Copenhagen Days 8-10 (Earth Hour, Final Conversations)

Wednesday, December 16 (Day 8)

On my way to the Earth Hour event at Copenhagen's city hall square, I marveled at how many people ride their bikes through the city, despite the fact that it is incredibly cold, dark and snowy. (Perhaps this resistance to the cold is one of the reasons that so many people are willing to stand outside for an hour together.)    

Earth Hour's intent is to raise awareness of the need to take action on climate change, and is typically held in March. In 2009, 4,000 cities in 88 countries participated. However, to coincide with the talks, a few large corporations and the World Wildlife Fund set up a mini-version here in Denmark. In the "Hopenhagen" square, there was a giant sphere with projectors inside, a very tall Christmas tree that required people to ride stationary bikes to power its lights, several small buildings with glowing lights on the outside and a few tents, food vendors and booths.

"Hopenhagen" at Copenhagen City Square from Copenhagen

We stood in the square with several hundred people, mostly youth, as well as the WWF Panda and Darth Vader (without whom no event is really complete). After some speeches from a few of the mayors from around the world who have signed the Climate Protection Agreement and a short film history of Earth Hour projected onto the giant sphere, the lights went out. Well, some of them. The KFC across the street from city square kept its lights on, and the spotlights on the Hopenhagen billboard remained illuminated. Also, we didn't stand in the dark for an hour: after 15 minutes, the stage lights came on so that several musical groups could perform. As a statement about the importance of energy conservation, it left a little to be desired.

Earth Hour at 7:04pm from Copenhagen

Earth Hour at 7:12pm from Copenhagen

Looking back, I can't help but think of how similar this Earth Hour event was to the one that I attended last March in Atlanta. There was a gathering at Georgia Tech, but the vast majority of lights stayed on despite efforts of students like myself. When running around campus to turn off all the lights we could, many of us found that light switches had been removed or did not exist in some cases so that the lights they would control were permanently turned on. Campus administration claimed that they could not turn off enough lights to actually make the campus dark, even for just one hour, due to safety concerns.

While I think that global demonstrations like Earth Hour and the International Day of Climate Action have been helpful in raising awareness about the science behind climate change and how we can address this issue through conservation and behavioral change, the events themselves are almost entirely symbolic. Participation in Earth Hour events is rarely widespread enough to cause a significant reduction in energy consumption and the lights that go out for that one hour are typically left on all night for the other 355 days of the year. Events like these should be educational and inspire people to actions that will actually have an impact on environmental problems that we face. Earth Hour events that give people the impression that turning off their lights for an hour is doing their part for the planet seem counterproductive.

The same can be said of the Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement and even the proposed International Climate Treaty itself. If these symbolic gestures do not translate into action and results on the ground, then they are essentially useless. Imagine how powerful the millions of people are who have participated in events like Earth Hour and's International Day of Climate Action. So much could be accomplished if all those people, or even just some of them, decided to take the next step from participating in a symbolic action to actually bringing effective changes to their communities. What if, instead of turning off lights for an hour each year, Earth Hour participants replaced every incandescent bulb in their home or office with a compact fluorescent light (CFL = less energy consumed and less heat produced) and began turning their unused lights off every day and night? What if each one of the participants in's International Day of Climate Action decided to insulate their home and then helped their neighbors and those in less privileged neighborhoods to do the same? What if the money spent on plane tickets and private jets and limousines to the Copenhagen Climate Conference had instead been invested in energy efficiency or renewable energy? I dare say that the results would be nothing short of extraordinary.

Thursday, December 17 (Day 9)

I left the apartment earlier than usual this morning, caught the bus and train, and then walked very carefully through Copenhagen's ice-covered streets to meet Jessie Robbins, a delegate from Georgetown University, for lunch at Kaffe Kalaset. I arrived just a few minutes after she did and we each ordered a warm drink while we waited for our meals to arrive.  The little vegetarian-friendly cafe was almost filled to capacity, so we sat on stools at a window box by the door, using the flat surface as a table. 

Jessie was the first and only delegate from the United States, other than those from Atlanta, with whom I had the opportunity to sit down and discuss the events of the past two weeks. I had been introduced to her through my colleague at the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, Richard Mode. Jessie and I both grew up in North Carolina, but never met until this day. Although it didn't dawn on me at the time, she is four years younger than I am. 

Our impressions of the conference and surrounding events were oddly similar, such that the discussion we had over vegan tofu and pancakes was more of a commiseration than a debate. We both felt that protesters, while mostly well intentioned, were being counterproductive to the causes they claim to support. The stories and images of protests and conflicts with police officers that were spreading across the globe portray the climate movement as one of irrational, violent people trying to force their beliefs on others. We both felt that this misrepresents and marginalizes the climate and environmental movements that we support by overshadowing the efforts of people and nations around the world working to reach a global climate agreement that will achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas pollution, while addressing some of the most pressing social, environmental and economic issues on earth. I don't want to put words into Jessie's mouth, but you can listen to an interview she did shortly after meeting with me for lunch.(You can also read the blog that Jessie and the other Georgetown University delegates wrote.)

Thursday was to be my last day in Copenhagen, although the conference wouldn't wrap for another couple of days. Since only high-profile delegates and government leaders were allowed in the Bella Center during the final hours of negotiation, we had no reason to stay.

My final post, summarizing my impressions and overall experience, will appear here on the ClimateEdu homepage on Tuesday, Jan 12. Until then, view my photos from Copenhagen on Picasa or Facebook. It's been an honor to be present for such an historic event, and I am so glad for the chance to
share my experience with you.

Peace and Be Well,


P.S. If you are on a campus, and I can offer some support or advice to help you begin addressing
climate change and other environmental, social and/or economic concerns
in your community, please contact me, either through this blog or through the Campus Ecology contact page.