By Andrew Cohen
The way Ruth Greenspan Bell ’67 sees it, fighting climate change with a silver bullet is sure to misfire. A renowned expert on the governance aspects of managing greenhouse gas emissions, Bell called for a more diversified “silver buckshot” strategy during her March 5 luncheon talk at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club.
“The approach we’ve seen is like taking all of your retirement savings and investing it in a single stock,” Bell said. “The Kyoto Protocol and other all-encompassing strategies aren’t working. As a result, we’ve lost time pursuing a big magical solution. That’s not the way to confront this problem. If we’re fishing for answers, let’s throw more than one line in the water.”
Introduced by Jordan Diamond ’08, executive director of Berkeley Law’s Center on Law, Energy & the Environment, Bell suggested aiming at smaller targets. Doing so, she said, would build trust between participants—and progress toward larger pollution reductions.
In the international realm, Bell said history offers a helpful roadmap to find mechanisms for confronting climate change. Unlike the all-countries-at-the-table approach used in the Kyoto Protocol, she believes bilateral agreements can be effective, solidify relationships, and spur other agreements.
“Look at past nuclear weapons treaties that banned atmospheric testing,” Bell said. “We took on smaller parts of the puzzle and had success based on shared goals, an ability to monitor, and trust built among participants that agreements would be honored. The U.S. and Soviet Union were the largest possessors of nuclear weapons, and, when the Soviet Union crumbled, the framework they’d built together enabled the securing of loose nukes.”
Among her many leadership roles, Bell has served as director of the World Resources Institute’s U.S. Climate Policy Objective and has held top management positions at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of General Counsel. She publishes extensively about climate change and other environmental issues, addressing a wide range of audiences.
Now a public policy scholar for the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C., Bell leads a program that uses social science research to motivate behavioral changes that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants.
“We use energy in every part of our lives,” Bell said. “Yes, policy is important, but we should also think about how individuals can move the needle. How we use energy is habitual. So if there are incentives that trigger improved behavior, that’s something we should pursue.”
Bell described how some utility billing systems use motivational triggers—from smiley faces to charts showing how a recipient’s energy use compares to nearby residents in 100 similar structures. She also discussed a recent study about hotels that post a sign in each room showing the percentage of guests who hung up their towels rather than use new ones each day. Such hotels have far more success staying green than those that simply urge guests to help conserve water by reusing their towels, she said.
“It may sound silly, but those techniques have been shown to make a difference,” said Bell, who fielded questions after her talk. “People who see others faring better get motivated to do better themselves. We’re trying to harness that in the energy framework.”
Bell also highlighted recent efforts to improve energy efficiency in the military—which she hopes will trigger positive changes in other societal sectors. Her research reveals that saving energy provides more effective ways to engage in conflict.
“Military personnel have to take a lot into the field,” she said. “If you have a lot of fuel with you to power much of that, you’re sitting ducks. Lessen that, and you’re less exposed. Look at solar blankets and generators. A generator makes noise, carries a lot of fuel, and if it gets hit a lot of people get hurt. Not so with solar blankets.”
Bell also noted that the military has historically served as a testing ground for new developments in civilian life—and that positive changes such as racial integration were largely crafted in the armed forces.
Be it policy reform, military templates, or behavioral triggers, Bell is eager to try “as much as possible” to protect the planet for future generations. “It’s better to pursue multiple options than cross your fingers hoping one approach works,” she said. “The problems are way too complex to address with one big solution.”
Bell’s talk was one in a series of luncheon presentations by prominent Berkeley Law alumni. More photos of the event can be viewed here.