On Saturday, 7000 cities across 52 countries in the world all dimmed their lights to participate in 2014’s Earth Hour, a global project to raise awareness on climate change. This year, the project is focusing on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which is dying, allegedly due to climate change and other detrimental factors. While many people are saying that the event will have little effect and is a waste of time, it is still an extremely visible message geared towards man’s responsibility for the ecosystem. More importantly, Earth Hour gives hope to Australia that their precious landmark, the Great Barrier Reef, will be saved.
While the event’s message is about climate change in general, the focus on the Great Barrier Reef for this year comes none too soon. Scientists have been reporting that the reef, a popular tourist destination and a World Heritage site, has already suffered irreversible damage due to climate change and other human activities, including dredging. Parts of the reef, composed of living coral, are already dead and others are deteriorating at a rapid pace. This is not just bad for the coral, but for the fish and other sea creatures that live in the reef. Without their natural habitat, thousands of these animals will die.
The Great Barrier Reef is a priceless natural wonder that people visit in droves every year to admire and be in awe of. Australians are proud of their reef and, since Earth Hour is an Australian created event, they are hopeful that the awareness campaign will help them preserve their natural resource. After certain decisions by the Abbott government, many are concerned about the reef’s future and how long it is going to last.
The Abbott government’s policy towards the reef is not one of preservation. Conservation groups have launched legal actions after the announcement of a plan to develop Abbot Point (not related to Prime Minister Tony Abbott) and after a decision to allow dumping of dredge soil in reef waters. The Abbot Point development allows for developers to expand coal exportation terminals. The building up of these terminals and the resulting waste will have disastrous effects on the reef, parts of which will be destroyed to make way for the new construction. At the same time, the effect of more boats and emissions on the reef could well be incalculable over time.
The decision to allow dumping in reef waters, however, is what really riled up the usually laid back Australians. Dumping any kind of waste in those waters will affect the life that exists there. Some chemicals will simply kill off coral and other sea life or prevent it from growing any further. Dredging, the process of excavating the ocean floor with machinery will have an immediate effect on the reef, as will the dumping of dredge soil which often contains harmful chemicals or substances. Right now, the Great Barrier Reef is the only living thing visible from space, but that might change soon if dumping dredging are allowed to continue.
Australians, who are passionate about their country and its natural wonders, are trying to get this decision stopped in order to save their environment, but they know they cannot do it alone. By stopping people from directly destroying the reef, they are doing their part to save it. Climate change, however, remains one of the worst culprits in its demise and that is a global issue.
Climate change increases the temperature of the water, which is killing off a certain bacteria that lives in the coral and keeps it healthy. As these bacteria die, the coral bleach and become pale as they slowly die. Some coral may survive, but they are more susceptible to diseases afterwards and it is only a matter of time before they too die. This does not involve a drastic change in water temperature, which is already forecast to happen as our polar icecaps melt. As little as a rise of one degree will cause coral bleaching, affecting the health of the entire reef. If the rate of climate change continues, the reef will not be able to adapt through evolutionary methods and it will simply cease to exist at all.
Because climate change is caused by humans living everywhere, not just in Australia, this year’s event is especially important in trying to save the Great Barrier Reef. Earth Hour is worldwide and visible as important landmarks like the Sydney Opera House, the Empire State Building, and even Las Vegas’ casinos all go dark to send a message about people’s responsibility to the ecosystem. As more and more people see the lights dim and understand why it is happening, more people will be aware of their impact on the environment. Australians are hoping that Earth Hour will do some good for the Great Barrier Reef by encouraging people to make even a small change in their habits.
Critics, though, are not optimistic about the event. A symbolic gesture is not what will really change the climate. In fact, some are warning that turning off all the lights not only doesn’t change the amount of electricity being produce and, therefore, doesn’t change the amount of carbon dioxide emissions, it might actually increase emissions. The small drop in emissions is offset by an increase in emissions from other sources like coal that have to be used to ramp up production when the demand returns. The idea of Earth Hour, then, is ridiculous and changes nothing.
The value of symbolism, however, should not be discounted. Humanity needs symbols to look to in order to feel connected to each other, in order to know why change is necessary, and in order to be made aware that change is possible. If a bunch of party people in Las Vegas see the famous lights on the strip go dark, they will be inclined to wonder why. Hearing about Earth Hour that way may be the impetus they need to change something in their lives. In a world where lights are running 24/7, not having a light where it is expected to be is a highly visible and symbolic moment.
Despite the criticism, however valid it may be, there were still millions of people who did their part on Saturday. The simple flicking of a switch conveys an important message: there is something people can do to have a positive effect on the environment. As people lit candles or looked up at important landmarks like the Empire State Building in all its darkened glory, the visible nature of Earth Hour’s message took hold and people were actually thinking actively about their responsibility to the ecosystem. That gives Australians in particular a little more hope for the imperiled Great Barrier Reef and the environment in the rest of the world.
Opinion By Lydia Webb