Earth Hour needs to evolve

The decommissioned Lake Munmorah coal-fired power station, next to an operational gas-fired power station in NSW (photo by author)

Earth Hour, originally conceived by advertising agency Leo Burnett on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund in Sydney, 2007, is an hour of people switching off lights and appliances as part of awareness-raising around climate action and sustainability. A range of schools, community groups and businesses participate — organisers and participants are all eager and passionate supporters of climate action, genuinely hoping to have an impact.

Alongside this event, a brief, tedious and involuntary pattern plays out. Stock-standard takes from conservative columnists roll off the production line. They’ll point out, in the week preceding the event and for a few days after, that the emissions reductions from an hour of symbolic switch-flicking are negligible, and that the event demonises human progress. The authors take home their pay, the audience feels vindicated, and everyone ends the week as gleeful participants in this bland, mechanical tradition.

The problem with Earth Hour, as I’ve highlighted here, is that it now plays directly into the hands of critics of climate action, who frame any effort to reduce carbon emissions as a plea to live in perpetual darkness, and to discard the lifestyle we’ve inherited from decades of industrial expansion.

Ten years since it’s inception, public discussions around climate solutions tend towards fear, apprehension and scare-tactics. Specifically, in the past year, critics of renewable energy have used complex situations in South Australia, a region in which wind and solar have grown rapidly, to link blackouts with renewable energy and push this as inarguable proof that climate action equals living in constant darkness.

I can’t think of a worse time to be encouraging people to switch off their lights to symbolise awareness and action around decarbonisation. The slogan this year is “Switch off to join the future” — again, well-intentioned but dangerously tone-deaf in the context of where the debate sits, and how tenuous the situation is for renewable energy in Australia.

The argument that renewable energy causes blackouts has, so far, failed to convince the public, but it’s incredibly silly to take this for granted. Every grid event is now attributed immediately to clean energy (including the time a plug fell out of the wall at an Adele concert in Adelaide), and this barrage won’t stop any time soon.

The slightest tremor in the political landscape is amplified a thousand times when effects are felt in the clean energy industry — technology that competes with incumbent industries granted the right to pollute without consequence. It’s risky to underestimate how easily decades of progress can be rolled back within milliseconds.

At the same time, public interest in the event has been waning, as approximated by search interest over the past decade:

Is awareness-raising and symbolism really worth the wide open goal that Earth Hour creates for those dead-set against climate action? Since 2009, climate science acceptance has risen to its highest levels. The bigger challenge now is prioritising the development and deployment of machines that replace carbon-intensive forms of generation.

These are machines that keep the lights on — without creating emissions that sabotage the atmospheric system that sustains human progress and the ability for future generations to thrive. A world of darkness is best represented by a world that relies solely on fossil fuels, and steadfastly refuses to seize upon human ingenuity to progress beyond 19th century artefacts that linger well beyond their welcome, due solely to the power of incumbency.

Earth Hour doesn’t change, as public debates around decarbonisation, sustainability and science change. As advocates of fossil fuels seek to frame climate action as a life a darkness and squalor, Earth Hour urges us to ‘switch off’. There’s nuance to their message, of course, but nuance won’t cut through.

Earth Hour needs to take the honest and eager enthusiasm of it’s supporters and give them a more contemporary way to channel their power— it’s the right time to ditch the plea for people to switch off.