Q&A: Why Bjorn Lomborg won’t be turning off the lights during Earth Hour

Earth Hour is upon us again — the annual event organized by the World Wide Fund for Nature ​that asks individuals to "take accountability for their ecological footprint" by turning off the lights for an hour. But environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg is not convinced of its effectiveness.
Bjorn Lomborg, the director of Copenhagen Consensus Center and adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School, believes Earth Hour is an 'ineffective feel-good event' that sends the wrong message about electricity, and ignores the plight of millions living in darkness. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

If you're curious why the lights have dimmed in your neighbourhood around 8:30 Saturday night, don't fret. Earth Hour is upon us again — the annual event organized by the World Wide Fund for Nature ​that asks individuals to "take accountabiilty for their ecological footprint" by turning off the lights for an hour.

But not everyone is convinced of its effectiveness. Environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, the director of Copenhagen Consensus Center and adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School believes Earth Hour is an "ineffective feel-good event" that sends the wrong message about electricity and ignores the plight of millions living in darkness.

The author of the best-selling book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World spoke to CBC's Mark Gollom about the annual event. You wrote a column about this last year and again this year. Earth Hour really seems to get your goat.

Lomborg: I think it’s a good way to get attention to the main problem of global warming. Namely that, yes it is a real problem but we’re not fixing it. I think we have no sense of the scale involved.

We don’t burn fossil fuels to annoy Al Gore. Because fundamentally it underpins pretty much everything we like about civilization. Really changing our emissions of CO2 is not going to be about switching off lights for an hour, it's going to be about something much much more.

I sympathize with the organizers, they’ve got something that really caught on, and they got everybody excited about this, and everybody says ‘I care about global warming.’ But I think in some fundamental way it sends the wrong message. 

I fear … that we very easily end up saying that 'I switched off my light, so now it’s OK to go on a vacation or something else that’s going to blow a lot more CO2s.'

So [Earth Hour] tells us that it's about these little things and it's an easy fix, neither of which are right. And it possibly provides us with cover to feel good about whatever else we’re doing. But you've called Earth Hour a colossal waste of time. How could doing anything for an hour be a colossal waste of time. Especially when they're saying that this is mostly symbolic and not meant to be a carbon reduction exercise.

Lomborg: I think they’ve certainly changed their rhetoric over the last couple of years on this — I’m hopeful in some way because of my argument. But if what we want to do is to get people's attention to global warming, I think we’ve succeeded enormously.

The Earth Hour guys are having the easy conversation once again. Instead of engaging in the hard conversation which is to say: 'We’re not going to fix this with current solar and wind [power], and throwing more money at solar and wind is essentially wasting lots of money to achieve virtually nothing.' 
The lights on the Lions Gate bridge in West Vancouver go off during Earth Hour last year. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

We will need much better technology. We need to invest a lot more in research and development into green technology, which is not yet ready but should be ready so that everyone, and the Chinese and Indians, will buy it.

And that’s the conversation that we're avoiding by just having this other showcase of how good a person you are by switching off the lights for an hour. You suggest that Earth Hour seems to be celebrating darkness. But organizers themselves say that they don't want to banish electricity and that they in fact actually embrace technology and that it's through technology you'll develop sustainable resources.

Lomborg: 1.3 billion people still don't have access to modern forms of electricity. About three billion people use fuels like dung and cardboard and twigs to keep warm and cook.

This is the world's biggest environmental problem. Not global warming, not even outdoor air pollution, it's indoor air pollution that kills 4.3 million people.

I appreciate that the [Earth Hour] organizers will say 'but ‘we’re all for electricity, we’re all for technology’ and that’s all good and sound.

But it is a celebration of darkness. We turn off the lights for an hour and it sends the signal that’s what we need to do in order to tackle global warming. And that’s simply not what we need to do, especially not for the three billion people in the world that need more light. Well if Earth Hour is giving the wrong signal by celebrating darkness, should we have an hour celebrating the use of electricity?

Lomborg: (Laughs) I tend to be one of these boring people that think it’s important to get the all signals right and that means I won't be able to do it as catchy as Earth Hour. But we definitely need to recognize that electricity has been a phenomenal achievement.

We have to face up to the fact that we use and we get most of our energy from fossil fuels.

This does not mean we shouldn't also try to fix global warming but it means right now more people in Third World countries need to get light. And we need to make sure that that light in the next two to four decades is a green light. Not now, but in the next couple decades. So what will Bjorn Lomborg be doing at 8:30 p.m on Saturday?

Lomborg: I’m not going to switch off my lights but I‘m not going to make a demonstration out of it. I think they have good intentions but my problem with this is that I think it leads to all the wrong conclusions and that’s what I’m challenging. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.