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Footprints: Jonathan Gilligan ’82

“When businesses and other private organizations look beyond their own actions and begin to influence others to reduce emissions, this is what I call ‘private governance,’” says Jonathan Gilligan ’82, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University. In Beyond Politics: The Private Governance Response to Climate Change (Cambridge University Press), Gilligan and co-author Michael P. Vandenbergh share how the private sector can play a key role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the absence of traditional public governance.

What inspired you to write this book?

My co-author and I realized that many proposed policies assume that government regulations are the only way to achieve significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. But our research shows that non-overnment actors can also play important roles, and we wrote this book to share what we have learned about those nongovernment actions.


What is the most important message that you would like readers to take away?

We make three important points: Climate change is an urgent issue, and the private sector can play important roles in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and in influencing others to reduce their impact on the environment.


Any advice for businesses looking to reduce risks of climate change through private action?

When businesses look beyond their own actions and begin to influence others to reduce emissions, this is what I call “private governance.” It can play a key role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the absence of traditional public governance, such as federal environmental regulations, and can also work together with public regulations.


What are your thoughts on the government’s involvement or lack thereof?

Governments around the world are not taking sufficient action to avert dangerous climate change, and the U.S. government stands out as one of the worst in this regard. Part of the problem is that in the U.S., accepting the truth of basic climate science has become a polarizing political issue. In the case of climate science, some of this appears to be due to what Troy Campbell of the University of Oregon calls “solution aversion”: If a person believes that accepting certain facts will oblige them to take an action they find distasteful, they will resist believing those facts.

In addition, we see some major businesses beginning to influence government on behalf of the environment.


What would you like to see Swarthmore do?

Awareness is an important first step: If students know how much energy they are using in dorms, classrooms, laboratories, etc., then they will be better able to identify simple actions that can reduce wasted energy. Providing accurate information can help well-intentioned people to identify such opportunities to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions while also saving money.

Beyond this, incentives, such as competitions to reduce energy consumption or internal emissions taxes, can motivate people to put information to use and take actions.


What’s the most important change that businesses can make to help the environment?

Many businesses consider environmental issues as a secondary concern. Often, simply undertaking an environmental audit can uncover important opportunities to simultaneously reduce emissions and increase profits.

Businesses should realize that they can have a lot of influence outside of their own organization, and they can use that influence to make it easier and more attractive for others to protect the environment.


What’s been your most surprising discovery?

I thought that the biggest problem was industry—big factories, big diesel trucks, and so forth—and that the biggest obstacles to reducing greenhouse gas emissions were technological: renewable energy generation, efficient devices, such as hybrid or electric cars, etc.

I was very surprised to discover that individual and household energy use is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.: bigger than the industrial sector and bigger than the commercial sector (offices, stores, etc.).


When you were a student at Swarthmore, what was the most memorable experience for you?

So much about Swarthmore shaped what I have done with my life. John Boccio’s physics courses gave me the technical skills to tackle difficult quantitative problems with confidence.

Ken Sharpe’s course on Latin American politics exposed me to the way that a person can have passionate political convictions and yet respect the intellectual contributions of people at the completely opposite end of the ideological spectrum.

I also found great inspiration in a class on nonviolent political action taught by George Lakey, which inspired me to find ways to use my scholarship and expertise to improve the world.


Was there a special professor at Swarthmore who especially inspired you?

Richard Schuldenfrei and Hugh Lacey were tremendously influential. It is not an exaggeration to say that the research I do in environmental science and policy traces its roots directly to readings, discussions, and debates in their classes.


What advice would you give to readers who want to help the environment?

You may feel that anything you do to reduce your environmental impact will be insignificant because you are just one person out of 300 million in the United States and more than 7 billion in the world. But do not be discouraged. My research shows that if everyone in the U.S. took a few simple steps to use less energy, then even with no major changes to people’s lives, we could cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 500 million tons per year, which is more than the entire annual emissions from France.

If you look at yourself not as an isolated individual but as part of a connected community, your knowledge can help you to inform others about simple ways to reduce emissions, and your actions will set an example for your friends and neighbors.