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Earth Hour 2019: why switching off your lights for an hour could save the planet

This Saturday 30 March, we’re being encouraged to turn off our lights for Earth Hour, but what should we be thinking about for those 60 minutes? We spoke to women including a scientist and an author to get their suggestions.

When you were younger, did you get told off for not turning the lights off when you left a room?

Unbeknownst to us (and to them), our parents and guardians were the forerunners to a global campaign that has switching lights off at its core.

Earth Hour, which takes place between 8.30pm and 9.30pm on Saturday 30 March, is a movement encouraging us to switch off our lights for 60 minutes.

Some of the world’s biggest landmarks, including Buckingham Palace, Edinburgh Castle, the Sydney Opera House, the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower, will go dark for the hour. Millions of people across the world will also host events such as a candle-lit dinner or a stargazing trip as part of the event.

PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 24: In this composite image a comparison has been made of the Eiffel Tower submerging into darkness as part of the Earth Hour switch-off on March 24, 2018 in Paris, France. On the initiative of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) hundreds of millions of people across more than 150 countries to turn off their lights for 60 minutes on Saturday night at 8:30 pm local time in a symbolic show of support for the planet. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)
The Eiffel Tower is among the landmarks that will switch its lights off during Earth Hour.

It might seem like a small action, but it’s a visual representation of the desire to ensure the future of our planet is not a bleak dystopia.

Earth Hour is coordinated by WWF and volunteer organisations, which are pushing for more environmentally-friendly laws and policies to be enacted.

According to WWF, wildlife population sizes have plummeted by 60% in less than 50 years, one in six species is at risk of extinction because of climate change, and there could be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

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The environmental challenges we face are devastating, and terrifying to think about. It might not seem like switching our lights off for an hour will much impact, but it’s a chance for us to show those who do have the power to make a difference that we want change. It’s also an opportunity for us to reflect on how we feel about the world we live in, and what we can do as individuals to ensure future generations don’t suffer from the effects of air pollution, climate change and more. Making a simple change, such as turning your washing down to 30 degrees of embracing items like reusable coffee cups, could make a big difference, says WWF.

Before you switch off for an hour on Saturday, we’ve spoken to six women who are passionate about the fight for a better earth. They share why the environment matters to them, why Earth Hour is important, and what they would like us to reflect on during those 60 minutes when we switch our lights off.

Sarah Crossan, author and Ireland’s Children’s Laureate

“Something I really love about doing Earth Hour is the quietness involved,” says Sarah Crossan

I wrote Breathe and Resist because I was interested in environmental issues. I was living in the United States. I know that we consume far too much in the UK and Ireland, but compared to the States, there is a lot that going right in Europe. Everything felt so throwaway in the States, it’s a very consumerist society. I had friends who were Democrats, who were very liberal, and they didn’t care about recycling. There was constant consumption, and everything was designed to become obsolete. That was a massive concern for me, and then I went on a road trip and saw the effects of logging. I spoke to scientists in order to be able to write the books, but even though the book is fantasy and it’s dystopia, there is nothing in there that is not scientifically plausible - the death of the Earth is quite possible.

By taking part in Earth Hour, we are speaking. When your voice doesn’t feel heard, to be able to take action and have some data on it - because there’ll be data from electricity companies to show the effect - is really important. You can see within your own community that people have turned off their lights, and it begins a conversation. Ultimately those kinds of small actions are just ways, for me, of speaking. The real action has to be taken by governments and people in power.

I’ve just finished reading David Wallace Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, and I found it utterly terrifying. He suggests that we only have 30 years before there’s utter destruction; I have a six-year-old daughter so she’d only be 36 years old. The world will look nothing like it does now. We don’t have much time, and most of the destruction has taken place over the last 30 years, which means it’s humans that caused it. If we caused it we can stop it.

Something I really love about doing Earth Hour is the quietness involved, and the beauty in not consuming electricty. All the gadgets and lights we take for granted are gone. It need not be seen as a sacrifice; it can simply be seen as a lovely way of spending your time.

Sarah Crossan is the author of the dystopian duology Breathe and Resist, set in a world where trees and plants are practically extinct, and oxygen is a privilege. Her newest book is Toffee.

Aditi, teen activist

climate change strike
Youth climate strike: Aditi, 16, from Arizona, is a climate change activist.

