Does Earth Hour Do More Harm Than Good?

The solutions to our energy problems don't start with individuals shutting the lights off at home. They start with public policy -- the only force that can actually change how the infrastructure and shared systems work.
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This Saturday, thousands of people will voluntarily spend an evening without electrictricity. No lights. No television. No computers. They'll eat dinner by candlelight, maybe light up a bonfire in the backyard and roast some marshmallows. They'll think they're saving energy and doing something good for the planet.

But I'm not so sure about that.

Earth Hour is an annual event that tries to raise awareness of energy issues by convincing people to shut off the lights in their houses, businesses, and public buildings for one hour on one specific night. This year, it's March 31. It's a public and popular way to express support for changing the way the world uses energy -- more than a hundred countries participate every year, and thousands of famous landmarks, from Vegas to Giza, go dark for the occasion.

I'm a science journalist who has a book about the future of energy coming out in April. My husband is an energy efficiency consultant whose entire job is based around finding ways to make buildings use less energy. Earth Hour seems tailor-made for people like us. But we don't participate. In fact, I think Earth Hour is exactly the wrong way to go about educating the public on energy issues. When I look at how people respond to Earth Hour, I see as much confusion being spread as awareness. This event perpetuates myths about environmentalism and gives people the wrong idea about what it will actually take to solve our energy problems.

The official goals of Earth Hour aren't bad. The World Wildlife Fund, which organizes the event, explains what Earth Hour is and isn't right on the main website. Earth Hour isn't specifically about saving energy. It's only one hour, one day a year. Whatever energy is saved by the event would be so small as not to matter at all. In fact, because of that, the World Wildlife Fund doesn't even keep track of the impact Earth Hour has on energy consumption and emissions.

Nor is Earth Hour supposed to be about rejecting modern technology. The World Wildlife Fund specifically tells participants that they're asked to shut off only nonessential lighting. That makes sense.

As someone who understands the importance of energy efficiency, I think it's valuable to remind people that we all use a lot more energy than we'd really have to use to get the services we want from it. After all, physicist David MacKay estimates that the average American uses twice as much energy as the average European, to get basically the same quality of life. There's room for change.

Yet I don't think that's the message people get from Earth Hour. When I hear people talk about it, when I see the media cover it, I don't see a discussion about energy efficiency. Instead, the people participating in Earth Hour, the people observing it, and the people critiquing it seem to think that Earth Hour is the opposite of what the World Wildlife Fund says it is.

I have three big problems with Earth Hour and the message it sends. First, some people are going to be very easily disillusioned when they find out that Earth Hour doesn't actually do anything -- on its own -- to combat climate change. In fact, in places where lots of people participate, there might even be a small, temporary uptick in emissions. When fossil fuel power plants are forced to rapidly increase or decrease the amount of electricity they produce, they also produce more emissions, just as your car burns more gasoline if you're rapidly accelerating and decelerating than if you maintain a constant speed.

So, when everybody turns the lights back on at the end of Earth Hour, it means that some coal and natural gas power plants will have to quickly work extra hard to meet that sudden increase in demand. In order to do that, they produce more emissions than they otherwise would have. Now, just as turning your lights off for an hour won't save the planet, this short-term increase in the emissions output of a few power plants won't seal our fate, either. Yet there is a real risk that discovering this fact will convince some people to mistrust any effort to get them to change their energy-use behavior.

My second problem with Earth Hour: it inspires a reactionary push-back from people who think the event is a rejection of modern life, an attempt to show people how much better they had it in
the 19th century before that first power plant. It sets up a straw-man target that is easily attacked. Instead of discussing actual energy issues, groups such as the Ayn Rand Institute can point to Earth Hour and say, "See, environmentalists just want to reject comfort, convenience, and safety and force you to live in the nineteenth century."

We don't have to go back in time to counteract climate change and prepare for peak oil, but an energy event that encourages people to spend an hour in the dark certainly gives that impression.

Finally, although Earth Hour can make energy change seem too hard, it can simultaneously also make it seem too easy. Some people see Earth Hour and think that they're being asked to abandon everything that makes their lives nice. Other people see it and come away thinking that all they have to do is shut off some lights sometimes, and everything will be fixed. It's easy to throw a party once a year and hang out with your friends in the dark, but real change is difficult, and it doesn't really happen at home.

Like a lot of feel-good environmental awareness campaigns, Earth Hour makes it seem like personal, individual lifestyle choices are the best way to deal with our energy crisis. They aren't. One of the best illustrations of why this is comes from a 2008 MIT paper (PDF) that looks at the energy consumption associated with several different American lifestyles. Researchers compared the energy impact of eighteen different types, ranging from a homeless person and a Buddhist monk to a U.S. senator and a multimillionaire. The homeless person and the monk used a lot less energy than the senator and the multimillionaire did, to be sure. Yet when you take the energy they did use and add to it the energy embodied in our shared systems -- roads, schools, the military, and so on -- even the Americans with the most Spartan lifestyles still consumed more than double the average global energy use.

The problem isn't individual choices. The problem is the infrastructures that we share, infrastructures that often limit our energy choices and incentivize wasting energy rather than conserving it. Europeans don't use less energy than us because they're better people, who are more willing to make sacrifices and sit in the dark. They use less energy because their shared systems allow them to use less energy without having to think about it, and without it being a hardship.

The solutions to our energy problems don't start with individuals shutting the lights off at home. They start with public policy -- the only force that can actually change how the infrastructure and shared systems work. Whether the promoters of events such as Earth Hour intend to or not, they send the message that energy change is about voluntary individual choices and choosing not to use the infrastructure and shared systems. Yet if you look at what the experts say -- in the plans where scientists and analysts map out how we can actually make the biggest energy changes in the least amount of time -- you'll find that their message is exactly the opposite. The more we encourage people to think that change is about individual choices, the harder it is to get the real change accomplished.

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