Interview – Susan Bell

With the Copenhagen summit looming in December, does the economic crisis offer new opportunities for the fight against global warming? Of the foundations active in tackling climate change, the US’s William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is one of the most prominent. Alliance put the questions to Susan Bell, who heads Hewlett’s climate change effort. In her view it is the new US administration rather than the present downturn that has opened up new opportunities.

Economic crisis or no, she reckons, climate change must continue to take top priority. ‘Science continues to point to how urgent the issue is. We are putting more money into that area than anything else right now – both because of the urgency of the issue and because we think we’ve found one of the best ways to get at the problem. If you look at the combination of the Copenhagen summit in December and what’s happening in the US Congress right now with the Climate Bill, the opportunity has in some ways never been better to address climate issues, particularly as our approach is at a policy level.’ And, she adds, ‘given the size of the problem and what it’s going to take to solve it, you really have to attack it at a policy level.’

In the belief that a favourable policy environment will be necessary to tackling climate change, Hewlett and other funders supported a study called Design to Win, which identifies the geographical areas (Europe, the US, China and India, and the heavily forested regions of the world like Brazil and Indonesia) and the sectors (transportation, utilities, building codes, energy efficiency, etc) where policy changes are most needed.  The study then estimated the philanthropic dollars required to inform such policy change.  ‘If you can make policy changes in these key sectors in the highest emitting regions or countries in the world, you can accomplish the goal of reducing total global emissions sufficiently to keep the globe from warming more than 2°C’ – a figure identified by scientists as critical.

This has led to the creation of ClimateWorks, a network of organizations around the world focused on reducing total global emissions so that critical point is not reached. ‘In some cases,’ she says, ‘the ClimateWorks Foundation funds organizations that already exist, like the Energy Foundation, which works in China as well as the US, and in some cases it has started new organizations like Shakti in India and the European Climate Foundation. In the US, Hewlett is working both at the federal level and at the state level on issues such as energy efficiency, use of renewables, and coal-fired plants.’

Is it enough? ‘It is the only shot we have at trying to lower emissions – through policies, regulations, and legislation that will ultimately lead to technology solutions.’

How has the new US administration changed the situation? Very much, she feels. Some stimulus spending may be used for ‘green’ purposes, but the main thing is the change of attitude. ‘The fact that this new administration cares about climate issues, not just for this country but as part of a global community, provides a huge opportunity as Copenhagen approaches. There are competing interests right now like health care, so it remains to be seen how much political capital this administration can really put into the issue, but it’s so much more than we’ve seen in a long time.’

Susan Bell is Vice President and Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate at William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Email

Some key facts:

  • Copenhagen The UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen will take place between 7 and 18 December. Environment ministers and officials from 192 countries will meet to try to work out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol for curbing harmful emissions.
  • The US Climate Change Bill  Currently at the approval stage. Establishing a cap and trade system on carbon emissions will be its core measure. It also requires power companies to produce 15 per cent of their electricity from wind and solar energy.
  • Climate Works  A network of organizations that works in the countries and economic sectors with the highest greenhouse gas emissions. It focuses on policies to reduce emissions in three policy areas: energy efficiency standards, low-carbon energy supply, and forest conservation and agriculture.

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