Creating Political Energy with Earth Hour

Did Earth Hour participants succeed in reducing global warming?

earth-hourEarth Hour activists participated in an international effort to reduce global warming from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. on March 31, 2013. Scores of New York City landmarks including the Empire State Building, the New York Public Library, the United Nations headquarters, City Hall and the Brooklyn Bridge, shut off their exterior lights. The city that never sleeps just joined hundreds of others mega cities and dreamed a beautiful dream of creating a world with sufficient energy without global warming.

Dimming the lights spanned from Hong Kong to Paris to Las Vegas to raise awareness on energy consumption and global warming. People enjoyed the unusual city life with cameras, Twitter and candlelight parties while politicians and environmental advocates were busy utilizing the “political energy” generated by the campaign.

However, could Earth Hour make true progress more than just a superficial sense of achievement?

Unfortunately, although global mass participation was initially encouraging, the actual achievement was not. The idea of utilizing Earth Hour to generate political energy to boost policy changes turned out to be nothing more than the campaigners’ illusion.

The inaugural Earth Hour was held in Sydney, Australia in 2007; 2.2 million people and 2,100 businesses participated. The campaign experienced the largest growth since 2009, and went beyond the hour by launching the “I Will If You Will” project, with more than 200,000 individuals accepting a challenge at www.youtube.com/earthhour.

In 2012, the campaign went to extremes to protect the planet, with astronaut André Kuipers observing the lights off event from the International Space Station. This year more politicians and public figures who were building up their characteristics participated more proactively. Campaigners were expecting that such a global event could generate a significant amount of political energy that would be utilized in dealing with global warming.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said:

“We participate with an undimmed determination to take action on climate change. Everyone has a role to play. Governments need to provide the political will, businesses can contribute solutions, and civil society, especially young people, can mobilize global action.”

“This is a statement,” said Carter Roberts, chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund, “In and of itself it’s not going to save that much energy. The idea is to create political energy.”

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However as night fell around the world, people mostly just oohed and aahed as patches of their skylines went dark.

More strikingly, the candles which were encouraged to be used during the campaigns are more harmful to the world climate than electric devices. In 2009, the Monitor posed the candle versus light bulb debate to Zeke Hausfather, then an executive with an online carbon measurement and reduction utility. During the debate, it was revealed that a candle is much less efficient in creating light than an incandescent bulb, and lighting enough candles to provide the same lumen output as a single 100 watt bulb would produce much more carbon.

Other Earth Hour skeptics argued that the shutting off lights on such a large-scale does not mean the power plants behind them slow down. Fossil-fuel burning plants stay in “spinning reserve” mode, anticipating the return of electricity demand.

Skeptics wanted to know what degree could the “political energy” generated in the public actually advance policies to solve the problem of global warming.

According to surveys from the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents are more willing to promote the idea of taking steps to address global warming. More than three out of four Republican respondents said that the US should use more renewable energy sources and such change should begin immediately. However, in competition for positions in the White House and the Congress, people witnessed endless but meaningless debates of the topic, without any empirical policy outcomes.

Though the campaign itself is not supposed to save the planet, it’s supposed to discuss whether the “political energy” generated during the campaign can be truly beneficial to the environment. As noted by one of the participants, it is “cool to be in the dark, but it’s more like an illusion when I turned on my lights at 9:31.” Thus, the campaign is more likely to be an encouraging illusion and not effective in reducing the impact of global warming.

Sainan Yu is a MA student in politics specializing in East Asian affairs at New York University. Read other articles by Sainan.