Every Hour is Earth Hour

N Saturday 28 March at 8.30 pm an estimated one billion people in 1,858 cities and towns in 81 countries will voluntarily switch of their lights for sixty minutes as part of WWF’s Earth Hour. This mass collective action is seen as sending a signal to politicians to take action on climate change. While such events create mass public awareness the message can quickly fade in the public consciousness.

earth-hourON Saturday 28 March at 8.30 pm an estimated one billion people in 1,858 cities and towns in 81 countries will voluntarily switch off their lights for sixty minutes as part of the Worldwide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Earth Hour.

This mass collective action is seen as sending a signal to politicians to take action on climate change. While such events create mass public awareness the message can quickly fade in the public consciousness once the event has passed.

The 1985 Live Aid organized by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia was the first event that galvanised the global public to take action. Since then we have seen Live 8 in 2006 held to raise awareness as part of the Make Poverty History Campaign. In 2007 we saw the Live Earth event which brought together a global audience to combat the climate crisis. We have also seen events organised by Nelson Mandela’s charity to raise awareness about AIDS. All these events do some good in raising awareness but whether awareness results in sustained action is a different story.

When it comes to the environment many individuals are green is some way whether motivated by saving money, reducing waste or saving the planet. The UK Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has developed a model that divides the public in the seven distinct groups based on a set of attitudes and beliefs towards the environment.

Around 7 million people are described as “Positive Greens” who are willing to do as much as they can to reduce their impact. Unfortunately, there is a similar number who are not bothered about the future of the planet as they are engrossed in their own lives. While there are about 5.7 million people who are concerned but cannot voluntarily move to greener behaviours with some help or incentive. The different types of individuals and their attitudes are described below:

Positive Greens (18%: 7.1 million)
I think it is important that I do as much as I can to limit my impact on the environment

Honestly disengaged (18%: 7.4 million)
May be there’ll be an environmental disaster, maybe not. Makes no difference to me, I’m just living life the way I want to.

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Concerned Consumers (14%: 5.7 million)
I think I do more than a lot of people. Still going away is important; I’d find that that hard to give up. Well I wouldn’t, so carbon offsetting would make me feel better.

Cautious Participants (14%: 5.6 million)
I do a couple of things to help the environment. I’d really like to do more, well as long I saw others were.

Sideline Supporters (14%: 56 million)
I think climate change is a big problem for us. I know I don’t do much about how much water or electricity I use, and I forget to turn things off. I’d like to do a bit more.

Stalled Starters (10%: 4.1 million)
I don’t know much about climate change. I can’t afford a car so I use public transport. I’d like a car though.

Waste Watchers (12%: 5.2 million)
Waste not, want not, that’s important, you should live life thinking about what you are doing and using.

Time and money are issues they often come up when discussing greener lifestyles. If we did not have to work so much then perhaps we could devote more time to reducing our impact on the planet such as having an allotment, composting and doing more cycling and walking. Unfortunately many of us have to work to pay the bills.

The biggest outgoing is the rent or mortgage. If we had free accommodation or our mortgages were paid off then perhaps we could then work less and have more time to be greener. However, some would see these reasons as excuses. The DEFRA model shows the complexity of human behaviour and the different things which motivate us and which decide whether we are willing to be green or not.

Earth Hour is a major step in creating a blanket public awareness of the urgency and importance of the issue. However, once the razzmatazz is over then the real work begins. We need to communicate the message to individuals with different mindsets in a way convinces them to take action. That is why every hour is Earth hour.

Too Little, Too Late to Save the Planet

FROM switching off lights, recycling waste to reducing our car use, government is encouraging us all to change our behaviour and reduce our carbon footprint. But are these actions too little too late to save us from ecological collapse?

gary haqFROM switching off lights, recycling waste to reducing our car use, government is encouraging us all to change our behaviour and reduce our carbon footprint. But are these actions too little too late to save us from ecological collapse?

This month sees two events aimed at mobilising the public to take action. On 19 March there will be a national day of action on Climate Change in Coventry organised by Christian Aid. The aim of this day of action is to highlight the plight of millions of poor people in developing countries for whom extreme weather conditions are now a matter of life or death. On the 28 March WWF will hold the world’s first global election.

The public are being asked to use their light switch as their vote – switching off the lights is a vote for Earth, leaving them on is a vote for global warming. WWF is hoping it will reach a international target of 1 billion votes, which will be presented to world leaders at the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen 2009. These events are all well and good but do collective actions make any real significance in the long-term?

Despite international efforts the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are raising. As further evidence of the speed and magnitude of climate change comes to light a number of leading scientists such as Dr James Hansen, argue that time is running out and we need to take action now if we are to avoid runaway climate change. We can no longer put off changing our way of life and level of consumption. Current levels of carbon in the atmosphere are already too high.

gary haqThe public are willing to make small changes to their lifestyle. However, this can lead them into a false sense of security as they may think that this will be enough. They are unaware of the need for the more radical and less palatable changes.

Recently, the Northern Ireland Minister of Environment criticised the UK Government’s Act on CO2 campaign, claiming it was dangerous propaganda (See previous blog).

Only a small minority will truly make the radical changes necessary such as not flying or using the car. However, do unilateral sacrifices make any difference when the issue is of global proportions and requires global collective action?

Some environmentalists would argue that changes come from the grass roots. By raising awareness and mobilising action then individuals can be a collective force for change. Dr Mayer Hillman author of the book “How Can We Save the Planet” argued at a recent meeting on sustainable development in London that asking the public to switch of lights and voluntarily restraining their consumption was a waste of time. He did not believe individuals would voluntarily given up going to their holiday home in the South France for sake of the planet.

Dr Hillman argues that a considerable and rapid reduction of emissions will not be achieved on a voluntary basis. He concludes governments across the world must urgently set mandatory targets based on a global agreement on per capita rations, delivered in the form of personal carbon allowances. This notion is referred to as ‘Contraction and Convergence’ (C&C). This C&C strategy consists of ‘Contraction’ – reducing overall emissions of greenhouse gases to a safe level and ‘Convergence’ where the global emissions are reduced because every country brings emissions per capita to a level which is equal for all countries.

Such a radical framework may make politicians uncomfortable as the introduction of rationing would be unpopular with the electorate. However, Hilman argues due to the global ecological crisis governments need to form a War Cabinet and make these unpopular decisions if we are to win the war against climate change. Some environmentalists would argue that this is a form of “ecological dictatorship” and such constraints would result in a public backlash possibly on a scale never seen before.

(AFP photo/Remigiusz Sikora)There is an urgent need for World governments to have an international agreement that is legally binding and effectively delivers the cuts in greenhouse gases that is equitable and prevents serious disturbance to the global climate.

However, many politicians depend on their electorate for votes and it is clear that if we are to make the radical changes necessary then we need to convince the public of the urgency of the problem. This requires a combination of a ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approaches. Our politicians need to lead by example and have the courage to make the difficult decisions that lie ahead. Equally, the challenge is so great, and the timescale so tight, that we can no longer wait for governments and businesses to take action. At the grass roots level individuals and community groups need to collectively work together and show what can be done and convince their neighbours to do the same.

The key to environmental protection is in the hands of the many, not the few. Therefore people power is the force which will allow us to tackle climate change. We can only avoid ecological collapse if everyone does as much as they can in the fight against climate change.

© Gary Haq 2009