Earth Hour fires up a crucial first step

2010-04-17 11:32

Far from being elitist, Earth Hour has seen significant

grassroots participation throughout the world, but possibly less so within South

Africa. We are learning as we go along. ­

Rolling out Earth Hour has helped us to

come up with more creative ways of reaching more constituencies in ­rural and

urban areas.

An event that happens one day a year may not change the world, but

it is an important first step.

Earth Hour aims to raise awareness about climate

change as a social justice issue through the simple, symbolic act of flicking

off a light switch.

Earth Hour’s symbolic gesture starts a conversation and gets

a debate going.

The Earth Hour campaign does not in any way treat ­ordinary

citizens as “sheep”, as claimed in a letter published in City Press recently by

Herman Lategan, “Earth Hour hypocrites”.

Contrary to Lategan’s misguided assumptions, 73% of South African

households have access to electricity, says the latest Development Indicators

report (released by the presidency last year).

This fact challenges Lategan’s

throwaway assertion that “a large chunk of the population has no electricity at


In Africa, as a whole, urbanisation is occurring fast. The demand

for electricity will grow, and we have to work on clean solutions.

Climate change and energy issues will hit the poor hardest.

Actions, even symbolic ones, to raise awareness on climate change and clean

energy are in the interests of the poor.

Lategan also disparages most South Africans as unobservant about

climate change issues and energy debates because they can’t speak the scientific

lingo. An interesting survey by the BBC under the Africa Talks Climate Series is

illuminating in this regard.

The survey covered 1?000 ­citizens in various countries in Africa

and its aim is to ­improve public understanding of climate change through better


Contrary to Lategan’s speculations, the survey found that most

South Africans are, in fact, aware of the phenomena of global climate change,

but that their understanding of the science “is patchy”.

There is a tendency to associate climate change with ­global

impacts rather than ­national or local impacts.

While South Africans may be aware of climate change, they have, on

the whole, done little to change their ­behaviour or lifestyle.

The main ­reason

given for this is the lack of ­cohesive political leadership. Climate change is

seen as a “green issue” that only rich people can afford to do ­something about.

This view has to change.

The survey notes that the ­real challenge is communicating simply

and relating issues to people’s lives and livelihoods. There is a need to

contextualise the debate within a national framework, linking energy-sourcing

and consumption patterns to climate impacts.

These findings, and our learnings from Earth Hour, despite

Lategan’s anxiousness about the “propaganda”, lead us to conclude that Earth

Hour is an important tool in creating a better understanding of the science and

the issues, and how individual action can make a contribution either to the

problem or to the solution within the national context.

) Fakier is head of WWF

South Africa’s Living Planet Unit


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