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March 22, 2010 | by  | in News |
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It’s Gettin’ Hot in Here, so Turn off all your Lights

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Actual impact of Earth Hour questioned by academics

WWF’s fourth annual global Earth Hour was held on Saturday evening.

Households and businesses—and this year, the world’s landmarks—were asked to turn their lights and other electronic devices off for an hour to raise awareness about the need to take action on climate change.

A WWF press release said that Earth Hour “will be celebrated as some of the world’s most recognised symbols of hope, peace, human endeavour and natural wonder plunge into darkness for Earth Hour as a powerful sign of the unrelenting resolve of the global community to respond to the threat of climate change”.

Te Puke’s kiwifruit and Paeroa’s L&P bottle “joined the global community in showing leadership on a resolution to climate change”.

“Participating in Earth Hour is a fun way to show the world that New Zealanders are leading the global movement to tackle climate change. Small actions repeated by many add up to a big difference.”

Salient asked a number of Vic academics for their thoughts about Earth Hour 2010, particularly with regards to whether they thought Earth Hour might have an impact on people’s behaviour or climate change policy.

School of Government senior lecturer and climate change policy commentator Cath Wallace told Salient “Earth Hour might be useful if it sensitises people to the issue of climate change and the value of accumulated savings, but there is a risk that it makes people feel that the solution to reducing emissions is to turn off the lights for one hour.

“Turning off lights for one hour makes little overall difference and is not an on-going solution, and rather smacks of WWF marketing than effecting real change.”

Professor John McClure, a psychologist who studies people’s risk perception of natural hazards, was more optimistic about the impact of Earth Hour.

“Sure, [Earth Hour] isn’t going to change the world or make a big difference to energy use, but it is a symbolic action where people can show that they do care about conserving the planet, and big social movements are partly made up of small individual actions.

“Earth hour is just one event, but if a lot of people take part, politicians will read the message.

“Things do change, and sometimes they change fast, even things that seem very difficult to change.”

Professor McClure said that the impact of Earth Hour would depend on how many people take part: “The more the better. Both individuals and policy makers are influenced by what other people do.”

Despite her reservations about Earth Hour, Wallace agreed that “people may be encouraged to take action on climate change if they see that other people are too, so the principle of making it a society-wide effort is good”.

However, “it would make more impact if people left the lights on for one hour and used the time to write an email to John Key asking the government to raise its greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets, or to stop the plans to mine lignite and coal or to mine in conservation areas.

“It would make much more sense to advocate a more permanent behaviour change, such as taking the bus rather than a car, or eating a vegetarian meal once a week at least.”

Professor Martin Manning is the Climate Change Director in the School of Government. As part of his role in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), Professor Manning has been responsible for communicating climate change science to policymakers at the international level.

He told Salient that the science of climate change is “firmly based on more than 40 years of careful research and we keep finding that the looming problems are a bit worse than we thought they were.”

“[But] the whole issue of climate change is no longer one of science. It is now about how ordinary people want to deal with the increasing risks that those of us on the science side have become quite definite about.”

Dr Nancy Bertler, a Research Fellow in the Antarctic Research Centre, told Salient that it was important that people reduce their long-term carbon footprints.

Dr Bertler said that Earth Hour is a useful initiative to raise awareness, but “an initiative such as Earth Hour could be more successful if it was to encourage actual behavioural change”.

“After the hour of darkness, we switch on our lights again. With that we haven’t in any way reduced our carbon footprint long term.

“If Earth Hour was to combine a push to not only switch off your lights for an hour, but when you switch it back on, make sure it is with energy efficient bulbs and with a plan to reduce one’s carbon footprint, that would be more effective.”

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Comments (4)

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  1. Kerry says:

    Anna…

    Earth Hour ia the 27th March 2010. Next Saturday.
    It hasn’t happened yet.
    Typo, much?

  2. Kerry,

    Earth Hour is the 27th of March 2010.

    Muphry’s law much?

  3. Alexander Waters says:

    Heh. Heh, heh.

  4. Thanks for the interesting article and comments. I just want to point out a few additional things.

    The event itself (27th March, 8.30 – 9.30pm localtime) is of course symbolic and we do what we can before, during and beyond Earth Hour to promote longer term behaviour change to make Earth Hour every hour (see: http://www.wwf.org.nz/earth_hour/earth_hour__every_hour/).

    The Earth Hour event is about reaching out to a broad audience, many of whom may not be inspired to write a letter to John Key but may be inspired to do something practical. It is an ongoing process of hopefully increasing the number of people who identify with doing something on climate change.

    There is no silver bullet that will ‘make the difference’ when it comes to achieving change in New Zealand or anywhere else. We see Earth Hour as a useful contribution and certainly not as the be-all and end-all of climate change campaigning. We hope you do too.

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