Is “Earth Hour” meaningful, or just a stupid gimmick?

Ottawa Parliament Hill during Earth Hour 2008 (photo by David R Carroll - CC-BY)

Ottawa Parliament Hill during Earth Hour 2008 (photo by David R Carroll - CC-BY)

Earth Hour is a campaign to get everyone to switch off their lights for one hour. The 2009 Earth Hour runs from 8.30 to 9.30pm in everyone’s local timezone, on Saturday 28 March. But what’s the point?

The organizers paint it as “the world’s first global election, between Earth and global warming”. They aim to “collect” one billion votes to present to the next Global Climate Change conference.

The idea started in Sydney, Australia, in 2007 and has now spread around the world. So should you switch off your lights?

The effect on global warming of a one-hour switch-off is minimal. After all, one hour is just one-hundredth of one percent of a year so it’s barely going to make a dent in the annual energy consumption. And if only lights are being switched off, energy use will only drop a small amount during Earth Hour.

But the change will be sizeable enough to cause some frantic activity at the power generating stations, as staff hurriedly try to match supply to demand by shutting down generators, then by re-starting them when demand returns to normal at the end of the hour. In other words, it’s well and truly going to be noticed.

And even McDonald’s is going to turn off its “golden arches” signs in 500 of its locations.

Electric lights use much less power than electric cooking and heating. If you want to increase the effect, avoid using the following during earth hour: heaters, stoves, ovens, washing machines, tumble dryers, dishwashers, kettles, toasters, televisions, computers, electric water heaters and electric showers. Some people will also be turning off their fridges and freezers – but if you do that, don’t open the door during the hour, and don’t forget to turn them on again afterwards.

As I write this, countries just west of the International Date Line have already had their Earth Hour for this year.

Oh, and mains electricity is a relatively efficient form of lighting – certainly less environmentally harmful than battery-powered lighting or kerosene lanterns. Just thought you might like to know, in case you would prefer to gather in a darkened room with your family to tell ghost stories.

Anyway, as to whether “Earth Hour” is meaningful: there’s no doubt that it’s a symbolic gesture, but a gesture for a worthwhile cause that gets noticed must be more than a “stupid gimmick”.

(Update: Lighting was extinguished on landmarks around the world, including the Sydney Opera House, the Birds Nest Stadium, the UK Houses of Parliament and the Eiffel Tower.)

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