, to make every person on Planet Earth aware of it in the same way that most of them know the length of a soccer field. If we are able to make that happen, then the negotiations now under way will be pulled as if by a kind of rough and opaque magic toward that goal. It will become the definition of success or of failure. It will set the climate for talking about climate change.

So, the literary challenge is how to take a mere number and invest it with meaning. How to make people understand that it means some kind of stability. Not immunity – we’re well past that juncture but still, some kind of future. Some kind of hope. That it means kids able to eat enough food, that it means snow caps on mountains, that it means coral reefs, that it means, you know, penguins. For now, 350 is absolutely inert. Our goal is to fill it up with overtones and shades and flavors. I’d been trying to figure out how to launch a global grassroots climate campaign. The weekend before we officially launched the campaign, we had 350 people ride on bicycles around the center of Salt Lake City. That earned a story in the paper and educated some people about carbon dioxide. We need 350 churches ringing their bells 350 times, we need a stack of 350 watermelons on opening day at your farmers’ market; we need songs and videos; we need temporary tattoos for foreheads. We may need 350 people lining up to get arrested in front of a coal train.

It makes sense that we need a number, not a word. All our words come from the old world. They descend from the time before. Their associations have congealed. But the need to communicate has never been greater. We need to draw a line in the sand. Say it out loud: 350. Do everything you can.

Bill McKibben, “When words fail: climate change activists have chosen a magical number”, in Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic (eds.), Numbers and Nerves, Oregon State University Press, 2015.

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