And darkness descended upon the world

 
 

Though well-intentioned, Earth Hour showed how far we have yet to go in the race to save the planet writes Eoin Martin.

People don’t seem to understand symbolism. Most of the criticisms levelled at Earth Hour, which took place on 28 March, concerned the fact that it might actually have produced more rather than less CO2 emissions that a regular hour on earth. Sceptics grumbled that flashlights and candles are less efficient than lightbulbs. The Competitive Enterprise Institute even asked people to do things that would use more electricity to celebrate human achievement because spending an hour in darkness was kind of sad.

earthhourEarth Hour’s organisers were pretty pleased with the event. Ten times more cities and towns took part than last year, over 4,000 in all. They would argue, and the point has merit, that even if candles produce more carbon, switching off lights, appliances and in particular, decorative lighting will hopefully make people think about their energy usage.

If there is a criticism to be made, it’s not so much of the event itself, which was a laudable effort to raise awareness, but of the half-hearted engagement with it around the world. Ireland’s effort was not unimpressive. Eirgrid reported a two per cent dip in electricity usage. That’s the equivalent of 30 tonnes of carbon or 700,000 lights switched off for the hour.

Did the message get through though? People seemed to think it was some sort of novelty akin to Halloween – an excuse to use those scented candles won in the raffle. When the 60 minutes were up, did anyone think, maybe we can do without switching this light back on again? Would anyone have noticed if the UCD water tower remained unilluminated for the remainder of the night or indeed every night since?

The criticisms made of Earth Hour missed the distinction between using electricity out of necessity for which we should indeed be grateful and using it wastefully on luxuries about which we should be more thoughtful. Arguably the lighting of the UCD water tower is neither a necessity nor a luxury. We were being asked to look at our modern lifestyles and the way they affect our planet but we didn’t really do that. We flicked switches and commented on what it was like having no lights.

A week after Earth Hour 2009, an ice bridge on the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica collapsed endangering the rest of the shelf the size of Jamaica behind it. Much of the Larsen shelf on the other side of the peninsula has already disintegrated – events scientists attribute to higher temperatures in the polar regions because of global warming.

“We were being asked to look at our modern lifestyles and the way they affect our planet but we didn’t really do that”

UN delegates were meeting in Bonn when news of the latest collapse arrived. Developing countries argued even President Obama’s more ambitious goals to slash emissions won’t be enough to save them from the effects of climate change like floods and famine. Already several Pacific islands have been evacuated because of rising sea levels caused by the melting of other Antarctic ice shelves.

All of this underlines the increasing and real urgency of actually implementing policies to arrest climate change. It’s an unfortunate irony that ‘glacial’ best describes the human response to this threat over the past decade and a half. As Earth Hour sceptics defended the human ingenuity of electricity, the obvious question is why the same ingenuity cannot be bent to saving the planet?

There remains a great deal of cynicism about climate change. Most people probably accept the science and the wisdom of trying to change our ways. It seems though that what might loosely be referred to as ‘the climate change lobby’ is too often seen as a leftist, sandle-wearing, bike-riding, muesli-eating, G20 protesting bunch of hippies. This probably turns off the more mainstream citizen who draws the line at recycling glass and paper.

Undoubtedly, big business is much to blame for this polarisation as industry has been seen to be more part of the problem than the solution thus far. It’s clear that both the attitudes of businesses and moderate voters need to change in a more dramatic way. Environmentalists could also be more open-minded too however.

One of the protests held in London during the G20 summit was at the European Climate Exchange where carbon is traded. The protesters claimed the exchange allows people to pollute guilt-free. Perhaps, but if it reduces the net amount of carbon, does it matter how they feel?

There are likely to be some major clashes of principles and pragmatism ahead but if there is going to be a sea-change of the good sort, it’s likely to require getting businesses to see profit-making opportunities in climate change. Earth Hour made headlines but it didn’t change the world. If financial markets had the power to cause a global recession, they can probably stop global warming too. It’s not a case of relying on the recession to solve the problem but rather seeing this as an economic problem as well as a political one.

Efforts to reverse global warming need to be taken seriously by the world at large. That means that politicians of all countries, big and small, rich and poor. It also means citizens and businesses everywhere. The genius of humanity will not so much be shown in grudgingly restricting our lifestyles to reduce carbon but rather in finding ways to live more exciting lives without carbon.

Like it or not, most if us have more mundane things than polar ice caps to worry about. Be it exams, finding or keeping a job or paying the rent, it’s hard to fault ordinary people for not putting climate change at the top of their list of worries. If businesses play a positive role by marketing green energy and green products to us, then they will have earned their profits more than any of our bankers. When next year’s Earth Hour comes to an end, hopefully fewer people will say “time’s up! Switch back on the unnecessary lights”.

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