Why Won't Obama Turn Down His Lights for Earth Hour?

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

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The Obama Administration is apparently taking a pass on a major opportunity to lead Americans to confront climate change.

On Saturday night at 8:30 p.m., wherever they are, millions of people around the world will turn off their lights as part of Earth Hour, the third annual international effort to lower carbon emissions. Organizers say 2398 cities, towns, and municipalities in 83 countries have planned events, parties, and mass turn-offs, so to speak.

The Empire State building is going dark. So is the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. Even Las Vegas is dimming its famous Strip. Washington, D.C., is turning down exterior lights on government buildings, Egypt's government is turning off the lights at the Great Pyramids, France's president is turning off the lights on the Eiffel Tower and government buildings ...

... And Barack Obama's White House is doing virtually nothing, ScienceInsider has found.

The Administration has made no announcements about turning off or dimming lights at the White House, major federal buildings, monuments, or U.S. government facilities. No educational or outreach events are planned on what's the closest thing to an international commemoration day for global warming.

In the last month, officials with the World Wildlife Fund met with White House environmental officials as well as congressional leaders to urge their participation. But, 3 days away from the historic event, there's no indication that the federal government is planning much more than putting a banner ad on the Environmental Protection Agency Web site.

A call to the Council on Environmental Quality at the White House yielded little but a suggestion that this reporter call EPA. EPA mentioned the ad. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office said nothing was planned.

It's unclear why the White House and Congress have so far remained reticent. Oddly, a likely ally of Earth Hour within the White House is council head Nancy Sutley, former deputy mayor of Los Angeles, which last year was a flagship city in the event. But security concerns may be overriding her interest, or it might be bureaucratic snags. Or, amid reports that the Administration and Congress may soft-pedal climate change legislation this year, perhaps the Obama team doesn't want to highlight the issue.

Nick Sundt of WWF says if turning down White House lights wasn't possible for security reasons, the Administration could highlight climate change impacts around the country in a special event, promote energy-efficiency measures, or generally rally Americans to participate in an event that began with 2.2 million people in Sydney in 2007 and involved millions more last year in 35 countries. But there's no indication Obama's going to do that.

Last year, the Bush Administration turned down lights in 127 federal buildings in six states, had a park ranger lead a public Earth Hour event at San Francisco's Golden Gate Recreation Area, and had an EPA official sitting on the Earth Hour steering committee in Chicago.

So far, Sundt is aware of two Obama Administration moves: Lights on the Bunker Hill monument in Boston will be dimmed, as will lights on the Department of Energy's Wilson Hall in Batavia, Illinois.

"We hope that the Administration and members of Congress will recognize the importance of their participation and the message it would send to the rest of the world and participate by turning off some lights," says Sundt. His group is running the American portion of the event. "We also hope that the Administration will regard Earth Hour as a way to inform and engage the public on climate change, just as the federal government has traditionally used Earth Day to educate the public about general environmental issues."

Posted in Policy, Climate