Saturday, March 27, 2010

Earth Hour: how about some REAL commitment?

Earth Hour is the annual event in which people are encouraged to switch off their lights for one hour of one day of the year. It is described by the organisers as "a global call to action to every individual, every business and every community throughout the world. It is a call to stand up, to take responsibility, to get involved and lead the way towards a sustainable future."

The event receives criticism. One is that it doesn't actually save any energy at all for that hour. The response from organisers in the linked news article to this criticism was that "Earth Hour is not about saving energy, it’s a positive inspiring event that will show the level of public concern about climate change". Earth Hour is, apparently,"an opportunity for people to show that they care about climate change and want global leaders to take action". It's an awareness-raising exercise, in other words.

I don't think it's effective. For one, we're well past the stage of needing awareness-raising for the general public. The issue of climate change is almost impossible to avoid in any form of media. Perhaps the "awareness-raising" is aimed at leaders, making them aware of a constituency that wants the issue addressed, and not a general message to the public. But if so, I think it fails.

Turning lights off for one hour of one year tells leaders that people want something done? Yes. It tells them that people are willing to accept what those leaders actually need to do? No, I don't think it does. It just tells them that people are willing to engage in a very temporary and very tiny inconvenience that's then conveniently discarded for the other 364 days of the year.

Facing climate change requires long-term commitment, and it requires sacrifice. None of those values are truly on display in Earth Hour. The symbolic message being sent to leaders, from where I'm sitting, is "we care, but we expect you to fix the problem, without inconveniencing us more than we want to be". A politician can easily exploit such a sentiment to ensure nothing gets done. Thus we have situations such as that in Australia, where the Opposition opposes a cap-and-trade scheme by basically saying "sure climate change is an issue, but this particular approach costs too much". It doesn't take much to figure out that any approach can be said by opponents to "cost too much", because any approach is going to cost.

I don't object to symbolism, nor do I object to trying to send a message to leaders. I do object to what I think is the message being sent by the fairly lacklustre effort required to implement Earth Hour for one day a year. If proponents of this approach truly want to demonstrate a commitment, they need to get people on board for more than one hour a day. Maybe they could convince people to engage in this hour a day for a month at a time? Six months? A year?

Would it be possible to get all the people, governments and countries, all so allegedly determined to see leaders do what needs to be done to combat climate change, to do engage in an ongoing "Earth Hour" every day for more than a week?

Whatever the answer, the extent to which such an event could be sustained beyond just one day would to me demonstrate just how committed people really are to making the commitment and sacrifice needed to address and adjust to climate change. And I fear the real answer to the question exposed by such a demand would "not very committed at all".

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