By Dr Gurinder Kaur*
Earth Hour is observed on March’s last Saturday every year in almost all countries of the world to make people aware about natural disasters due to climate change and their prevention. Earth Hour, an international event, is an hour long “light off” event. Excessive and non-essential use of outdoor artificial light, is affecting human health, wildlife behaviour and our ability to observe stars and other celestial objects. It is going to be celebrated on March 27th, 2021 this year between 8.30 pm to 9.30 pm local time for an hour by turning off non-essential lights in homes, businesses and government establishments. As many as 2.2 million people celebrated Earth Hour for the very first time in 2007 in Sydney, Australia on March 31 from 7.30 pm to 8.30 pm by turning off non-essential lights in their homes. The city of San Francisco in the United States of America also joined the Earth Hour campaign in October 2007 by turning off the non-essential lights for an hour.
Earth Hour caught popularity worldwide and has been celebrated internationally since 2008. The idea of celebrating Earth Hour was initiated by members of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature to save the environment. In 2003, Australia was hit by a severe drought, which scientists attributed to the ever-increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In 2004, members of Australia’s World Wildlife Fund for Nature met Leo Burnett, director of a Sydney-based advertising company, to create a campaign with an idea of turning off non-essential lights for just one hour every year to save the planet from environmental degradation. In 2006, Leo Burnett along with Sydney’s Mayor Clover Lord Moore and members of World Wildlife Fund Nature, worked hard to make the campaign a reality. The campaign was initially dubbed ‘The Big Flick’’ which was later renamed ‘Earth Hour’ to address turning off non-essential lights which are causing an increase in greenhouse gases.
Since 2008, Earth Hour has been celebrated on various themes. Starting from the theme ‘Dark City, Bright Idea’ in 2008 to ‘Connect to Earth’ theme in 2019. In 2020, the theme was ‘Climate and Sustainable Development’ with an emphasis on banning the use of disposable plastic products forever. Once used, these plastic items are thrown on rubbish heaps or dumped in water which are later consumed by animals leading to their premature deaths. 2021’s theme ‘Climate Change to Save Earth’ is a timely and straightforward message to all countries of the world. From the Industrial Revolution till now, human beings have changed 75 per cent of the earth in the name of economic growth of the human race to fulfill their aspirations. Dense forests have now been replaced by concrete jungles. Most of the wildlife is replaced by cars, vehicles and automobiles while birds are replaced by airplanes and spacecrafts. At the same time human beings through their activities, while blindly exploiting all the natural resources, are releasing huge amounts of gases into the atmosphere. As a result, the average temperature of the earth has increased by more than 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. An IPCC 2014 report by the United Nation stated that the rapid rise in the average global temperature due to human activities is increasing the number and intensity of natural disasters. No country in the world will be able to escape the onslaught of these natural disasters in the near future unless greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly reduced. Fearing the report’s warning, countries around the world outlined their plans in the Paris Climate Agreement, 2015 to cut greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. Even five years later, most countries in the world, especially those that emit the highest proportion of the greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (the United States of America and China) did not pay any attention to it.
The theme of this year’s Earth Hour is ‘Climate Change to Save Earth’. Through this theme Earth Hour is delivering a message more pertinent and raising awareness about the crisis of nature loss, climate change and global warming. So far, human beings have brought negative changes in the climate in the name of economic growth, imbalancing various ecosystems. Rising global temperatures, increasing number of natural disasters, declining numbers of wildlife species are urging human beings to put a stop to their harmful activities and adopt pro-nature actions to reverse the changes in climate to save the planet. Otherwise nature has its own way to reverse the imbalance as has been highlighted from the existing COVID-19 pandemic.
The main purpose of celebrating Earth Hour seems to be a small effort to save the environment from the rising amount of greenhouse gases by turning off the non-essential lights for just one hour a year. But if we think deeply, stopping the use of non-essential lights is a great lesson in protecting human beings and other organisms from all kinds of harm. Using more light consumes many energy sources and increases Earth’s temperature by emitting greenhouse gases. More than 80 per cent of the world’s population, and 99 per cent of Americans and Europeans cannot see the natural scenery at night because of the light pollution. People living in cities with high levels of artificial light have a hard time seeing more than a handful of stars at night.
Light Pollution is proving to be harmful to all kinds of organisms, including humans. Many people suffer from severe headaches, insomnia, sleep deprivation, poor eyesight, and skin diseases due to excessive light at night. Millions of insects die everyday due to artificial night lights. According to a study by Berlin-based biologist Gerard Isenber, 150 billion insects die each year in Germany as a result of flashing buildings and streetlights. In large numbers, these insects are part of the animal food chain but their sudden death by light and heat disrupts the food chain depriving many birds and animals of food. Studies show that artificial night light is also impacting behaviour of animals and birds such as migration and sleep patterns and habitat formation. Many birds migrate from the north to the south during the winter. Migratory birds, during migration usually guided by moonlight, get confused and misled by artificial night lights, lose their way and often die. In North America, one billion birds die each year in collisions with buildings under the illusion of artificial night light.
The reproductive function of some animals is also negatively affected by artificial night lights. Marine animals being misled by the illusion of daylight have set up shelters near the beaches. All types of vegetation are affected by lights. The difference between day and night becomes negligible for the vegetation near these artificial night lights. They suffer from staying in the light all the time and also from high temperature which causes them to start flowering prematurely. The size of flowers and fruits remain small due to lack of a full time period required for a normal plant life cycle and adequate temperature to grow. Some plants wither prematurely being exposed to high temperatures and artificial illumination.
Guided by the Earth Hour campaign, some big cities have started turning off non-essential lights every day in main areas of the city. The city of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, USA is making every effort to turn off the lights every night from 9 to 11 pm. New Island, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, has become the world’s first ‘Dark Sky Place’, with no lights on at night. In doing so, the country has made a significant contribution to the Earth Hour’s campaign to tackle climate change while preserving the beauty of the night, protecting the flora and fauna from light pollution. Learning from the New Island, all the countries of the world should make their due contribution in this campaign to save the environment from Light pollution.
This year’s Earth Hour, where the United Kingdom and Italy plan to continue the Paris Climate Agreement in Glasgow in November, 2021, could be a beacon for other governments around the world. The decisions that will be taken at this conference will affect the future generations. In this conference, plans should be made to save fauna & flora and the natural environment so that we can protect ourselves as well as the earth from the scourge of climate change. Earth Hour, through a series of small steps, helps in protecting the planet from the increasing emissions of greenhouse gases and their deadly effects. It is in fact providing a great deal of education and guidance. In the long run, we will not only save the earth’s environment by turning off the unnecessary lights, but we will also be able to save the earth from all kinds of disturbances in the life of all living beings. If every country, state and city adopt these practices, we can improve the state of the existing environment and save the lives of billions of birds and insects.
*Prof Gurinder Kaur is the Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala and Visiting Professor at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi