Lights out for Earth Hour? Save your energy

Dreamed up as a PR stunt by an ad agency 10 years ago, Earth Hour has become surprisingly succesful. This is, I suspect, because it’s long on tokenism and photo opportunities and desperately short on actual resolve, sacrifice or meaningful political action. Anyhow, my lights stayed remained undimmed on Saturday night last. Below, the original version of my piece, as featured in Saturday’s Irish Times:

ANY PLANS for Earth Hour this evening? If so, you’re not alone. Tonight in Ireland and in some 7,000 cities and over 170 countries around the world, upwards of a billion people will turn off the lights to mark Earth Hour, an event the organisers, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), claim is the world’s largest voluntary action.

Now in its 10th year, the event has been warmly embraced in Ireland, with lights being dimmed in government buildings and major heritage sites. For instance, in 2014, then Environment Minister, Phil Hogan had this to say: “I am happy that Ireland is again joining this global effort to highlight environmental sustainability and I hope that Irish people will support this powerful symbolic initiative by turning out the lights”.

The extent to which the Earth Hour idea has spread, he added: “shows the degree of worldwide concern for our environment.” The key word in Hogan’s speech was ‘symbolic’. Symbolic actions on climate change are our politicians’ very favourite kind. These allow them to bathe in the bright green glow of feel-good environmentalism for an hour or two, without the awkwardness of having to commit to any tangible actions whatever, especially those that might discommode powerful vested interests.

Another likely reason politicians and corporations support Earth Hour is that it subtly shifts responsibility away from them and back onto the individual. Switch off the lights, don’t fly so often, eat less meat, use public transport more. Of themselves, these are all good ideas, but even in the unlikely event they could be scaled up massively, they ultimately deflect attention from the reality that the global climate and ecological crisis can only be addressed at an intergovernmental scale. This means binding treaties and strong regulations to massively decarbonise the global economy, rein in overconsumption, stabilise the biosphere and reduce pressure on biodiversity.

Besides, why should the average Irish person be expected to consider sacrificing aspects of their lifestyle for a cause that their government has, for the last six years, done precisely nothing to promote or explain? As for leadership, Ireland does at least now have its first ever minister for Climate Action. However, Denis Naughten’s recently published draft National Mitigation Plan was panned for its stunning lack of ambition or urgency. Meanwhile, Naughten himself in media interviews repeats, mantra-like, the odd promise ‘not to tell people what to do’.

This all might infer that Ireland is a mere disinterested bystander; in fact, in recent years we have punched well above our weight in back-pedalling and special pleading for sectional interests at EU level. Our government’s efforts, primarily on behalf of the agricultural lobby, have made a small but telling dent in the union’s resolve to act collectively while there is still time. As government buildings go dark this evening, it might be more apposite as a way of marking our shame at the betrayal of both the developing world and all future generations.

The Earth Hour symbolism of turning out the lights as an action against climate change is in itself curious. How much energy we use is important, but lighting is just a tiny fraction of overall energy usage, and this has actually declined sharply in the last decade, with the widespread adoption of low energy technologies.

What matters most is how the energy is produced. Ireland, for instance, is now increasing the amount of coal-fired energy on the grid via the ESB’s Moneypoint plant, thanks to the low price of coal on the world market. Cheap comes, however, at a fearsome price. While the ESB and Bord Na Móna pocket the profits, Ireland’s hospitals and GP surgeries bear the human cost of the air pollution the world’s fossil fuel-burning utilities continue to spew out. And that is before the climate damage is tallied.

To add insult to illness, Irish electricity users massively subsidise three loss-making, ecologically devastating peat-burning plants as part of what is in essence a politically inspired job-creation scheme in the midlands.

In 2007, when Earth Hour was first unveiled by an Australian ad agency as a publicity stunt, global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) had reached 385 parts per million, their highest level in around four million years. Since then, CO2 levels have broken through the symbolic 400ppm barrier and continue to rise sharply.

The impacts have been stark. Eight of the 10 hottest years ever recorded have all occurred since 2007, with 2016 smashing all previous records, pushing Earth systems into what the World Meteorological Organisation this week called “truly uncharted territory”.

“Earth is a planet in upheaval due to human-caused changes in the atmosphere”, according to US glaciologist Jeffrey Kargel. If homo sapiens really has the wit and ambition to survive this century, from here on every hour has to be Earth Hour.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator. He tweets @think_or_swim

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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