Earth Hour Tokenism

Commentary, Environment, David Seymour

This Saturday night will mark a curious cultural event called “Earth Hour.” At half past eight, millions of people will turn off their lights in a globally orchestrated demonstration meant to raise awareness of climate change.

In particular, the event is designed to raise the issue’s profile before the Copenhagen climate summit later this year during which world leaders will attempt to negotiate a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol.

Why do I call the whole exercise a “curious cultural event”? For one thing, switching electric lights off for one hour for one night every year actually backfires as a symbol. It is a trivial sacrifice: doing without electric lights for such a short of time only highlights what Earth Hour participants are not prepared to do without.

And isn’t it ironic that the things many Earth Hour participants won’t sacrifice are the same items people in real need don’t even possess?

For example, Earth Hour participants won’t give up the benefits electric pumps supply by bringing fresh water in and dirty water out of their homes: who wants to do without the eradication of infectious disease that sanitation has brought to the western world? They won’t give up the protection offered by emergency services, which use the modern miracles of automotive and air transport to move people quickly and save lives. They won’t give up the food that a series of agricultural, transport, processing and packaging revolutions have made plentiful in the West over the past century. They also won’t be giving up on their home entertainment systems, brought to them courtesy of their comfortable industrialized lives.

Worse, many cities have planned concerts for Saturday night. Sure, some participants plan to burn candles over romantic dinners; they will presumably wait until the hour is over before starting their dishwashers. In case the point is unclear, all of the above are comforts of modern life that produce greenhouse gases. Paradoxically, the official web page for Earth Hour features a photo of a city with blazing lights.

Because Earth Hour is so ineffective at achieving any kind of environmental or political goal, it can’t be anything other than a cultural event.

“So what?” you may ask. “At least Earth Hour participants are doing something.”

They certainly are, I would answer, but is this token gesture the best solution to the problems that climate change is believed to create? Think also of those whose very lives, let alone their lifestyles, are under much greater threats from forces other than climate change: do you think they appreciate the tokenism which distracts from the real progress they need? It may be well to remember that the developing world does not have time for fads: reducing carbon emissions is not its most urgent priority.

Indeed, Kyoto-style emission reduction schemes came in dead last when the Copenhagen Consensus project (not to be confused with the Copenhagen meeting later this year) surveyed the opinions of experts in various fields, from infectious diseases to water supply, to methodically rank the cost effectiveness of solving sixteen problems identified in UN millennium development goals.

Climate change may well be a big problem. However if Earth Hour participants are truly concerned about human welfare, they will have to accept the reality that we cannot solve every problem concurrently, and that we must set priorities. As well, given the fact that people – including Earth Hour participants – seem reluctant to make any real sacrifices in their living standards to fulfil their cause, it makes sense to start with the most cost-effective ways of helping the developing world.

The Copenhagen Consensus ranked the highest and most cost-effective priorities as trade development, malnutrition, disease, and education initiatives for poor nations. Whatever troubles climate change may bring, the world’s poorest will be much better positioned to deal with them if these other problems are solved first.

Earth Hour’s promoter, the World Wildlife Fund, says the event is a “global election” on carbon emission policy. In reality it is a slap in the face to the developing world which don’t have lights to vote with. If they did, they would probably leave their lights on as a vote for the kind of progress that rich countries have used to solve the problems they are still facing. Westerners who leave the lights on are at least more honest.