24 November 2014

The invisible problem of light

Līza L writes:*

After the 1994 earthquake knocked out power in Los Angeles, local emergency centers received calls from anxious residents who reported a strange “giant, silvery cloud” in the dark sky that they had never seen before. They were reporting the Milky Way – the galaxy that contains our Solar System. As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Rīga, the capital of Latvia, I find it comic that people had never seen the Milky Way before. What is less comic is that this is the reality for millions of urban people around the world.

Source: www.stellarium.org
The stars in very urbanized and industrial cities have become (almost) non-existent. It’s not that stars are suddenly dying out; they are simply hidden from view because of urban sky glow. Due to urbanization at least half the kids in any given population are growing up in urban areas where most of the light pollution is happening, and they might not know what a sky full of stars looks like. They are not presented with the stark contrast of a countryside sky and a city sky if they barely leave cities, so they don’t realize there is a problem. And it’s not just kids but adults too – while light pollution is now talked about more, many adults don’t realize that all the artificial light in cities is creating problems not only for their health, but for ecosystems disturbed by artificial light. Most wildlife follows diurnal patterns of dark and light so their interactions might alter and overall physiological harm can be done to plants and animals alike.

Light pollution is, in a sense, similar to the problems presented as a consequence of fisheries depletion because people don’t necessarily see the strong impacts in their immediate environment. People who assume there isn’t a problem are mistaken. Similarly to ocean fisheries, people feel like they are far away from the light pollution problem. This false perception creates an imaginary distance between individuals and "unattainable" solutions. But of all the pollution we face, light pollution is probably most easily remedied because most of the solutions are quite simple, such as changing the type of light used or improving light fixtures so that light isn’t leaked. So even if raising awareness of light pollution and its harmful consequences to the general public is too difficult, it shouldn’t be too difficult to change policies and reduce light pollution.

Bottom Line: Light pollution is an ‘invisible’ problem which can be easily remedied. Even if we cannot make the problem ‘visible’ to the general public, simple policies can substantially reduce that pollution -- and bring back the stars.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

14 comments:

  1. OK, what is the simple solution?
    I live where the Milky Way is visible every night, but there are few people here. Are you suggesting that we turn off the lights in a city or get rid of cities? Both of those actions have huge externalities. Are you suggesting that we reduce the population of the Earth substantially and spread the remaining people across the planet, another solution with huge externalities?

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  2. I read this and was reminded about how much of history humans saw so much in the night sky. I also remembered this post from a few days ago:

    http://inhabitat.com/what-city-skies-would-look-like-without-light-pollution/

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  3. Kristian E G Kristensen25 November, 2014 15:08

    I believe you are completely right that light pollution is a big problem, and that it should be made visible to the public and to policy makers. However, I wonder to what extent? I think it would be useful for the argument to provide a few specific examples as to how exactly light affect wildlife, and maybe also regarding where these problems of light pollution are most prominent. E.g. Is light pollution in cities more acceptable than light pollution at a remote industrial facility given that there are smaller amounts of wildlife in the city.
    Surely also the ease of a solution would depend on where you wish to make an effort to reduce light, no?

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  4. It feels good to say that there is light pollution and that we should decrease it so that all humans can see more stars. What is an economic analysis with externalities of light pollution? How many humans care about light pollution and what are they willing to pay out of their own pockets to decrease it?

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  5. Your text leaves me wondering the same thing as the other commentators - whats exactly can we do to fix this problem? Switching off the lights sounds a bit extreme..and how exactly can governments get businesses and private households to 'make the switch'? Are there any new technologies which could somehow combine our 'need' for light at all times and less pollution?

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  6. Dear Kristian,
    Thank you for your comment. I'll try to address both of your remarks (although I might not provide a clear-cut answer).
    Light pollution has various effects on wildlife, such as impact on migration patterns, prey-predator relationships, food webs among many others, and it is hard to prioritize their effects because they interact within the ecosystems. The effects are most prominent in the industrialized areas, mostly cities because that’s where most of the outdoor lighting is situated. But just because there is a higher incidence of light pollution, doesn’t automatically make it more acceptable. The main reason being that cities have a much bigger effect on the surrounding wildlife the effects can extend for hundreds of kilometers beyond city limits (which would not be the case for a remote industrial facility – its impact would be limited to a smaller area). And either way, pollution is still pollution, so why should we accept it? Surely we should protect ourselves and the wildlife around us from the detrimental effects?
    I feel like the ease of solution would depend more on the scale, not on the location. Small communities might have an easier time reducing their outdoor lighting because they have direct control over it while governments might have it easier because they have to create policies that should “fit” the different places within their territory. But the reason why governmental policies might be preferred is because then you avoid fragmentation among the policies for light pollution control.

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  7. Liza L.;
    Please provide a 10 year cost benefit analysis. How much might it cost to let trees, mushrooms, or squirrels sleep better at night? How much per squirrel? Who will pay this cost and why? How much of the added taxes will actually support the sleeping of new government bureaucrats and not squirrels? Do you have any data on the cost to wildlife, species by species, of added night at light?

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  8. Dear Umlud,

    Thank you for your comment. I've actually seen those pictures a few times before! It's amazing to see how much of space would actually be visible to us with a naked eye if there was no light pollution. But it also makes me sad because we are definitely missing out on some of this beauty because of the pollution.

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  9. Liza L.,
    People in cities who do not like the extra light could move to the country where they can see the stars. Shouldn't that individualized answer be on your list of solutions?

