THE BLOG
03/22/2013 08:28 am ET Updated May 22, 2013

Earth Hour Is A Big Waste Of Time! Or, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Bjorn Lomborg?

Again comes Earth Hour, a well-meaning if somewhat amorphous gimmick born in Australia six years ago, when the Sydney contingent of the environmental group WWF sought the help of the Leo Burnett advertising agency in focusing the popular mind on climate change. The result: a campaign that encourages participants to switch off their lights and spark up a candle at a specified hour -- a show of solidarity and commitment to addressing climate change and otherwise making the world a better place.

The ritual, now headquartered in Singapore, has grown well beyond Sydney -- so much so that the organizers now describe it as "the single, largest, symbolic mass participation event in the world," involving "millions of people in 7,001 cities and towns across 152 countries and territories."

If this interests you, the appointed hour is between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. this Saturday -- wherever in the world you are.

One person who won't be participating is Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish academic, author of the 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist, and seemingly tireless critic of what he perceives as empty green dogma. In an essay published in Slate this week, Lomborg delivers a broadside against Earth Hour, calling it "exactly what is wrong with today's feel-good environmentalism."

Lomborg's organization, the Copenhagen Consensus, is also releasing a video on Friday that aims to pick apart what he considers to be Earth Hour's errant messaging:

"Earth Hour teaches us that tackling global warming is easy," Lomborg writes at Slate. "Yet, by switching off the lights, all we are doing is making it harder to see."

How so? Well, for starters, Lomborg argues that more than a billion impoverished people around the world have no switch to flip, lacking the electricity that we take for granted. Earth Hour, he implies, demonizes a technology that has lifted great swaths of humanity from lives of great burden and toil -- and which the globe's poorest still so desperately want and need.

He also suggests that the ritual might do more actual harm than good:

Hypothetically, switching off the lights for an hour would cut [carbon dioxide] emissions from power plants around the world. But, even if everyone in the entire world cut all residential lighting, and this translated entirely into CO2 reduction, it would be the equivalent of China pausing its CO2 emissions for less than four minutes. In fact, Earth Hour will cause emissions to increase.

As the United Kingdom's National Grid operators have found, a small decline in electricity consumption does not translate into less energy being pumped into the grid, and therefore will not reduce emissions. Moreover, during Earth Hour, any significant drop in electricity demand will entail a reduction in CO2 emissions during the hour, but it will be offset by the surge from firing up coal or gas stations to restore electricity supplies afterward.

And the cozy candles that many participants will light, which seem so natural and environmentally friendly, are still fossil fuels -- and almost 100 times less efficient than incandescent light bulbs. Using one candle for each switched-off bulb cancels out even the theoretical CO2 reduction; using two candles means that you emit more CO2.

From this, Lomborg makes an awkward segue to condemning government subsidies for green energy, which he considers a less effective path to global decarbonization than robust investments in energy research and development. This, he says, would ferret-out as-yet undiscovered clean-energy technologies that can outperform -- and outcompete in the marketplace -- comparatively expensive and only modestly effective technologies like wind and solar.

"Focusing on green R&D might not feel as good as participating in a global gabfest with flashlights and good intentions," he concludes, "but it is a much brighter idea."

To be sure, Lomborg has a fair amount of company in wanting to spoil all the Earth Hour fun -- much of it emanating rather predictably from rugged free-marketers and other denizens of the political right. In 2011, Ross McKitrick, a professor of economics at the University of Guelph, declared in an essay: "I abhor Earth Hour. Abundant, cheap electricity has been the greatest source of human liberation in the 20th century."

The free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute runs an Earth Hour shadow event, dubbed "Human Achievement Hour," which encourages participants to "leave your lights on to express your appreciation for the inventions and innovations that make today the best time to be alive and the recognition that future solutions require individual freedom not government coercion."

In 2011, the event even made it to the pages of the blunt self-improvement web site How Not to Suck. "Earth Hour is Stupid," the post asserts.

Setting aside all the vitriol and running-dog capitalism, I queried a few energy experts for a back-of-the-envelope assessment of Lomborg's chief complaints about Earth Day, including Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Vaclav Smil, the Canadian scientist and policy analyst whose books on energy, development and resource use are required reading for anyone attempting to understand our current crossroads.

Both experts suggested that Lomborg's assertions were plausible -- though a certain amount of calculus would be required to sort out what's what with any precision. The candle question, for example, has been digested with some regularity over the years (apparent upshot: Aim for soy or beeswax candles, rather than those made of paraffin -- itself a heavy byproduct of oil refining).

