If you knew the future depended on it, would you turn off the lights you aren’t using?

By Dr. Lin Chambers, NASA Scientist for GLOBE

A few weeks ago I spent an evening visiting relatives (they shall remain unidentified to protect the guilty).  When I arrived at the house, there were several lights on.  I rang the doorbell.  I knocked.  The dog barked, but no one answered.  The door was not locked, so I went into the house and said hello to the dog.  The house has a main floor, an upper floor, and a basement.  There were lights on at all three levels.  I called out – no one answered on the main level.  I went to the stairs and called up – no one answered.  I went to the basement stairs and called down – still no answer, but now I could hear voices.  I walked downstairs and found the television on, but still no people.  Hmmmm….

I headed back to the main level.  At that point, the parents of the family came home and I learned that their boys had been home most recently, and had left all these lights and things on.   Hmmm….

There has been much discussion about how sure we are about the prospects for climate change and resulting bad effects, and whether therefore we need to begin to take action now.  While we do not yet know the exact timing, size, and details of these bad impacts, this experience with the “house of lights” made me wonder:  How sure would someone have to be about climate change impacts to take such simple actions as turning off the light or the television when they are not even in the room (or the house!)?

An interesting – and entertaining – discussion on the related question of risk assessment can be found on YouTube.

Teddy Roosevelt, US President from 1901-1909 said:  “[Future generations] will reproach us, not for what we have used, but for what we have wasted…”

In this case, it was the other way around:  I found myself reproaching the younger generation for the waste in the “house of lights”.  Because really, one of the best and easiest ways to address the risks of climate change is to stop wasting energy and it is also a win-win-win-win scenario:
Win 1:  It reduces power bills (saves money)
Win 2:  It reduces the demand for energy and thus the need to construct more power plants
Win 3:  It reduces the pollution created as a by product of electricity generation
Win 4:  It reduces the emission of greenhouse gases that trap additional heat in our atmosphere.

Some might make the argument that turning lights off has other negative consequences, but the TV show Myth Busters demonstrated very scientifically that this is not the case.

Others might argue that one person turning out a light can’t possibly make a difference, but here is a nice activity that presents some back of the envelope calculations on how the impact can be multiplied if every “one” person takes that same action. It adds up!

So how about it?  Are you sure enough about the possible risks to turn off lights you aren’t using?  Given the win-win-win-win of the situation, I know I am!

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