Driving the response to climate change

Interdisciplinary research initiatives take on a future-defining challenge.

By Heidi Hall

Photo Illustration by Getty Images

It’s 8 a.m., but no one is yawning as 20 professors and students eagerly gather around a conference table to share their latest research on energy and environmental issues.

A professor in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Human and Organizational Development tells the group about her work in “green dialysis,” the concept of using recyclable supplies and less water and power for treatments. A nursing professor discusses a door-to-door survey of patients about the environmental issues they face, and a sociologist passes around his report on the lack of climate change classes in universities.

As the discussion turns toward a recent move to end the federal Clean Power Plan, an action seen as favorable to the coal industry, and the possibility of ending incentives for wind and solar power, heads turn toward Michael Vandenbergh, who directs the Climate Change Research Network, a university research initiative affiliated with the Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and Environment.

Vandenbergh helped launch the VIEE, which sponsors interdisciplinary research projects that link the social and behavioral sciences with the physical sciences, engineering, law and policy, in 2008, along with W. Kip Viscusi, University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics and Management; hydrologist David Furbish, a professor of earth and environmental sciences; and environmental engineer David Kosson, the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering. The team helped recruit hydrologist George Hornberger, University Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth and Environmental Sciences, to direct the VIEE.

A former chief of staff for the Environmental Protection Agency, Vandenbergh eschews emotional pleas for protecting the planet, favoring a more pragmatic approach. Much of his research aims to bridge gaps between tree huggers and gas guzzlers by focusing on how to motivate the private sector and households to achieve sustainability. The research network he has directed for almost a decade now has sponsored four postdoctoral fellows who are experts in environmental social psychology, and it includes members from Vanderbilt’s departments of earth and environmental sciences, political science, sociology and economics, and the schools of engineering, business and nursing. Participants in the network’s research projects range from undergraduates to seasoned professors.

“Trying to discourage wind and solar energy production doesn’t make economic sense,” Vandenbergh, who holds a David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair of Law, tells the group. “Right now, those industries are creating the most jobs, particularly in red states. Efforts to discourage the growth of cheap renewable power are like doubling down on the icehouse business when you know refrigerators are coming out.”

His crack draws wry chuckles from the network members. The group adjourns until the following Wednesday.

Michael Vandenbergh (photo by Dean Dixon)

From the start, the CCRN has focused on how low-cost, non-intrusive, private-sector initiatives that target individual and corporate behavior—as opposed to government regulations—can reduce the carbon emissions that result in higher temperatures and more extreme weather events. Vandenbergh’s research shares this focus for a practical reason. “There has only been one major new pollution-control statute in the U.S. since 1990,” he said. “Human-caused climate change will likely lead to significant and harmful changes to the planet, but national and international governments have struggled to reduce carbon emissions. So states, local governments and private organizations have taken the lead in addressing climate change and other environmental issues. We focus on the private sector: What are the effects of corporate commitments to buy renewable power, to incentivize employees and customers to use energy efficiently, to require suppliers to meet environmental standards and adopt private standards or sustainable fisheries and forestry? Why are private organizations doing this? What are the costs and benefits?  What else can be done?”

Since the network’s inception, Vandenbergh has partnered with other members on groundbreaking research. One CCRN project proved that washing your hands with cold water gets them clean, so people can avoid wasting water and energy waiting for hot water to start flowing from the tap. Another promoted simple actions households can take to reduce carbon emissions, ranging from carpooling to changing HVAC filters, and demonstrated that household carbon emissions could be reduced by 20 percent—an amount equal to all of the emissions of the country of France—in a single decade.

In February 2017, Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gilligan, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences and the network’s associate director for research, won the Morrison Prize, which annually recognizes the most impactful sustainability-related legal academic article published in North America. Their paper, “Beyond Gridlock,” published in the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, examined the role the private sector can play in bypassing government gridlock on climate change. The pair have since parlayed the article into a book.


