How Earth Hour Australia Has Had To Change With The Times

In 2007, climate change registered as a top four priority for Australians. In 2014, it had dropped to #12. How does a campaign like Earth Hour change strategy in a political climate like this?

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

When Earth Hour was launched back in 2007, the Australian climate debate was a very different beast.

Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth had galvanised the movement, bringing awareness of the climate crisis into the mainstream. Kevin Rudd was leading the Labor Party, and believed climate change to be “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”. The Kyoto Protocol was on the agenda, and the issue as a whole was “ripening”:  a term coined by social change activist Bill Moyer to describe the third stage of social movements, when new evidence and worsening conditions lead to broader awareness.

Climate change had come out of virtually nowhere, and was suddenly a big issue in Australia and beyond. It was the perfect time for an event like Earth Hour — a celebrity-backed symbolic affair that started in Sydney, in collaboration between Fairfax Media, Leo Burnett Sydney and WWF. The idea behind it was simple: Turn off your lights for an hour once a year, to show other people who care about climate change that they aren’t alone.

By the next year, Earth Hour had gone global — held in 35 countries and over 400 cities, across all seven continents – and today, it engages over 7000 cities and towns around the world. But things have changed a whole lot since then. And the Earth Hour campaign has had to change with it.

“When I started at Earth Hour, a bit over a year and a half ago, we’d just come through a really bruising and very politicised debate about climate change,” says Anna Rose, the national manager of Earth Hour Australia. “The carbon price legislation was repealed, we got a government who was taking Australia backwards on our climate change commitments, and the context for Earth Hour had completely changed.” In 2007, some polls placed climate change as a top four priority issue for Australians; but by 2013, most polls showed it didn’t rate in the top ten, and it was virtually absent from that year’s election campaign – a result of failed policy campaigns from Gillard and Rudd, successful attacks against them by the Liberal Party, or a general failure of the environmental movement itself, depending on who you ask.

Regardless of who’s to blame, most climate campaigns these days don’t get as much cut-through as they used to; in Tony Abbott’s Australia, the climate issue is seen as too political to touch. But Earth Hour – with its mainstream, non-threatening beginnings, and it’s general vibe of community goodwill – has somehow remained a broad church, supported by (some) conservatives, progressives, councils, schools and celebrities across the country. “So that puts us in a very powerful position.”

Celebrity endorsements aside, the campaign certainly is powerful: the organisation’s polling has found one in three Australians turned off their lights for Earth Hour (or at least claimed to), and the organisers cite 92% brand recognition in Australia. Last year, they got around $5 million worth of media coverage, and $2 million worth of free advertising; a feat that no other Australian climate campaign comes near achieving.

But are they using that reach and money well?

A 2012 article by Maggie Koerth-Baker on Huffington Post summarised the key arguments made against Earth Hour fairly neatly: 1) It has been framed in such a way as to make people think that their one hour of no lights will help the environment, when in some instances there’s actually an uptick in emissions; 2) It spreads the unhelpful message that we have to reject modernity in order to save the world; and 3) It makes people think that, once the hour is up, they’ve done their bit.

Another argument, articulated by Simon Copland, is that Earth Hour – and the climate movement more broadly — has failed to link action with actual science. And a final argument, expressed by Chris Kenny yesterday, seems to be that everything is the worst and he hates it all.

“’Lights Out’ was misinterpreted by some parts of the media as being about saving energy,” Anna Rose concedes, when I bring up those opposing points. While the main event is still important – “It’s about galvanising around a particular moment, to drive home a message” —  Earth Hour have tried to respond to the changed context by changing their strategy, working with the wider climate movement to focus on specific, year-round messages that communicate what’s at stake.

“We’re trying to leverage a brand that is very mainstream and positive, to reach out to more diverse groups – regional and remote communities, for instance – that other parts of the movement would find it difficult to reach,” Rose says. “We want to use Earth Hour as the moment to unite Australians around something that resonates with everyone.”

Like food, for instance. And wonderfully terrible puns.

2014 was the first year that Earth Hour Australia had a specific theme: it was all about saving the Great Barrier Reef. This year, their message is focused on farming and food sustainability.

Earlier this week, they brought a group of Australian farmers to Canberra to promote Earth Hour, and lobby MPs across the political spectrum for climate action. Over the weekend, Sydney-based independent brewery Young Henry’s will launch the #savetheales campaign; head to an event in Marrickville, and you can taste a special craft beer – Drought Draught — brewed to showcases how beer will taste if climate change has its way with hops and barley.

At 4pm on Saturday, Channel Ten will screen ‘Appetite For Change’ – Earth Hour’s official documentary about how rising temperatures and extreme weather conditions are already affecting farmers.

And then there’s the just-released Planet To Plate Earth Hour cookbook: a beautifully-designed hard-cover collectible which marries original recipes from celebrities and chefs like Matt Preston, Kylie Kwong, Dan Hong, Miguel Maestre and Margaret Fulton; anecdotes from farmers about how climate change is affecting their livelihood; information about how extreme weather conditions are threatening your favourite ingredients; and more general science about climate change.

“For me, Earth Hour is the biggest excuse to have a conversation about climate change in a non-threatening way. And it’s our role, as Earth Hour organisers, to provide material that will help those conversations take place. So that’s the cookbook, that’s the documentary, that’s the media and free advertising that we generate,” Rose says. “How cool would it be if you could have a conversation with your mum about climate change on Mother’s Day, because you just happened to give her this cookbook instead of some other one?”

Success for Earth Hour looks the same as success for the whole climate movement: to make climate change a top priority for Australians, so it becomes unviable for our politicians to ignore it. To get there, it needs to keep capitalising on its reach by spreading as much information as it spreads good vibes and goodwill.

Earth Hour happens from 8.30pm on Saturday March 28.

The Earth Hour documentary, ‘Appetite for Change’, is screening from 4pm on Channel Ten; the Earth Hour cookbook is available for $40 (+ postage) from here; and to try Young Henry’s ‘Drought Drapht’, head to the Feather & Bone in Marrickville from 6-10pm on Saturday March 28.