Tonight, thousands of Australians will switch off their lights for Earth Hour. They will be joined by millions of people around the world united by their concern for climate change. Whether or not you will one of those turning the lights off tonight, I ask you to switch on your social conscience.

While most people in the developed world have the luxury of participating in a self-imposed blackout for an hour, billions of people in developing countries have no choice. For them, even fossil fuels are too expensive.

Without electricity, essential services like healthcare, refrigerated medicines, food storage, communications and information technology are often out of reach, and socioeconomic development constrained. “From an economic standpoint energy poverty is a serious hindrance to growth,” writes Natalie Relich from Americans for Energy Leadership. “Households and countries as a whole cannot develop economically if a significant portion of the population is living in energy poverty.”

The International Energy Agency’s World Energy outlook 2010 highlights the scale of the problem:

“…there are 1.4 billion people around the world that lack access to electricity, some 85% of them in rural areas. Without additional dedicated policies, by 2030 the number of people drops, but only to 1.2 billion. Some 15% of the world’s population still lack access, the majority of them living in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

“The number of people relying on the traditional use of biomass is projected to rise from 2.7 billion today to 2.8 billion in 2030. Using World Health Organisation estimates, linked to our projections of biomass use, it is estimated that household air pollution from the use of biomass in inefficient stoves would lead to over 1.5 million premature deaths per year, over 4 000 per day, in 2030, greater than estimates for premature deaths from malaria, tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS.”

Climate change policies and campaigns must account for energy poverty and development. Until renewable energy is cheaper than coal and other fossil fuels, developing nations are destined to build carbon-intensive energy infrastructures, making it more difficult for the world to decarbonise.

As many have noted before me, climate change is not a problem of energy consumption; it’s a problem borne of our present-day dependence on fossil fuels. Nevertheless, the Earth Hour campaign doesn’t make the distinction between energy use and sources. The global energy system will not be transformed by switching off our electricity; it will be achieved by unleashing the power and ingenuity of humankind.

The current messaging of Earth Hour is trapped in what Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger call a ‘politics of limits.’ Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue that environmentalists understand human actions as intrusions that pollute and harm ‘the environment’ because they construct it as pure, natural, distinct and separate from humans. Within this framework, environmental politics is primarily concerned with limiting such intrusions (hence the logic; turn off your lights for an hour and limit your climate change impacts). Providing energy equality for the world’s poor does not factor into the equation.

Eliminating energy poverty while maintaining a stable climate demands we take a different perspective than that provided by Earth Hour. Instead of maintaining an event that presents a distorted view of climate change and its solutions, Earth Hour should call attention to the need for cheap and accessible renewable energy technologies. The message we should send to our leaders is that millions of people around the world switch off their lights in solidarity with those who cannot turn them on. And we demand renewable energy for all.

Critics of Earth Hour brand the campaign ‘anti-progress’ and ‘anti-technology.’ They reject moralising climate change discourse that promotes self-sacrifice and the notion that humans ought to be ashamed of enjoying the benefits of a modern economy. The US-based libertarian think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute was so incensed by Earth Hour it created a competing event—Human Achievement Hour—that reframes fossil-fuel energy as a symbol of human greatness.

Of course it’s worthwhile to consider the benefits of electricity a human achievement. However, given that our energy system is changing the climate and leaves billions in dire energy poverty, this human achievement is partial at best. With a new vision for universal access to cheap renewable electricity, the WWF can challenge the Earth Hour’s detractors, broaden its public support, and draw attention to policies that address climate change and eliminate energy poverty.

Solving climate change means providing the world with cheap renewable energy. Until Earth Hour adopts this as its key message, I will not participate.

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