Activists here in Cancun have gone to great lengths to share their message.
Consider 350.org. The organization has staged coordinated events all over the world. Last year, participants in thousands of cities, representing all seven continents, held up signs or somehow represented the number "350" to bring attention to this number. That's the number, in parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that this organization (and many scientists) believe is the "safe" level of this greenhouse gas (we are now at 390 ppm and climbing).
This year, 350.org staged "work parties" on 10/10/10, hosting an event in every country on earth except for North Korea. Following these coordinated events, they organized an Earth Art exposition, with art "so big you have to go to space to see it." In the Cancunmesse, where official UNFCCC events are taking place in Cancun, members of 350.org are now showing pictures of these art projects to the delegates.
The events hosted by 350.org are impressive on an unprecedented scale. But how can zany events translate into meaningful policy?
Here in Cancun, I tracked down Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, to ask him this question: What is the point of these events? You are getting attention, but to what end?
His answer was so simple it was obvious. The point isn't to get attention in order to turn people's heads or just get more newspaper headlines. It is to "build a movement," and Bill was very clear that the movement is "not yet big enough." Not enough people have been inspired to join. "We are not yet big enough to beat the fossil fuel industry."
Before this interview, I visited the KlimaForum, or "people's climate forum," where I interviewed Alec Neal and Katherine Ball, two artists-turned-activists who biked across the U.S. to raise awareness of solutions to climate change. They partnered with 350.org, and named their ride 350 Solutions Revolution.
The KlimaForum, unlike the UNFCCC events, is open to the public and requires no identification. You might say it is the hippie version of IPCC--complete with drum circles and art (see the beginning of the video below). It also turns out to be a much more pleasant and relaxing place to spend time than the Cancunmesse center. Here's an interview with an organizer of the KlimaForum, where he describes the talks and events.
I was at the Klimaforum to learn how Alec and Katherine used their stunt--a bike ride across the country--to draw meaningful attention to climate change. They replied that the real product of their ride, a documentary of 60 interviews with people across the nation about solutions to climate change, was not yet finished, so they couldn't judge the effect of their ride.
They spoke with wide-eyes about the solutions that they saw, but I became most interested when they talked about their ability to make connections with people. They told a story about the kid in Detroit who couldn't believe that they were crossing the nation. A number of the people they interviewed made a point to bike along with them, and some of those people hadn't biked in years. Off camera, they told me about how much they smiled while riding, and how that smiling was contagious. Celebrities and mayors put time aside to speak with them. Their environmental "stunt"--biking across the country to film a documentary--was also a way to connect with people. Most interestingly, they said that they wanted to make solving climate change "an American Value," and I would bet that they have helped instill that value in many of the people they met as they pedaled.
Perhaps these "stunts" are effective only if they help "build a movement--if they inspire people to get more involved. Stunts that turn people off or don't to excite them will fail, even if they get great attention and press. It is the job of activists to understand what is inspiring and what is not. And if enough people are inspired and engaged, maybe we will be "bigger than the fossil fuel industry."