Stumbling in the dark

Editorial, Normal


AS well-intentioned gestures go, Earth Hour is hard to beat.
At the stroke of 8.30pm on March 27, nearly a billion people in more than 120 countries demonstrated their desire to do something about global warming by switching off their lights for an hour.
In a show of official solidarity, the lights also went out at many of the planet’s most iconic landmarks, from the Opera House in Sydney to the Great Pyramid at Giza, not to mention Beijing’s Forbidden City, New York’s Empire State Building, London’s Big Ben, Paris’ Eiffel Tower and the skylines of both Hong Kong and Las Vegas.
Whatever else it may be, Earth Hour is surely one of the most successful publicity stunts ever dreamed up.
First organised in Sydney, Australia, in 2007, its popularity and the level of participation (both individual and official) that generates has exploded in recent years – to the point that there is barely a corner of the earth that the campaign has not touched.
But has Earth Hour actually done anything to halt – or even slow – global warming? Not so much.
The event’s popularity is not hard to fathom.
Who but the most die-hard global-warming denier could resist the notion, as Earth Hour’s American website phrased it this year, that merely “by flipping off your lights on March 27 at 8.30pm local time, you will be making the switch to a cleaner, more secure nation”.
Needless to say, this was not quite the case.
The main thing that anyone accomplished by turning off the lights at night for an hour was to make it harder to see.
The environmental impact was negligible.
Indeed, even if everyone in the world had participated at the requisite hour, the result would have been the equivalent of turning off China’s carbon emissions for roughly 45 seconds.
Of course, this wildly optimistic calculation assumes that nobody used more power afterwards.
Recent research by two Canadian psychologists found that people who spent money on green products were, immediately afterwards, less likely to be generous and more likely to steal than those who bought non-green stuff.
Apparently doing something virtuous – like turning off the lights – makes us feel entitled to act badly afterwards.
The Earth Hour organisers, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) acknowledged the symbolic nature of the exercise.
Turning off the lights is just a “call to action”, they noted.
As WWF director-general James Leape explained, it provided “a global platform for millions of people to voice their concern about the devastating effects of climate change”.
Another WWF official added: “It is saying to our politicians, ‘you cannot give up on climate change’.”
All well and good. But, according to Andy Ridley, Earth Hour actually has a more specific agenda than that.
In addition to being the guy who first came up with the idea for the event over drinks with friends in a Sydney pub several years ago, Ridley is also the executive director of Earth Hour Global, so he presumably speaks with some authority on the subject.
“What we are still looking for in this coming year,” he told the Associated Press recently, “is a global deal that encourages all countries to lower their emissions.”
Therein lies the big problem with Earth Hour. As much as we would like to believe otherwise, the fact is that carbon emissions won’t be lowered by a deal.
Indeed, after nearly two decades of trying, the best climate deal that countries have been able to agree on is one that imposes no real obligations, sets no binding emissions targets, and requires no specific actions by anyone.
Surely, there is a lesson here. – Project Syndicate


*Bjorn Lomborg is the director of the think tank, Copenhagen Consensus Centre, at Copenhagen Business School and the author of Cool It: the Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming