Founded and led by Bill McKibben, 350.org is an international campaign to promote global environmentalism and to generate support for intergovernmental regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions. The group derives its name from the measurement "350 parts per million" (350 ppm), which some scientists believe is the maximum amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that should be permitted to exist in the earth's atmosphere. The leaders of 350.org contend that if the benchmark of 350 ppm is not reached in the near future, a global catastrophe will result. Indeed, 350.org maintains that many harbingers of such a cataclysm are already evident: polar icecap melting, worldwide increases in disease, food shortages, and general environmental degradation.
350.org is the international reinvention of Mckibben’s 2007 "Step-It-Up" campaign, an initiative aimed at generating support for environmental regulation in the United States. Both 350.org and Step-It-Up cite the Sustainable Markets Foundation (SMF) -- a grantee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fundand the Rockefeller Family Fund -- as their fiscal sponsor. In 2006, SMF gave approximately $200,000 to the Step-It-Up campaign. In 2007, while still supporting Step-It-Up, SMF earmarked some $243,000 for 350.org.
According to McKibben, the Step-It-Up rallies that took place across the United States in 2007 were instrumental in prompting then-Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to commit to the goal of cutting carbon emissions in the U.S. by 80 percent by the year 2050. Moreover, the success of Step-It-Up encouraged McKibben to bring the project to the international stage, in the form of 350.org.
Especially important to the mission of 350.org was the work of Dr. James Hansen, head of the NASA Institute for Space Studies in New York City. Hansen, who is a 350.org "messenger," has worked to promote the idea that 350 ppm is a necessary carbon-dioxide ceiling. Much of 350.org’s activity is designed to make the “350” number, and by extension its environmental significance, a universally recognizable meme.
350.org vehemently opposes the use of fossil fuels, particularly oil and coal. Likewise, the organization opposes off-shore oil drilling. In the wake of the massive 2009 Gulf Coast oil spill, 350.org launched a campaign to protest off-shore drilling and the use of fossil fuels in general.
Also in 2009, 350.org opposed the American Clean Energy and Security Act ("cap-and-trade"), which was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives but was stymied in the Senate. In conjunction with other radical environmentalist organizations, 350.org offered opposition to the market-based legislation because: “capitalism is at the heart of the climate crisis”; “carbon trading is based in the ideological belief in the omnipotence of the market”; and economic growth is undesirable because it leads to “unnecessary” energy use.
Most of 350.org’s ongoing campaigns are geared toward organizing concerted events and demonstrations around the world. This is especially true in advance of landmark global-warming conferences such as the 2009 global-climate summit in Copenhagen. In an effort to generate public support for the summit within the faith community, 350.org partnered with the World Council of Churches to enlist houses of worship in numerous countries to ring their bells 350 times during the weekend of December 11-13, 2009, while the Copenhagen conference was in session. Notable participants in this bell-ringing initiative included Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. In addition, 350.org collaborated with such luminaries as Tutu and Avaaz.org executive director Ricken Patel to organize a candlelight vigil promoting the Copenhagen talks.
In 2010, 350.org participated in the "World’s People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth," which was sponsored by the Bolivian government. This event, like the Copenhagen Climate Conference of 2009, demanded that countries around the world commit to drastic reductions in carbon emissions.
In yet another 2010 project, 350.org partnered with the Energy Action Coalition and other organizations on the “Great Power Race,” a competition to encourage citizens of the United States, China, and India to undertake environmentalist projects. In a separate campaign that same year -- the “Put Solar On It” project, which promoted the use of solar panels to heat and power people's homes -- 350.org partnered with Greenpeace.
In 2010 as well, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund gave the Sustainable Markets Foundation a $100,000 grant which was earmarked specifically for a 350.org program aimed at pressuring the Obama administration to oppose the construction of the Keystone Pipeline XL. In a direct appeal to the President, 350.org claimed that the “sands represent a catastrophic threat to our communities, our climate, and our planet,” and demanded that Obama reject the permit. When Obama ultimately did reject it in January 2012 (on grounds that more time was required to adequately review the project's potential environmental consequences), 350.org claimed victory, declaring on its website: “After relentless campaigning, the Keystone XL pipeline has been effectively killed!”
But the celebration did not last long, once it became clear that President Obama had left the door open to the possibility that the Keystone proposal might eventually pass regulatory muster. Outraged, 350.org vowed to protest every subsequent public appearance by Obama until such time as he announced a final decision regarding the pipeline.
In 2012, 350.org launched a "Fossil Free" campaign exhorting educational, religious, and government institutions to "immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 5 years."