While the uninitiated may not immediately see a link between climate change and the law school, Vandenbergh believes lawyers can play an important role by fostering the critical thinking that is essential for private practice and public policy making. “Lawyers, by our training, ask the most basic, difficult questions and aren’t afraid not to be the expert in the room,” he said. “Too often, researchers haven’t asked the basic questions important to solving climate change because each discipline stuck to its own assumptions and didn’t question them. Lawyers can challenge orthodoxy and ask the questions necessary to make sure that research provides answers with policy relevance.”

Because climate problems arise from the intersection of corporate and individual behavior, the natural environment, the built environment and machines, Vandenbergh believes it’s important not to address each one in a separate box. “The Climate Change Research Network integrates experts from so many areas so we can see the total picture,” he said.

Members share their research at regular meetings and can also draw on a list of network participants who can answer questions at a moment’s notice. That helps yield more relevant results.

Gilligan, who co-founded the CCRN with Vandenbergh, notes that a collaborative approach to understanding climate change and generating solutions is particularly important right now. Although he has seen research indicating that the damage to the environment is already irreversible, he doesn’t share that outlook. Instead, Gilligan points back to a time when bipartisan action led to huge reversals in pollution—the 1970s, when the Environmental Protection Era and the Clean Air Act both passed. During the 1980s, the Reagan administration negotiated an international treaty to address the hole in the ozone layer.

“Mike and I have been working for the last dozen years almost exclusively on climate change because what we do today—any action we take to reduce global warming right now—will benefit dozens of generations coming after us,” Gilligan said. “And anything we don’t do will hurt all those generations. Right now, we’re at the point where things are starting to get bad enough that the door is closing on being able to prevent some of the really dangerous consequences.”

“Right now, we’re at the point where things are starting to get bad enough that the door is closing on being able to prevent some of the really dangerous consequences.” —Jonathan Gilligan

The vibrant interdisciplinary dialogue at Vanderbilt helped improve a study designed by Thushara Gunda, PhD’17, an environmental engineer working as a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt. She and VIEE director George Hornberger received funding from the National Science Foundation to find ways to help Sri Lankan farmers improve their ability to adapt to climate change. Gunda designed a game to help researchers understand how the farmers interpreted weather forecasts and used other information and influences to make decisions about which crops to grow—and find out how they behave when faced with both physical and social uncertainty. The game included a weather wheel to represent forecasts and cards featuring pictures of crops, such as rice, onions or soybeans, along with potential money farmers could make from each crop. Gunda had originally printed the cards with written labels under each crop picture. But when she tested the game at a VIEE meeting by having members play it, several experienced researchers suggested removing the written labels to avoid insulting the farmers.

“That advice really exemplified that even though we, as individual researchers, try to think more broadly, we simply can’t consider every angle,” Gunda said. “That’s why we need this interdisciplinary network. When we played the game as a network to test it, we ended up having a really terrific discussion about the practical way to interpret a weather forecast. Working with the VIEE and CCRN was like having a mirror that allowed us to catch some of our biases before we went out into the field.”

Sociologist David Hess, who holds the James Thornton Fant Chair in Sustainability Studies and is VIEE’s deputy directory, is researching what type of environmental legislation conservative elected officials tend to support. Many times, he said, that includes measures to make government buildings more energy efficient or provide money for businesses to take energy-saving measures. He is also studying what ideological, geographical and socio-economic conditions cause cities to adopt water restrictions.

Working with both social and natural scientists has also influenced Hess’s approach. “Researchers in the natural sciences are much more aware of the strength of social and political factors as predictors of policy adoption on water or energy conservation,” he said. “We’ve made some surprising findings. Going into this project, it seemed obvious that dry states such as California, Texas or Arizona would have the most water conservation policies. But it turns out to be much more complicated than that.”

Hess is also the researcher behind the findings on a dearth of classes covering climate change—a subject that members of the network, of course, would like to see more students embrace.

