Countdown to Earth Hour as global momentum builds
From San Francisco to Shanghai, from Stockholm to Sydney, tens of millions of people are preparing for “Earth Hour,” when, at 8.30pm on Saturday (March 28), they will turn off their lights to send the world’s political leaders a signal they cannot possibly miss or misunderstand that people are demanding action on the issue of climate change.
An idea launched two years ago by WWF's Sydney office in an attempt to prod recalcitrant Australian politicians into action on climate change has struck a chord that now resonates across the globe.
An estimated two million Sydney residents turned out their lights in 2007. In 2008, 371 cities in 35 countries joined the show and the number of participants the numbers leapfrogged to around 53 million. This year, some 1500 cities and towns in more than 75 countries have signed on and promoters are hoping it will attract close to a billion people.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged people to participate in Earth Hour, joining a roster of public figures supporting what Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another protagonist, describes as a global vote for action on climate change and potentially “one of the greatest social movements the world has ever witnessed.”
“Climate change is the greatest human-induced crisis facing the world today. It is totally indiscriminate of race, culture and religion. It affects every human being on the planet,” Archbishop Tutu said in a statement released by WWF. “If we all perform this one simple act together, it will send a message to our governments too powerful for them to ignore.”
The urgency of that act and the message it delivers is sharpened by the global financial crisis. “Many political leaders are not hearing the public demands for action on climate change they needed to hear and that’s what Earth Hour is about,” says James Leape, Director General of the WWF’s global network.
“What you get from a lot of leaders is ‘we aren’t hearing a demand from our constituency that we put this issue front and centre, what we’re hearing from them is fix the economy’,” Leape adds. “The danger in the financial crisis is that it will be used as an excuse to defer action on climate.”
Scientists warn that’s an option fraught with extreme peril. “All of the signals from the earth system and the climate system show us we are on a path with enormous and unacceptable consequences,” said Professor Katherine Richardson, organizer of a conference in Copenhagen earlier this month to review the latest data on climate change.
“Climate change is not an issue that’s going to go away,” says Leape. “Every year we put up more and more carbon into the atmosphere which stays up there for a long time. Every year you delay taking action, the costs of get higher and success in tackling emissions gets more difficult. That’s why we really have to get on with it.”
This year’s Earth Hour is particularly timely coming just days before the G20 summit in London. Activists hope it will help to push climate change back to the top of an international agenda now dominated by the global financial crisis and in the process generate the political momentum needed to get governments to agree on aggressive action to curb carbon emissions at the UN’s Copenhagen summit on climate change in December.
The London summit, focussed on coordinating responses to the global financial crisis, will not be the occasion to decide action on climate change, but its leaders need to recognize that economic recovery and climate change are complementary, not competing priorities, says Leape.
Indeed, climate change needs to be at the center of economic recovery initiatives, argues Nicholas Stern, the British economist assigned by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to assess the impact of climate change and chairman of a research institute examining the issue. Governments need to ensure that the many billions of dollars they are investing in stimulus packages do not lock their economies into costly and unsustainable technologies.
Moreover, the London summit presents an opportunity to focus leaders of the world’s richest and biggest economies on what they need to do and galvanize action ahead of Copenhagen in December.
“It can say that climate change is a problem that has to be addressed this year,” says Leape, “that industrialized countries need to commit to aggressive targets for reducing carbon emissions, that all countries need to commit to low carbon growth in the developing world and that industrialized countries need to put in place the robust financial mechanisms that can make that possible.”
At Copenhagen, Leape points out, industrialized countries need to agree to cut their carbon emissions by 25% to 40% of the 1990 level by 2020, developing countries have to recognize the importance of their emissions and agree to participate in cuts, tropical forest countries will need to agree and act to cut deforestation and developed economies will have to find in the order of €100 billion a year up to 2020.
Achieving consensus on these goals looks a formidable challenge in the prevailing mood of crisis and uncertainty, yet Leape still sees a number of positive influences: a recent McKinsey & Co. study underlines that the costs of moving to a low-carbon economy are eminently affordable; indeed countries as China, South Korea and the US are already investing heavily on green stimulus measures; a third factor of critical importance has been the advent of a new administration in the US.
“It’s been very difficult for the international community to make progress on this issue in face of the resistance from the US over the past eight year,” WWF’s Leape says. “With the US coming into the game we now have the potential for critical mass. It has given people new hope that we can come together round this in the timeline we have set.”
It’s now down to politicians around the globe whether or not they do. By turning out their lights for Earth Hour, Archbishop Tutu points out, the public will be telling them “the eyes of the world are watching.”
WWF is one of the world's largest and most respected independent conservation organizations, with almost 5 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries. WWF's mission is to stop the degradation of the earth's natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world's biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption.
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