On Lomborg's assertion that completely eliminating residential lighting the world over for an hour would save only about 4 minutes' worth of China's carbon-dioxide emissions, Smil suggested the numbers may be a bit off -- though not by much. "Doing a rough calculation in my head (knowing the rough numbers), there is something wrong with this," Smil said in an email. "It would be more than that, perhaps 20 minutes, but still a small fraction of an hour."

So there it is. Lomborg has successfully debunked Earth Hour. The question is, did it really need debunking in the first place?

As noted by Keya Chatterjee, director of international climate policy with WWF, "Earth Hour does not purport to be an energy [or] carbon reduction exercise, it is a symbolic action," she said in an emailed statement after I asked about Lomborg's criticisms. "Earth Hour is an initiative to encourage individuals, businesses and governments around the world to take accountability for their ecological footprint and engage in dialogue and resource exchange that provides real solutions to our environmental challenges."

It's true that the earliest iterations of Earth Hour did make a point of carbon counting -- heralding a reported 10.2 percent drop in energy usage in Sydney during the event's inaugural run in 2007. "This is double the anticipated energy saving and represents a reduction of 24.86 tonnes of carbon dioxide," the organizers reported in the months following that first outing, "the equivalent of taking 48,613 cars off the road for an hour."

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Earth Hour's CEO and co-founder Andy Ridley speaks at a press conference in February. Earth Hour encourages people the world over to turn out their lights for one hour to demonstrate solidarity on the need to address climate change.

But in subsequent years, as the event grew in popularity and expanded to other cities -- and as scrutiny of the numbers increased -- these sorts of highly specific metrics were dropped in favor of more broad-based awareness raising. The goals of the campaign have diversified to include offshoots like the "I Will If You Will" challenge, through which participants nudge each other toward environmental stewardship of any kind -- and outside the appointed Saturday evening hour.

Chatterjee also notes that Earth Hour, which she describes as an "open-source campaign," has also served as catalyst for other actions with, one might say, more tangible outcomes. In Russia, for example, activists last year harnessed the momentum of Earth Hour to drive a petition campaign seeking new regulations to protect the country's oceans from oil contamination. Eventually 122,000 signatures were gathered, and a law was ultimately passed.

Would the law have passed anyway? Maybe so. But the larger point is that Earth Hour isn't looking to demonize electricity, or even to reduce carbon emissions in any meaningful way -- certainly not in an hour. In its broadest sense, it's a campaign that has evolved to raise awareness about resource use, resource constraints and the looming consequences of doing precisely nothing to address climate change.

Which is what makes Lomborg's censure of Earth Hour, and indeed, his general communications approach on these and other important issues, so puzzling. The fact is, even if his ideas are often found to have holes in their particulars -- sometimes ones you could drive a truck through -- in the broad view, he has substantive points to make on how we approach the world's long list of problems, from armed conflict and biodiversity destruction to chronic disease, hunger, water shortages and of course, climate change.

Given limited funding, Lomborg's central argument goes, the world has to figure out how to prioritize these and other ills, and how to maximize the bang for our collective buck. Indeed, that's what his Copenhagen Consensus, which brings together an impressive roster of minds to ponder thsee questions, purports to do.

Not everyone agrees with the composition and ordering of Lomborg's priorities lists, of course -- climate change tends to rank further down the list than many stakeholders would like, for example -- but as a point of departure for discussion, the exercise of priority-setting is a sound one. Unfortunately, Lomborg seems to think that his ideas will gain greater purchase with sensation or contradiction or data-laden misdirection. So, despite claiming to fully accept basic climate science, he will call the greenhouse effect a "myth," as he famously did in a 1998 essay in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen (thanks to my Danish speaking colleagues for verifying this fact).

Or, as he does this week, he puts Earth Hour on a spit and roasts it.

I sat down with Lomborg for a chat at HuffPost headquarters a couple of months ago, when he was in town for events surrounding his inclusion in Foreign Policy magazine's list of Top 100 Thinkers for 2012 (He came in at No. 58). I asked him how his efforts to get the world's problems prioritized economically was being received.

He said that people whose interests or area of concern come out on top -- supporters of micronutrient programs aimed at fighting hunger, for example, or subsidies for malaria treatment in impoverished nations -- love the list. People who come out on the bottom are less happy.

"Making priorities," he said, "means you make both friends and enemies."

Perhaps so, but why artificially weight the enemies side of your ledger by slamming a relatively benign awareness campaign like Earth Hour? Tackling the world's problems amid finite cash resources may well be zero-sum. Talking about them certainly isn't.