Is Earth Hour Good for the Earth?

I see Earth Hour through two different lenses, and neither of them is all that rosy.

First, I see it as an amateur astronomer and stargazer. Ever since Edison invented the light bulb, leagues of stargazers have been forced on a celestial exodus from development and cities into rural areas with no light pollution.

So, you might think that Earth Hour would be great for amateur astronomy. Afterall during the gigantic blackout in the summer of 2003, astronomers were able to observe the Milky Way from downtown Toronto (most likely the first time in over a hundred years).

But, 8-9pm is basically dusk for astronomers. No serious observing can really be done until after Earth Hour is over.

Moreover the streetlights, porch lights, Wal-Mart signs, and a whole host of other lights that point upwards will still be on. I can’t imagine that there will be a substantial drop in light pollution.

While I think projects like the Ontario Science Centre’s “Starwatch + Earth Hour” where people are encouraged to see how many of the Little Dipper’s stars they can see is good PR for science and astronomy, I doubt it will really offer any basis for the change in light pollution.

For example, I can make out the Little Dipper in my light polluted Waterloo front yard with cars driving because I have young eyes, good eyesight, and know where and how to look for constellations. Will Starwatch take into account ages, eyesight, and stargazing ability when they try to collate their results?

The second lens I see it through is that of an environmentalist struggling to find solutions to the huge problem of climate change. In an hour, very few tonnes of carbon will be prevented from hitting the atmosphere.

However, it is good PR for climate change because it shows people the supposed change that we can accomplish. “Wow, the CN tower/Sydney Opera House/Time Square is dark, and look at how different things are.”

But, will they turn off the lights every night? Certainly, this exercise might help some businesses or individuals to see that they can turn off their lights every night with no harm and major energy and cost savings, but what would Paris be without its lights. The City of …what? French fries?

What would be significant is if instead of turning off all our lights, we turned on only the ones that are energy-saving compact fluorescent lights or LEDs. That way rather than trying to send ourselves back to the Dark Ages where smoke inhalation and house fires were far more common, we could drive green innovation.

So, if you see my house all lit up during Earth Hour, don’t worry they’re CFLs and they use less energy than that flashlight you are using to stumble around your darkened living room.


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