My goal for Arizonans is a future of clean, sustainable energy. I love how Earth Hour encourages small, significant actions, but honestly, I believe individuals should focus on organising cleanups and encouraging recycling, and taking legislative action against climate change, such as encouraging renewable energy in their communities. Doing our bit is so important, and our moral prerogative as individuals who want to make a difference. 

I want people to remember the impact of climate change on themselves, on their children, and future generations as they participate in Earth Hour. I want them to focus on bringing attention to the millions of people in our generation who will suffer the consequences of increased global temperatures, rising seas, and extreme weather. 

I do think the public should listen to young activists because we’re not motivated out of money. We are motivated by fear for our future and an unconditional love for our lands and for where we’re from. That’s what I want people to learn from this Earth Hour.

Aditi is a 16-year-old high school student from Phoenix, Arizona. She organised and co-led the Arizona Youth Climate Strike in March 2019.

Beth Gardiner,  journalist and author

Author Beth Gardiner poses in London's Southbank Centre Sept. 18, 2018
Beth Gardiner is the author of a book on air pollution, which started “close to home”

My fascination with environmental issues started close to home with concern for myself and my family, living in London. I came to understand that we have a significant air quality problem. I’m an American but I’ve lived in London for 18 years. I love the city but I’ve always noticed an unpleasant smell and a thickness to the air. Going outside gives me a grittiness on my teeth, and a bitter taste in the back of my throat. But I never heard anyone else talk about it.

Then in 2012 I was working on an article about the Olympics and air pollution. I read some of the science and what air pollution levels are like here in London, and it was very alarming. In fact, air pollution is a profound threat to health, not just to our breathing. It touches every part of our bodies. As a Londoner, and a parent, it was upsetting, and as a journalist it felt like an important story that hadn’t been adequately told.

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Pollution is killing around 9,500 Londoners a year, 40,000 Brits a year, somewhere around half a million Europeans, and seven million people globally. If there was something else that was killing that number of people annually, a war or a terrorist attack, it would be the only thing we’d talk about. It seemed to me that air pollution was this thing we didn’t really know about, or we’d shrug and think it was an inevitable fact of life we couldn’t do anything about.

A lot of small actions, like Earth Hour, can add up to a large change. One thing that really inspires me is to meet people who are taking a stand and fighting for cleaner air. It shows me that change is possible on an individual level. 

Only governments have the power needed to make changes but as individuals we can make smaller changes. For example, if we walk or cycle somewhere, it’s good for our health, and the health of those around us as they don’t have to breathe in our emissions.

This Earth Hour I’d like people to know that we can actually build a healthier world and make different choices as individuals and societies. Climate change and its terrifying consequences are not inevitable, and it’s not inevitable that we have to breathe in air that makes us sick. These problems are solvable.

Beth Gardiner is a journalist and the author of Choked: The Age of Air Pollution and the Fight for a Cleaner Future, out 4 April.

Kay Michael, theatre director

Theatre director Kay Michael is one of the people behind Letters to the Earth

There’s no doubt that we are in the middle of catastrophic climate change that is going to bring profound change to everyone’s lives. This is a vast and complex global crisis; it’s understandable that it can leave people feeling overwhelmed and powerless, or afraid, numb, or deeply sad. 

But Earth Hour is an opportunity for each of us to pause in our daily lives and ask what it is we can change, what it is we can do - for our children, our friends, our family, our local communities. What does it mean to reduce our consumption, to simplify the way we live, to do what’s necessary at this pivotal time in history? Small actions can have profound ripple effects, especially if we all commit to doing them.

I’m working on Letters To The Earth, which is an opportunity for everyone to put their thoughts into writing. They can write a letter to or from the Earth; to future or past generations; to those in positions of power or influence; even to the other species sharing the Earth. Their words will be made available for people to hear and read across the world between 15 and 28 April. As cultural practitioners we know that arts and culture have the power to stir human responses, to create new stories and visions for our world. 

What’s important now is that everyone is a part of the response to this climate emergency, whether it’s via Earth Hour, the youth strike, Extinction Rebellion or Culture Declares Emergency. Each campaign builds on and supports the others. We believe Letters To The Earth can enable individuals to face the climate and ecological emergency for themselves, to come together in community on 12 April at venues across the country, and to generate the will to take further action. When governments and industry have so far failed to act with enough urgency, we all have no choice but to step up and lead by example.

