Dr. Steven Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), does a lot of traveling. Often when he checks into his hotel room, the lights are already on and the temperature is set at a cool 65 degrees.
Is this a welcoming, inviting gesture from the hotel employees? Or is it an example of the climate change challenge?
“The issue is not about utilities, but social norms,” Hamburg said at a School of Social Work lecture. “How can we realign our values to make a difference in climate change and its impact? What kinds of things can we do to reduce energy and why don’t we do them?
“We are wasting money and wasting carbon all to the detriment of our community,” he said. “There is an enormous amount of money to be saved and a lot of carbon to be saved — if we understand how to do it.”
Hamburg was on campus to deliver the Dean Jack Otis Social Problem and Social Policy Lecture in the School of Social Work. The lecture was sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Development and the School of Architecture. Otis, who was dean of Social Work from 1965-77, died earlier this year. He established a permanent endowment for the lecture series to inspire academic attention to social problems, and had a strong interest in climate change.
Hamburg, whose talk was titled “Can Facing the Climate Challenge Result in Greater Social Equity?” discussed Wal-Mart’s efforts to reduce energy use across the country by promoting the use of compact fluorescent lamps in at least 100 million homes. “They are saving customers money that normally would have gone to utilities companies.”
Wal-Mart is aligning good environmental policy with good corporate policy, Hamburg said.
As a faculty member at Brown University, Hamburg started a program — Project 20/20 — aimed at retrofitting lighting in low-income Rhode Island residences with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions of the greater Providence community. At no cost to residents, Brown students installed compact fluorescent lamps, which generated immediate savings on monthly utility bills. The project was partially funded by a grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation.
Normally the compact fluorescent lamps, which cost more than traditional incandescent bulbs, have been hard to promote to families of limited resources. Project 20/20 helped overcome this problem by providing them free to the families, while educating the community about the economic and environmental benefits of adopting compact fluorescent bulbs. Residents could save about $10 to $15 a month on their electricity bills.
Most households, he said, can reduce energy use by 30 percent.
People tend not to recognize, Hamburg said, that there is a lot of opportunity to reduce energy dependence, and people in low-income households have the most to gain by changing.
“Those with the least don’t have a voice in the conversation,” Hamburg said. “And, yet, they have the most to lose if the issues aren’t addressed.
“We have to work from the bottom up. We will not be able to integrate the needs of society and climate change challenges unless they are linked together.”
Hamburg is the EDF’s public voice for its commitment to science-based advocacy. He is an ecosystem ecologist specializing in the impacts of disturbance on forest structure and function and has published widely, including articles in Nature and Science. The EDF represents more than 700,000 members who use science, economics and law to create equitable and cost-effective solutions to environmental problems. Forty years ago the organization won a ban on DDT, the pesticide that Rachel Carson warns about in “Silent Spring.”