The floodlit cream shells of the famed Opera House dimmed Saturday as Sydney became the world's first major city to plunge itself into darkness for the second worldwide Earth Hour, a global campaign to highlight the threat of climate change.
From the Great Pyramids to the Acropolis, the London Eye to the Las Vegas strip, nearly 4,000 cities and towns in 88 countries planned to join in the World Wildlife Fund-sponsored event, a time zone-by-time zone plan to dim nonessential lights between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
Involvement in the effort has exploded since last year's Earth Hour, which drew participation from 400 cities after Sydney held a solo event in 2007. Interest has spiked ahead of planned negotiations on a new global warming treaty in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December. The last global accord, the Kyoto Protocol, is set to expire in 2012.
Despite the boost in interest from the Copenhagen negotiations, organizers initially worried enthusiasm for this year's event would wane with the world's attention focused largely on the global economic crisis, Earth Hour executive director Andy Ridley told The Associated Press. Strangely enough, he said, it's seemed to have the opposite effect.
"Earth Hour has always been a positive campaign; it's always around street parties, not street protests, it's the idea of hope not despair. And I think that's something that's been incredibly important this year because there is so much despair around," he said. "On the other side of it, there's savings in cutting your power usage and being more sustainable and more efficient."
Most electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, a process that emits carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas tied to warming. While renewable energy sources like solar and wind have no direct carbon emissions, they have yet to displace fossil fuels due to costs and efficiencies.
Bathed in shadows
In Australia, people attended candlelit speed-dating events and gathered at outdoor concerts as the hour of darkness rolled through the country. Sydney's glittering harbor was bathed in shadows as lights dimmed on the steel arch of the city's iconic Harbour Bridge and the nearby Opera House.
Earlier Saturday, the Chatham Islands, a group of small islands about 500 miles east of New Zealand, officially kicked off Earth Hour by switching off its diesel generators. Soon after, the lights of Auckland's Sky Tower, the tallest man-made structure in New Zealand, blinked off.
Forty-four New Zealand towns and cities participated in the event, and more than 60,000 people showed up for an Earth Hour-themed hot air ballooning festival in the city of Hamilton.
At Scott Base in Antarctica, New Zealand's 26-member winter team resorted to minimum safety lighting and switched off appliances and computers.
China was participating in the campaign for the first time, with Beijing turning off the lights at its Bird's Nest Stadium and Water Cube, the most prominent venues for the Olympics, according to WWF. Shanghai was also cutting lights in all government buildings and other structures on its waterfront, while Hong Kong, Baoding, Changchun, Dalian, Nanjing and Guangzhou were also participating, WWF said.
However, the official WWF Earth Hour Web site appeared to be blocked in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin on Saturday afternoon. While China rarely gives reasons for blocking Web sites, the campaign coincided with the 50th anniversary of the suppression of an uprising in Tibet that forced the Dalai Lama to go into exile.
'Symphony of Lights' takes break
In Hong Kong, the government planned to suspend its nightly "Symphony of Lights," which beams lasers and lights into the sky from 44 buildings on the city's famed Victoria Harbor. Landmarks along the harbor also were to switch off nonessential lights for an hour.
Later Saturday, Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva planned to press a button to turn off the lights at Khao San Road, a famous haven for budget travelers in Bangkok that is packed with bars and outdoor cafes.
Lights were to go down at the Grand Palace and other riverside monuments, and businesses along some of the Thai capital's busiest boulevards were also asked to participate, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration said in a statement.
The capital hoped to reduce electricity consumption in the city of more than 8 million people by at least 30 percent — or 1,400 megawatts — during the event. Earth Hour organizers say there's no uniform way to measure how much energy is saved worldwide.
Earth Hour 2009 has garnered support from global corporations, nonprofit groups, schools, scientists and celebrities — including Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett and retired Cape Town Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
McDonald's Corp. planned to dim its arches at 500 locations around the Midwest in the United States. The Marriott, Ritz-Carlton and Fairmont hotel chains and Coca-Cola Co. also planned to participate.
'Nonsense' or urgent priority?
New studies increasingly highlight the ongoing effects of climate change, said Richard Moss, a member of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and WWF's climate change vice president.
"We have satellites and we have ships out at sea and we have monitoring stations set up on buoys in the ocean," Moss said. "We monitor all kinds of things people wouldn't even think about. The scientific research is showing in all kinds of ways that the climate crisis is worsening."
But not everyone agrees and at least one counter-protest is planned for Saturday.
Suburban Philadelphia ice cream shop owner Bob Gerenser believes global warming is based on faulty science and calls Earth Hour "nonsense." The resident of New Hope, Pa., planned to illuminate his store with extra theatrical lighting.
"I'm going to get everyone I know in my neighborhood to turn on every light they possibly can to waste as much electricity as possible to underline the absurdity of this action ... by being absurd," he said.
In the U.S., 220 cities, towns and villages have signed on — from New York City to Igiugig, population 53 on Iliamna Lake in southwestern Alaska.
Among the efforts in Chicago, 50,000 light bulbs at tourist hotspot Navy Pier will dim and 24 spotlights that shine on Sears Tower's twin spires will go dark.
"We're the most visible building in the city," said Angela Burnett, a Sears Tower property manager. "Turning off the lights for one hour on a Saturday night shows our commitment to sustainability."
The Commonwealth Edison utility said electricity demand fell by 5 percent in Chicago and northern Illinois during last year's Earth Hour, reducing about 840,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.