Care About Climate Change? Forget Earth Hour

Did you turn off your lights for Earth Hour to show your belief in climate change? I have friends that diligently read by candle light and others that went for a walk to marvel at the Empire State Building being dark.  They identify themselves as people who care about the environment and take climate change very seriously.

For the duration of Earth Hour, I chopped vegetables in my kitchen.  I had a compact fluorescent light to keep me from cutting my fingers off.   I’d characterize myself as someone who takes climate change seriously (why else would I be writing here?) and is very passionate about environmental issues.  So why were my lights on?

Earth Hour was designed as a symbolic event to foster social change.  I don’t question this motive, nor do I think its unworthy.  Quite the opposite.  I do struggle to see the benefit of turning off lights as a way to foster change, though.  Frankly, an event like Earth Hour is does more harm than good.

The problem is threefold.  The imagery used plays into a number of skeptic narratives of climate change including the “religion” and “Dark Ages” narratives.  This further hardens individual perceptions of climate change, making it more difficult to reach Earth Hour’s goal of fostering change.  Earth Hour also doesn’t really provide a meaningful way forward for individuals to mitigate climate change in their daily lives.  Turning off the lights for an hour isn’t going to do much if we keep going down the path of business as usual.

The Perils of the Religious Narrative

There is definitely something powerful about the visual of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, being darkened.  However, another image I can across of a small vigil of people with candles standing while the Vancouver skyline burned slight less brightly than usual.  The image was not only underwhelming, it also built up the skeptic narrative of climate change as a religion.

Candles are a common religious symbol from votives to veldoras to marriage ceremonies.  For Earth Hour, many small groups gathered by candlelight.  Though climate change can inspire religious fervor, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will win skeptical converts.  In fact, religion is an incredibly divisive topic.   If the goal of Earth Hour is to bring people together to sponsor major societal change, images of people using candles are certainly not the best way to do it.

In addition, Earth Hour uses celebrity spokespeople to promote the cause.  This year, Tom Brady, Gisele Bundchen, and Ed Norton all promoted turning out the lights. Celebrities endorse everything from Coke to not wearing fur.  They increase visibility of a product or cause and can draw support.  However, in the case of climate change, celebrities also contribute to the image of a climate change cult in the skeptic worldview.

The Dark Ages Narrative

Fire is a primitive form of light.  When you go camping, roughing it is using a campfire for light.  Worldwide, 3.6 billion people live without electricity in undeveloped, mostly rural areas.  Again, images of people using candles for light sends the wrong message about climate change.  They play perfectly into the skeptic narrative that the policies to mitigate climate change are thinly veiled plans to literally bring society back to the Dark Ages.

While this couldn’t be further from the truth, it’s difficult to construct a counter-narrative around such a regressive image.  It also obfuscates the innovative technologies and policies that will bring light without emitting carbon.  Using candles for light might create a sense of solidarity among those participating.  It’s unlikely to win over skeptics or people worried about what climate change policy could mean for their energy usage.

The Lack of Lasting Change

You turned off your lights for an hour.  What’s next?  That’s hard to say.  I can’t even imagine my friends who participated in Earth Hour turning off their lights for an hour every day.  Unfortunately, Earth Hour offers no real path forward or everyday solutions for how individuals can mitigate climate change.

News reports after the event trumpeted how much energy use dropped for the hour.  In Ontario, it dropped by four percent.  In the Philippines it dropped almost 8%.  Those are great results.  But what about all the other ways you can reduce your impact on the Earth?  What about things you could do every day and not just on Earth Hour?

Instead of promoting turning off the lights, why not promote a day for taking a bike or public transit to work or bringing your own mug to the café or your own bag to the grocery store? These are easy actions any person can do every day thereafter.  A metal coffee mug fits easily in a bag or backpack and reusable grocery bags take seconds to throw in the trunk of car.  In other words, they can easily become part of a person’s routine.

These actions are also irrefutably progressive.  For example, a public transit day could showcase the new high-speed rail investments in California.  High-speed rail is an innovative technology that mitigates climate change.  Biking to work might seem regressive at first (no combustion engine!), but it’s also positive for your health and the environment.  Highlighting these forward-thinking ideas is a powerful way to show innovative solutions to climate change and inspire action and hope.

Finally, all these actions would help mitigate climate change.  They would reduce waste in landfills, which would cut down on methane emissions.  They would reduce emissions from the manufacturing sector.  They would cut the number of cars on the road, lowering carbon emissions.  And they could give individuals a true sense of solidarity and a way forward.  Getting serious about mitigating climate change is going to take more than an hour in the dark.

Editor's Note: I posted this article only to realize my fellow climate change editor wrote a piece on Earth Hour a few hours earlier.  Clearly there are multiple perspectives on Earth Hour.  I hope you take the time to read both pieces and let us know what you think.