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  10. Dear Casey,

    Thank you for your comment. There are various ways to go about this problem - government regulations on light fixtures, citizen education about the effects of light pollution, switching to certain types of light bulbs (e.g. LEDs that have no blue-white spectrum) and several others. We don't have to switch off light completely, it's not necessary and is highly unlikely to happen. But we can become 'smarter' about how we use light in our daily lives, and the government could regulate the light under its control better also. The ways in which this can be done is to actually light only the areas that need to be lit, and developing light fixtures that don't allow light trespass in the horizontal plane. These are just a few examples of the potential solutions that might be relatively easy to implement.
    Reduction of light pollution has high benefits in comparison to the costs right now. And if we wait in 'making the switch' the costs will only rise. Policies can be implemented to get businesses to switch and if we educate citizens on the benefits of reducing their light "consumption", they might be willing to switch over too. We have most of the tools necessary for reducing light pollution, we just have to put them to use.

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  11. Dear Eric,
    Thank you for your comments. I will attempt to tackle some of the questions/problems you have raised in my answer.
    The policy suggestions you mentioned in your first comment seem very radical to me. Getting rid of urbanized areas or reducing the world's population are solutions that would be very hard to achieve. In addition, like you mentioned, both would have big negative externalities. In addition, for the latter solution we would be treading a very morally ambiguous ground if such policy was pursued. As for turning lights off in the city - this might not be such a bad idea. We might not be able to get rid of all the lights but a large proportion of artificial light at night is there for aesthetics and as such we don't need them per se. In addition, lights in cities are usually used because claims are being made that artificial light improves safety during nighttime. This is a false claim, because studies have found that increased artificial light use during nighttime has no deterrence effect on crime rates.
    There are various negative externalities to light pollution. Some of these include disturbance of ecosystems (the value of the ecosystems disturbed, in the US, would have a value of around 250.8 billion per year), lower melatonin levels in human and animals alike which can lead to higher chances of developing cancer (and thus high medical bills), and also huge amounts of light is wasted, translating in energy losses (almost 7 billion dollars are annually lost in the US due to this) and unnecessary CO2 emissions (adding up to a cost of about 6.6 billion when the social cost of carbon is taken into account). The costs carried by three main players – the environment, the governments, and the individuals. But the environment is carrying the biggest costs right now; however it is likely that eventually either individuals or governments will start paying the price of light pollution (even if they will carry the costs indirectly).
    The problem with people caring, as I outlined in my post is that most are unaware that it is even happening. The costs of reducing light pollution on an individual level would be relatively low because individuals would simply have to use different light fixtures/bulbs such as LEDs (the up-front cost might be higher but they can be used for a longer time period so they are actually more affordable).
    But the benefit of seeing stars will not outweigh the opportunities lost by individuals if they move away from urbanized areas. It would not be an incentive that could work and it is highly unlikely that people would be willing to make such a sacrifice. It is unlikely to be a solution either, because eventually these remote areas will turn into urbanized areas (due to humans organizing themselves in communities) and light pollution will become a problem there too. We don’t solve anything by doing this; we will simply move the problem elsewhere to develop.
    I hope this provides some answers to your questions/concerns.

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  12. Hi Liza L.,
    Useful answer.
    What is the basis of the 250.8 billion a year cost of light wandering off into the environment? It would seem to be that this number could fall between 500 billion a year and -300 billion a year depending on who was making the underlying assumptions.
    Also, what is the cost in bureaucrats and police to enforce the regulations that you are suggesting? Would people who want to have lights on at night, such as security lights or Christmas lights be incarcerated in well lit jails?
    Do you propose preventing residents of India or China, who have never had lights at night, from getting lights?

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  13. Dear Eric,
    The 250.8 billion was calculated as follows:
    $33 trillion (the value of all ecosystem services around the world per year)* 0.019 (fraction of the Earth that is USA)* 0.4 (the surface area of USA where light levels are higher than natural)
    Of course it is a rough estimate because it is hard to put a number on the ecosystems around us, but that is value of the biodiversity and ecosystems that are affected by light pollution (per year). Since my policy recommendations are for reducing light pollution, the assumption here would be that by implementing such policies, we could save nature and they would keep having that value to us (because if nature is degraded, its value would go down).
    My policy recommendations are concerned with outdoor lighting (that is regulated by the government). These proposed policies include: switching off lights when not in use, reducing light trespass past the horizontal plane, limiting the lighted area as well as reducing freeway lighting. It is pretty clear that the lighting industry is rather elastic and so it could adapt to these changes. I don’t know the exact costs of bureaucrats but no police would be involved because the government is very unlikely to fine itself. Moreover, throwing people into jail appears to be a drastic measure and disproportionate to an extent. My hope with these solutions would be that in the future it can be worked on changing consumer ideas on lighting and that the unnecessary use of light would eventually decrease in the private sector also.
    I would definitely not suggest that, mostly because it is out of the plane of possibilities but also because it would be unfair for us to tell developing countries that they can’t use light. It is the same argument that goes with industrialization “you (the West) did it this way, so what right do you have to tell us what to do?”. But what could be done in such countries is to adjust the regulations and the market already in such a way that lighting pollution could be avoid, or at least limited from the very beginning.

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  14. Dear Liza L.;
    Thanks for the detailed response. It clarifies what I do not understand.
    What does 'value of all ecosystem services' mean? For instance, does it include agriculture, mining, manufacturing of 'green' stuff?
    How is the value of biodiversity related to the number of humans on the planet? Does each human value biodiversity the same? Do the people who choose to live in brightly lit cities have the same value for nature as those who choose to live in nature?
    As a small point would reduced freeway lighting increase vehicle accidents especially in demographically aging ciies?
    Are you assuming no police because you assume that every person will agree to what the government says no matter what?
    Do you know how popular your proposals would be with voters?
    If there are no police and no jails, why do you think that those who disagree with you would follow your suggestions?
    China wants to exceed the US in power and influence. It seems as if if the US follows your suggestions, it and Europe are ceding world dominance to China, which keeps its lights on. Is that right?

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