Earth Hour: Still Not the Right Approach to Climate Change and Development

Last year, I wrote an article coming out against Earth Hour, pegging it as a regressive way of showing your support for climate change action. A year later, have my feelings changed about Earth Hour? Yes and no.

First, the progress. Flipping through Twitter, I saw that World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the creator of Earth Hour, was asking people to retweet a message about the event. The message? That 1.3 billion people voluntarily took place in Earth Hour last year.

That’s an amazing number, if slightly hard to fully quantify. (At this time, my email to WWF about the origins of the number remains unanswered.) The other numbers provided by WWF about Earth Hour are staggering as well: this year, 1551 monuments will be dimmed, and no less than 4616 cities are participating in some way across 128 countries.

The other good news is that WWF is thinking beyond Earth Hour this year. Participating individuals and organizations are being encouraged to share their commitments to continue the good work they’ve started.

For example, the Nepalese government has committed to ending logging in the Churia Hills to allow ecosystems and watersheds to recover. In Hawaii, Jen Metz, a conservation worker, has committed to living for a year without generating any trash. In Twitter message, she explained that she wanted to "change personal habits when my island made plans to ship excess trash away.”

This momentum is good and a welcome change to previous Earth Hours, which provided relatively little guidance after the big event. If people believe their individual actions matter, they’ll be more likely to follow through on them when it comes to climate change.

Still, Earth Hour feels hollow. Why? Because for all the feel good vibes, it reeks of environmentalism delivered from a top down, developed world perspective.

According to the Earth Hour website, one of the highlights of the event is that “people transcend race, religion, culture, society, generation and geography, switching off their lights in a global celebration of their commitment to protect the one thing that unites us all – the planet.”

Sounds nice in theory. But there’s a poignant reality that contrasts quite sharply with the 1.3 billion participants of Earth Hour: the over 1.6 billion people who involuntarily participate in Earth Hour every day because they don’t have access to electricity. But even those numbers pale in comparison to the 3 billion people who rely on traditional biomass such as wood for cooking, heating, and light according to the United Nations.

If you care about the planet, then you have to care about the people you share it with. And Earth Hour is woefully blind to a huge portion of those people and the issues they live with every day.

Let’s start with biomass. People using biomass generally have limited choices for energy. But while access might be relatively easy, it comes with a price. In the big picture, burning wood drives climate change by releasing stored carbon dioxide as well as black carbon.

Locally, the associated deforestation also degrades stream flow, increases the likelihood of landslides and causes desertification. In addition, it compromises human health with increased rates of asthma and other lung diseases likely in households that rely on biomass for energy.

What’s more, most of involuntary Earth Hour participants live in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa - two regions that will have to cope with a disproportionate amount of climate change impacts. They also have less capacity to respond to weather extremes than people in the developed world.

To reduce the risk of the worst impacts of climate change, yes, the developed world needs to consume less dirty energy. Carbon dioxide emissions in the developed world dwarf biomass burning in the developing world. But at the same time, citizens in developing countries need energy to get out of poverty. They also need to insulate themselves from current climate fluctuations as much as future climate change.

With that in mind, turning off the lights isn’t a celebration; it’s a very slow start to a problem that needs to be approached from multiple angles. One of the most important is access to electricity in developing countries, but in a smart fashion.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to spend my Earth Hour helping bring light to rural Africa. Yes, my computer will be on and there’s even a chance the compact fluorescent lights in my apartment will be glowing as I donate £15 to Solar Aid.

They’re a great organization that helps install individual and community solar projects in east and southern Africa. Their projects have far-ranging benefits from improving access to education for adults and children to increasing income in poor areas simply by allowing people to charge cell phones.

Other organizations like them are growing. A friend recommended Power to the People, which does similar work in Latin America. I’d love to hear your suggestions about organizations working on bringing light to the world or helping insulate communities from climate as well as your plans for Earth Hour.

Is Earth Hour evil? Absolutely not. But could the focus be shifted to approaching the issues of climate change and inequality from both sides of the problem so we actually have something to celebrate? Absolutely yes.

Photo credit: syphlix/flickr, urbangarden/flickr