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Earth Hour a little short



I missed Earth Hour this year.

I know. Gasp.

I really did mean to turn off my lights but somehow I got the days mixed up in my head and I thought it was Sunday instead of Saturday.

People who did turn their lights off can feel free to look down their noses at me for that, or blame me personally for Whistler failing to come even close to the example set by Pemberton. Mea culpa.

What was I doing with the lights on, you may wonder? Watching hockey. Reading. Clicking away on my laptop. In other words, nothing much.

And yet I can't seem to feel too guilty about it. Deep down, I think Earth Hour is actually kind of stupid. No offence to the World Wildlife Fund, but to me Earth Hour is the equivalent of supporting a civil rights march in the '60s by raising your fist in solidarity - while watching it on television.

It's not that I don't get it. I completely understand that it's a symbolic gesture for the most part, something designed to educate and inspire people to be aware of their consumption and the consequences they have on the planet and its endangered species. I don't think anyone was expecting Earth Hour to reverse global climate change in an evening or end our dependence on Middle East Oil.

But I do believe that these symbolic gestures do more harm then good by giving people the (wrong) impression that they're actually doing something to help, that they're part of the solution instead of part of the problem - that these once-a-year, teeny-tiny gestures somehow add up to something significant.

I'm sorry, but we're well past that. The time for feel-good, baby-step moments is long past gone, as most credible climate scientists would tell you. We're now entering the "Change your habits now you dumb, selfish bastard or a lot of us are going to suffer!" stage of the climate change debate. This is the grab, shake and slap stage.

The reality is that changing just one conventional bulb for a compact fluorescent will easily save more power this year than turning off all the lights in your house for one hour.

It's not like you're going to even notice the difference when you get your bill from B.C. Hydro. One hour out of 60 billing days is 1/1,440 th of your total power consumption, and your savings are actually much less than that unless you took the drastic step of throwing the main switch on your fuse box to cut power to your appliances and heaters. Which you probably didn't.

And did you sit in darkness during Earth Hour or light a few candles? Because if you lit a candle then you actually contributed greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and probably did more harm than good in the grand scheme of things. According to my research a million candles lit during Earth Hour equals roughly 295 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

The truth is that electric lights - even lights powered by coal and fossil fuel stations - produces less greenhouse gas than using candles, and most of our electricity in B.C. is renewable.

Plus, candles remain a leading cause of home fires - and torched cat hair, as B.C. environment minister Barry Penner discovered during Earth Hour.

There are a few other reasons why Earth Hour is kind of dumb. One is the fact that you can't store electricity, which means that any power saved in B.C. was likely diverted elsewhere on the grid or wasted. That might have reduced the need for a few shovels full of coal in other regions but I'm sure the difference was too small to measure.

Another reason it's dumb is the fact that the vast majority of B.C.'s power is generated by renewable hydro-electric energy. There are exceptions, like when demand spikes during heat waves and cold snaps and we import power from generators in Alberta or Washington State, but generally speaking our power is pretty clean comparatively.

We could always do better, and a law banning regular filament bulbs - similar to the law in the U.S. that comes into effect in 2011 - would go a long way towards actually reducing demand for electricity and new hydro projects. It's been estimated that B.C. could cut power consumption by a third just by focusing on efficiency - smart grid, smart meters, better insulation, lower watt bulbs, etc.

Every region in the world is unique and should focus on the initiatives that make most sense to them. Since most of B.C.'s energy is renewable, our province should focus on reducing carbon from transportation by focusing on things like bike lanes, public transportation and cleaning up industry. Capping the sprawl in the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley and Interior is also a pretty good idea.

I don't want to belittle anyone who participated in Earth Hour - as long as people understand that the gesture itself is meaningless when compared to the message. Weighed against the problems facing the earth right now, one hour seems a little bit short.