Earth Hour: lights, camera, but where’s the action?

March 27th, 2009 - 12:05 pm ICT by IANS  

Cate Blanchett By Sid Astbury
Sydney, March 27 (DPA) It’s easy to poke fun at Earth Hour, an Australian initiative now into its third year in which people around the world are asked to switch off their lights for 60 minutes to show their concern about global warming.

The poster boy for this year’s switch-off is British business tycoon and space tourism pioneer Richard Branson, a powerboat racer and sponsor of a fuel-hungry Formula One team and an individual with a giant-sized environmental footprint.

Greg Bourne, head of the local branch of international environmental lobby group the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the chief organiser of Earth Hour, is confident that Branson’s celebrity endorsement will encourage hundreds of millions of people in 83 countries to vote for global action against climate change by sitting in darkness for 60 minutes Saturday.

Bourne also admits that Earth Hour, rather than cutting power consumption, adds to it through burning candles, all the extra promotional activities like publishing colour supplements in newspapers and running off T-shirts, and even the extra driving as people get out to view the temporary dimming of normally aglow landmarks like the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, Rio de Janeiro’s statue of Christ and the MGM Casino in Las Vegas.

“It’s the ongoing change that matters more than anything else,” Bourne said. “It’s symbolic. That’s the bit that matters.”

The paradox of Earth Hour is that the more popular it becomes, the more resources it uses up. Last year the carbon emissions saved over the 60 minutes amounted to an 8.4 percent reduction on the equivalent period the week before - 17 percent less than the savings achieved during the first Earth Hour in 2007.

Bourne defends the appointment of Branson, along with Hollywood actor Cate Blanchett, as the official face of Earth Hour. “They are beginning to walk the talk,” he claimed.

He argued that the induction of celebrities into Earth Hour has helped concern about climate change become mainstream and taken a very complex issue out of the too-hard basket.

“Climate change brings about a sense of despair,” Bourne said. “This is about hope. It’s the aggregate of everybody’s actions. It has to be a street party rather than a street protest.”

Protests scare people while parties unite. United action, even action that is counterproductive in terms of emissions reductions, can galvanise community support for governments to tackle climate change.

“Three hundred million Chinese are seen by Australians to care,” Bourne said. “For politicians to lead, they must be supported. This is about creating a visual mandate for leaders to take long-term decisions.”

WWF China director Yanli Hou said that China’s participation showed that Earth Hour was putting pressure on politicians in both rich and poor countries.

“For too long people have been saying that they can’t tackle climate change until China and India do so too,” she said. “The success of Earth Hour shows that the people of these countries are in fact ready and willing to take the lead on climate change.”

The counter-argument, of course, is that any number of candlelit dinners won’t help save the planet, that Earth Hour misrepresents the enormity of the problem and understates the action required to address it.

Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, said Earth Hour is unhelpful because of its focus on action that can only ever have a marginal effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“A meaningful solution to global warming needs to focus on research into the development of green energy instead of fixating on empty promises of carbon emission reductions,” Lomborg said.

A gala “green-tie” ball at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo is one of the harder-to-explain activities that organisers are recommending for Earth Hour night. Another is to while away the time in a candlelit bath. And another is to dine at Perth’s swish Hilton Hotel, where the menu is “handwritten on hand-made paper.”

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