I never imagined I would get a tattoo during the U.N. Climate Summit in Paris. Yet here it is, newly healed and permanently inked on the inside of my right wrist.
The tattoo is three numbers and a symbol: “355<” in 25-point font, styled as if from a typewriter. It’s my commitment to the people of the climate movement, to listening to and sharing their stories of climate justice.
When I was born in October 1991, the concentration of carbon dioxide — the primary greenhouse gas emitted by human activity — in our atmosphere was 355 parts per million. In the early 20th century, we topped 300 ppm for the first time in 800,000 years, beginning the destabilization of our climate and society through rising planetary temperatures.
I never knew these exact numbers before, but now that they’re printed on my wrist, I will never forget.
The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — the first international climate treaty — came into force in March 1994 in order to stabilize the concentration of these greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. It brought together all nations to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” that would “adversely affect natural ecosystems and humankind.”
In 2008, nine of the world’s leading climate scientists determined 350 ppm to be that safe upper limit for our climate. Today, nearly a month after a new international climate treaty was drafted at COP21, we’re hovering around 402 ppm.
For me, climate change is everything these numbers are not. While there is direct causality between parts per million, climate disruption and human suffering, it’s not the numbers that capture the heart. The < symbol on my wrist is a reminder: Data informs, but stories awaken.
I learned this while traveling to Paris over the course of five months, cycling and story-gathering in 11 countries with artist Garrett Blad. Our journey was fueled by tales of courageous mobilization, from First Nations peoples standing in front of fracking trucks in New Brunswick to thousands of people flooding a coal mine with their bodies in Germany.