On Climate, Symbols Can Overshadow Substance

A hot-air balloon promotes this year's Earth Hour as it floats over Sydney Harbor in Australia.
A hot-air balloon promotes this year's Earth Hour as it floats over Sydney Harbor in Australia. (By Mark Kolbe -- Getty Images)
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008

In March of last year, the World Wildlife Fund in Australia teamed up with Leo Burnett, the multinational advertising agency that created the Marlboro Man, to come up with a new environmental campaign called Earth Hour. The idea was to get 2 million residents in Sydney to turn off all the lights in their homes for one hour. The campaign generated wide publicity, but the energy saved was small -- the equivalent of taking about five cars off the city's roads for a year.

This year, Earth Hour expanded to dozens of cities around the world. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Sears Tower in Chicago and the Empire State Building in New York were among the U.S. landmarks that went dark. Many corporations signed on to burnish their green credentials. A bar in Phoenix served a drink called an ecotini -- organic vodka, green tea and an edible orchid.

But if everyone who participated in Earth Hour had left their lights on and instead switched to mundane, high-efficiency compact fluorescent bulbs, simple calculations show, it might have saved 1,368 times as much energy, because the bulbs would have saved energy all year.

Such tension between substance and symbolism runs through the modern environmental movement. After years of conflict with climate-change deniers and a White House that has resisted mandatory efforts to address global warming, the movement has become a crusade that is partly moral statement and partly fashion statement. Earth Hour, Earth Day and the Miss Earth beauty pageant -- "saving the planet, one pageant at a time" -- generate lots of publicity, but they also tend to prompt people and companies to choose what looks good over what works.

"There is a real problem in teaching people not to do something that appears to work, but that actually works," said Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California's Energy Institute, which studies ways to save energy and address climate change. Borenstein said it is hard to persuade people to do things that yield the biggest energy savings, and not necessarily the biggest returns in self-satisfaction.

"It is very difficult to get people to invest in home insulation and energy efficiency, which are much more effective than putting solar panels on your roof," he said. "Solar panels are popular because you can see you are doing something -- and your neighbors can see it, too."

Leslie Aun, vice president for public relations at the World Wildlife Fund and the person with overall responsibility for running Earth Hour in the United States, agreed that getting people to turn off their lights for an hour has no discernible effect on the climate. What the event does, she said, is give neighbors an opportunity to share candlelit dinners, encourage churches to hold services about the environment and spur schoolchildren to start family conversations about what they have learned about climate change.

Photos of darkened cities raise the visibility of environmental issues and make people feel empowered, Aun said. Campaigns that raise awareness through symbolic acts of personal sacrifice, she added, are not at odds with programs that produce tangible savings.

"You are not going to get people to change what people do by engaging their heads; you have to engage their hearts," she said. "You need symbols to spur action. You are not going to get people to take action unless you get them to care about the issue. You are not going to do that by pulling out the U.N. report on blah, blah, blah."

Aun stressed that the World Wildlife Fund wants to use the momentum generated by Earth Hour to advance its scientific and policy goals. And the organization handed out 1 million high-efficiency light bulbs during the event.

Some 36 million Americans turned off their lights, according to the group's publicity materials, which said that "Earth Hour inspires people all around the world to show their commitment and concern" and that the campaign is "about simple changes that will collectively make a difference."

While the idea that people who are emotionally committed can change their behavior in ways that help the planet seems appealing, a growing body of research suggests that this is not the way large-scale changes in behavior occur. The behavior of individuals, companies and nations is largely determined by structural factors, not personal choices.

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