Beyond Politics: Private industry needs to step up on climate change: New book

A funny thing happened after the United States pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, disappointing environmentalists. “More than 100 of the largest businesses in the world came out and said, ‘We’re still in,’” said Michael P. Vandenbergh, David Daniels Allen Distinguished Professor of Law and director of Vanderbilt’s Climate Change Research Network.

Those corporations—including prominent firms like Hewlett Packard and Mars, Incorporated—did that for a good reason, Vandenbergh said. “If you’re a company—whatever your political views —you have to function in the marketplace,” he said. “And 70 percent of people think companies should be doing more on climate change. You feel vulnerable that if you get labeled as a bad actor in this area, you might begin to lose retail and corporate customers, employees, investors and lenders.”

Vandenbergh’s new book Beyond Politics: The Private Governance Response to Climate Change, co-authored with Vanderbilt colleague Jonathan M. Gilligan, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, makes the case for how progress can continue to be made regardless of what government is doing.

Vandenbergh points to numerous ways private-sector companies can benefit by taking environmentally friendly actions. “We know that enormous amounts of money are being wasted on things like jet fuel in the aviation industry,” he said. “A recent study found that airlines don’t provide pilots with information about how to use fuel efficiently, so they waste hundreds of thousands of gallons.” More efficient fuel usage would lower costs for an airline as well as reduce emissions, he said.

In their book, Gilligan and Vandenbergh explain why many private organizaitons can be motivated to reduce carbon emissions and call for a concerted effort to mobilize private action. “In addition to corporations, religious and civic organizations, colleges and universities, investors, lenders, insurers and households all can play an important role in narrowing the gap that remains after the Paris Agreement,” Vandenbergh said. “The key is to make the conceptual leap—to recognize that the private sector can make a large contribution, buying time while government is in gridlock.”

Similarly, a U.K. snack food company discovered through an audit of its carbon emissions that it was buying potatoes by the pound, so potato farmers were picking their potatoes when they were wet, storing them in humidified warehouses, and transporting heavy potatoes. By changing how they pay the farmers, the company could reduce energy use and carbon emissions. “Now, they don’t have to waste all this money by having to transport heavy potatoes and then dry them out,” Gilligan said.

Energy, Environment and Land Use Program

As the world’s population approaches 8 billion, the demand for reliable energy and arable land has never been higher. Nor too has the environment ever been more at risk. But with these challenges come opportunities, and Vanderbilt Law School’s Energy, Environment and Land Use Program is preparing students to be leaders in these converging areas of law.

EELU offers elective courses and seminars on an array of topics, including the public and private governance of environmental law, climate change justice, energy law, and land use planning. The program also provides financial support for fellowships and externships at nonprofit organizations, such as the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C., and fosters research opportunities through the Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and Environment and the Climate Change Research Network.

“In an era of political polarization surrounding climate issues, the EELU faculty are helping students think critically, work constructively with others, and break through or bypass gridlock,” said Chris Guthrie, dean and John Wade–Kent Syverud Professor of Law. “The CCRN, which introduces students to the work of scholars from many different fields, is just one example of this. The network’s interdisciplinary research broadens students’ intellectual reach and prepares them to be exceptional practicing lawyers.”

Listed below are the EELU’s core faculty and their areas of expertise within the program.

  • Michael P. Vandenbergh, David Daniels Allen Distinguished Professor of Law, CCRN director and EELU co-director, researches the relationship between formal legal regulation and informal social regulation of individual and corporate behavior.
  • J.B. Ruhl, David Daniels Allen Distinguished Professor of Law and EELU co-director, studies environmental law relating to climate change, the Endangered Species Act, ecosystems, federal public lands and other land use issues.
  • Jim Rossi, associate dean for research and professor of law, researches the roles of state and local utility regulation, innovations in renewable and clean energy, and electric power transmission siting and cost allocation.
  • Christopher Serkin, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of law, studies property theory, the Takings Clause, land use regulations and eminent domain.
  • Timothy Meyer, professor of law, researches the interaction of international and local rules on energy subsidies and the relationship between international energy institutions and climate change institutions.

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