Saturday, March 29, 2008

Earth Hour

I got an email from the University the other day, informing me that NU would be participating in Earth Hour, asking students and businesses to voluntarily turn off their lights in an effort to raise awareness about global warming and reduce energy consumption.

I'm afraid I don't really know what to make of it. I'm more or less completely ignorant on climate science, but my understanding is that there's strong evidence for anthropogenic global warming, and I'm willing to buy that. I think it's astonishing how intertwined the whole issue of trying to determine an answer scientifically has become with politics, something which both the left and right are guilty of. But that's not really an issue here, as it's voluntary and I really can't think of any political reason to care if someone wants to turn their lights out.

My issues, I guess, are with the overall "awareness" jive that gets thrown around in the form of wristbands, magnetic ribbon stickers and hour long voluntary black-outs. It seems like a cop-out to me. If you're actually concerned about global warming enough to make a change in your life to minimize any actual anthropogenic effect that does exist, it seems like it's a token gesture to turn out your lights for an hour on a specific day at a specific time. Most of the website seems to be suggesting the same "turn off the lights when you're not in the room/buy compact fluorescent bulbs" that usually get suggested (and which actually make sense even if you reject climate change science, because it's often cheaper), but organizing cities around the world to turn off their lights at a specific time, all at once, strikes me as something designed to make people feel like they're actually doing good without actually doing anything. It reminds me of those gas boycotts that get passed around every once in a while that completely misunderstand the concept of a boycott and the concept of how supply and demand work (if you get a million people to not buy gas on Day X with the intent of forcing oil companies to bring down prices, it accomplishes nothing unless you get them to do it on Day Y, then Day Z and so on. Merely shifting when you buy gas does absolutely nothing, but unfortunately, cutting back on the amount of gas you do use, which would cause the gas companies to drop their prices, actually takes a bit of effort. It seems like the only people that are going to notice that Earth Hour is happening are either people who are participating (and are, hence, already aware of global warming) and people who get emails about it, like me (who are also aware of the awareness campaign) and so I'm not sure among whom this is supposed to be raising awareness.

My other problem is with the timing of it. Apparently, Chicago has been selected as the US "Flagship City", whatever that means. Fine and dandy, and I understand that the organizers are Australian, but this isn't exactly the best time of year to be turning off all the lights at 8pm local time. It's not only completely dark by then (still, because winter will never end) but it's also below 30 degrees C (also, because winter will never end), which minimizes the possibilities for going outside and playing softball instead of playing on the computer. I'm sure it was an effort to pick a time when both the Northern and Southern hemispheres would have moderate weather, but I still think you don't pin "moderate weather" on Chicago. At all. Ever. So, because staying inside a completely darkened house isn't an option and playing by the lake isn't an option, I guess the suggestion would be to hang out in stores which aren't participating, which still reduces the total amount of energy used (because the store's lights would be on anyway) but which feels like it cheapens the thing. Also, you have to spend energy getting to the store that you wouldn't otherwise, so yeah. I'm not sold on Earth Hour.

I guess where I come down on this is that I'm not going to do it (though I'll probably be on the train during that hour anyway) and while I understand the goal, I'm not sure it'll actually accomplish very much in the way of raising awareness among people who, I guess, had never heard of the Global Warming controversy before and think it seems a bit too much like a way to pretend to be doing something while not suffering the inconvenience of actually doing something. If you're worried about global warming, get some light bulbs that use less energy and ride a bike once in a while. Better yet, support nuclear power. Nuclear's gotten a bad rap since Chernobyl* and Three Mile Island**, but it's 30 years later (22 years in the case of Chernobyl) and nuclear plants are safer by orders of magnitude. They're cheaper than they were, they're much cleaner than coal-burning plants (which actually put out more radiation than uranium plants because of radon), which does result in dangerous waste, but the fission products that are actually harmful have relatively short half-lives and are all but gone within 50 years, which we know how to store, and which we can recycle into more power production. The fact that France derives 80% of its power from nuclear plants while we get 20% should say something. It's time to look past the hysterical nonsense and, if pollution and global warming are actually a problem, fix it by switching to nuclear rather than building more and more fossil fuel plants.

*Very bad times, but they really had to try to get it to be as bad as it was, by which I mean that if you're running a nuclear power plant in a corrupt nation which is in bad shape to begin with, you might not want to run unnecessary, dangerous tests while not looking at the status of the reactor, ignoring what the previous shift had done that makes your test a phenominally bad idea, while running everything with a skeleton crew of people who weren't trained to deal with what you were trying to make them do.

**Yeah, partial meltdowns are bad times, but the safeties successfully contained what could have been a terrible disaster, the technicians were able to fix the problem in spite of the fact that they were given incorrect information, that was found to have resulted in zero deaths and which resulted in the equivalent of a chest X-ray's worth of radiation for those who were exposed to radiation from Three Mile Island. It was a successfully prevented disaster, but groups who rail against nuclear power for whatever reason seem to always leave off those first two adverbs.

1 comment:

Red Craig said...

Well said! With all the hand-wringing going on, it's a relief to read something level-headed about the predicament we're in.