This Earth Hour I want everyone to realise that our power is unstoppable when we come together, when we join hands with others across the world and bring all of our love and commitment to acting now with great courage. 

Kay Michael is a theatre director and one of the people behind Letters to the Earth, a theatre campaign which will see venues including Shakespeare’s Globe and National Theatre Wales present letters written by the public about the climate emergency.

Professor Joanna Haigh, co-director of the Grantham Institute

Professor Joanna Haigh says we need to be doing more, faster, to counter climate change

Earth Hour is important from two perspectives. For a start, you might think that doing a little thing like turning off the lights is not going to make much difference, but actually if millions of people do it, it does make a difference. For example, if everybody in the UK were to insulate their homes properly, that would be about half the reduction in fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions, so it all adds up.

The other important point is to build up a general understanding of what’s going on. An analogy might be the smoking ban. So, people were smoking all the time in and out of pubs, and it was just normal. But gradually everybody understood that it wasn’t really a sensible or healthy thing to do. By the time the government implemented legislation on smoking, everybody knew it had to happen and it wasn’t a problem, and that’s because it was a grassroots understanding. I think you need people to work from below to pass around the message of what things are important and what’s going to happen, and then it can build up to a pressure on governments to do things.

Climate change is an existential threat, certainly to various species, and eventually it’ll be an existential threat to humanity. In fact, it already is a threat to people in some parts of the world. The fact that it’s not treated with more seriousness is very, very frustrating. I think it’s because people with investments in keeping the status quo are very powerful, so it’s difficult to shift them.

Having said that, there are some positive sides. The real positive thing that’s happened within the last few years is the United Nations conference in Paris in 2015, in which there was unanimous agreement to try and keep global temperature rise to less than two degrees above the pre-industrial levels. We mustn’t forget how big an achievement that was, because there hadn’t been a United Nations unanimous agreement on climate before. It set everybody moving in the right direction. Of course, we’re looking at it now and saying the action is just not fast enough.

But if you talk to people around the world, there’s an awful lot of work going on, and we just have to hope the acceleration will take place. We all need to change what we’re doing. We need to put pressure on governments to implement change. We need less talk from governments and more doing stuff.

This Earth Hour, I’d like people to think about another story that isn’t understood properly. That is that there’s an awful lot of good and positive things that can come out of just taking action on climate change. So, for example, if you do something to reduce burning fossil fuels, then you improve air quality and that’s good for health. Likewise, if you change your transport structure to use less fossil fuels, there’s less air pollution and that’s better for health. If people change their diets to include less red meat and more sustainable food, it’s also good for health. If we do something about energy efficiency for our homes and we’re warmer, it’s good for our energy bills. There’s so many ways in which acting on climate change can help on health, poverty and energy security as well as on environmental things. That’s a positive message for Earth Hour.

Professor Joanna Haigh is co-director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment at Imperial College.

Becky Spencer, head of public affairs campaigns

Becky Spencer is head of public affairs campaigns at WWF.

Earth Hour is a chance for everyone to play their part to protect our planet. Right now is the time to consider the changes we can make to our lifestyles for the benefit of our world. The changes might seem minor on their own, but switching off non-essential lights or turning your washing down to 30 degrees along with millions around the world can have a powerful impact. We know that everyone switching off lights for an hour can’t directly tackle climate change in itself, but it does have an important symbolic role to play. By taking part in Earth Hour, you’re sending a powerful message to world leaders to pay urgent attention and act to protect our planet.

Climate change is threatening all life on our planet. Global wildlife populations have plummeted by 60% in the past 40 years, because of pressures caused by humans. My generation is the first to know we are destroying the world and we could be the last that can do anything about it, which is mad! It means taking action right now, for us and for our future generations. We need to unite leaders behind the biggest challenge of our generation and catalyse a new movement that will save our planet. They need to make and deliver serious commitments to protect and restore our forests, rivers and oceans; and to limit the impact of climate change. By doing that, they will create a new, safer, fairer future for nature and people.

Becky Spencer is head of public affairs campaigns at WWF, which is behind Earth Hour.

Images: Getty / Ger Holland / Suzanne Plunkett / Héloïse Faure / Imperial College

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