Is Earth Hour still relevant?

As the annual switch-off celebrates its 10-year anniversary, critics argue that a creative revamp is needed to prevent the movement from drifting into irrelevance.

Earth Hour pic
Earth Hour was born in Sydney in 2007, and has since spread to 7,000 cities in 170 countries, reaching more than a billion people every year. Image: Earth Hour video

This Saturday, at 8.30pm, in 24 different time zones, people will turn off their lights for an hour to show that they care about climate change.

Yes, it’s Earth Hour. The annual symbolic switch-off, now in its tenth year.

The movement’s creators, environment non-profit WWF and advertising agency Leo Burnett, have good reason to celebrate. What started in Sydney in 2007 has since spread to 7,000 cities in 170 countries, and reaches more than a billion people every year with its message to rein in consumption.

It is one of the longest running grassroots movements in history, and despite its detractors positive climate action has spawned on the back of it.

Russian seas were protected in 2012, an Earth Hour forest was created in Uganda in 2013, and plastic bags were banned in Ecuador in 2014.

But a decade on, a growing question mark hangs over its relevance.

What does Earth Hour actually achieve, at a time when record-breaking temperatures are now the norm? Besides the hype and hopeful marketing, how is it more than a big candle-lit party to alleviate human guilt, after which we all return to plundering the planet and melting the ice caps?

Earth Hour’s harshest critics say that it gets in the way of climate action by letting our conscience off the hook.

A fundamental problem with Earth Hour is the name itself, say critics. It implies that the planet need only be cared for fleetingly, despite the movement’s call for participants to go “beyond the hour”.

Others, particularly in Australia, suggest it is an open goal for conservatives who denounce the switch-off as an insult to human progressA problem with Earth Hour in Australia is that power outages have - controversially - been linked to renewables. Opponents of clean energy use the annual switch-off to associate climate action with living in the darkness.

Another issue with Earth Hour in developing-nation cities such as Jakarta and Mumbai is that people are used to living with black-outs. Is powering down the lights sending the right message in places where power outages are so common?

The sense from a sample of comments from Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter on the subject of its relevance yesterday, is that Earth Hour is a good idea to raise awareness of climate change, but it is in dire need of updating.

A Twitter poll Eco-Business ran yesterday asked if Earth Hour is “an effective environmental campaign”; 73 per cent said ‘no’.

A fundamental problem with Earth Hour is the name itself, say critics. It implies that the planet need only be cared for fleetingly, despite the movement’s call for participants to go “beyond the hour”.

This year, to extend its reach beyond the switch-off, Earth Hour has struck a deal with Facebook to enable users of the social network to create an Earth Hour-themed profile picture.

The idea is to move Earth Hour “from skylines to timelines,” explains Sid Das, the movement’s Singapore-based executive director.

But, Singapore-based journalist Kirsten Han says this too feels like tokenism and the “illusion” of making a difference. “If all it means is that we all charge up our laptops so we can unplug it for an hour and check Facebook in the dark, what’s the point?” she wrote on Facebook yesterday.

“It also gives the illusion that you’ve ‘done something’ to fight climate change and the green movement when that isn’t the case. It would be nice if instead of acting as if sitting in the dark for an hour works, we could talk about more systemic and institutional changes in energy policy and conservation that will make more of a large-scale impact,” she adds.

When Earth Hour was born, according to Andy Ridley, who co-founded the movement and was its chief executive until two years ago, the idea was about taking an issue that was stuck in the sustainability world and pushing it into the mainstream.

Has this been achieved?

Perhaps not. Das tells Eco-Business that the role of the campaign remains to raise awareness of climate change, and the switch-off is still a necessary “first step” in guiding people towards climate action and more sustainable lifestyles.

He adds that there is nothing wrong with making people feel good about themselves in the process. “We’re proud that Earth Hour makes people feel good. The green movement is too often about doom and gloom,” he says.

Would the switch-off ever be replaced with something else? Probably not, says Das. There will always be an issue that can be represented by the switch off, and that doesn’t necessarily have to mean saving electricity, he says.

Earth Hour, he points out, is a “fulcrum” that leads to action, whether that is a petition sent to a legislator or a plastics recycling scheme.

This year, the big Earth Hour-led climate initiatives include campaigns in Spain and the United Kingdom to pressure their governments to stick to their Paris climate commitments, and a project in Australia to provide portable solar-powered lighting to communities in Ethiopia.

And here lies the beauty of Earth Hour: Perhaps above all else, it is an open source platform that individuals can use as a framework to do their own thing, a springboard for climate action. In this sense, it is more relevant than ever, says Das.

Indeed, the limitations of governments and the private sector in responding to climate change, particularly the switch from fossil fuels to renewables, means that citizen-led movements should not be underestimated, says Assaad Razzouk, ‎Group CEO, Sindicatum Sustainable Resources.

“I am all for Earth Hour and similar grassroots initiatives. This is because the financial markets don’t get that we need to transition to an all-electric world as quickly as possible, and in fact continue to bet big on harmful fossil fuels.”

“Governments meanwhile, while making more efforts to combat climate change, are countered by lobbyists representing fossil fuel interests who are impeding governments’ ability to effect meaningful change fast. We’re therefore hugely dependent on consumer- and citizen-led initiatives to keep governments honest, and to be strident about how companies should go about their business, to force the change required.  

“In that context, Earth Hour matters,” he says.

The big question, however, is how to take it to the next level. Giving people a warm fuzzy feeling once a year is nice, and illuminated skyscrapers going dark makes for great eye-candy in a video.

But we need to make this hour matter more. How about an hour of not using any water, or an hour of not driving the car? 

With an audience of one billion people to talk to, it feels like there is more that Earth Hour could do to make a meaningful impact to fight climate change.

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