When Brian Becharas sits down to dinner with his sweetheart Saturday night, they'll eat by candlelight.
Guests at the Inn of Chicago on the city's Magnificent Mile will walk into a darkened, candle-lit lobby. And when they look out at the iconic skyline, it will look different: the Sears Tower, the Hancock Building, the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier, and some 200 downtown buildings plan to turn out the lights at 8 p.m.
It's all part of "Earth Hour," an international climate-change awareness campaign that started last year in Sydney, Australia and that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is taking global this year. Starting in New Zealand, and rolling out through dozens of cities, including Bangkok, Thailand; Dublin, Ireland; and Tel Aviv; the campaign is urging individuals, businesses, and landmarks to go dark between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.
The actual impact of turning off lights for one hour is minimal, and some skeptics question the message. But promoters say the idea is to get people talking about further ways they can contribute, and to spur government action through grassroots activity.
"It's largely a symbolic event," acknowledges Leslie Aun, a WWF spokeswoman. "But symbols are powerful things.... It provides people with an opportunity to say something about climate change."
While she hopes the experience will be dramatic – dimmed landmarks will include the Sydney Opera House, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Wrigley Field – Ms. Aun hopes the event inspires people to take further action, whether it means using energy-efficient light bulbs, riding a bike to work, or lobbying senators.
"It's like the Boston Tea Party," she says. "Dumping tea in Boston wasn't going to bring down the British Empire, but it created a spark that started the Revolution."
In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley has long been on a quest to make the city the greenest in the nation, and officials say this event can help individuals and businesses engage. Local McDonald's restaurants will dim their golden arches, theaters will darken their marquees, and Chicagoans have planned events from ghost stories in the dark to a candlelight bachelorette party.
"We've improved a lot of our own practices," says Sadhu Johnston, Chicago's chief environmental officer, noting that the city has switched to greener power sources and was the first in the world to join the Climate Exchange. "But ultimately we need homeowners and businesses and Chicago residents to take the lead on this."
Some are skeptical about promoting individual impact. At last year's Sydney Earth Hour, about half of residents turned out lights, but electricity use decreased by only about 2 percent, says David Solomon, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago. The event showed "that household light use just isn't a large component of total electricity use," he says.