Eleanor and Bill RevelleSubmitted photo

Alderman Eleanor Revelle (7th Ward) and her husband William Revelle, PhD, a Northwestern University professor of psychology, were recently honored by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists for their environmental work. Citing their “early recognition that climate change poses a threat to humanity,” the Chicago-based Bulletin celebrated the Revelles in October at their annual dinner, which included a video tribute from environmentalist and former Vice President Al Gore.  

“Bill and Eleanor have shown tremendous leadership at the Bulletin, and they’ve done it in a variety of ways,” says Rachel Bronson, PhD, Executive Director of The Bulletin. “Bill is passionate about nuclear security and climate change, which are two of the issues we focus on. And Eleanor has been a real leader on climate change in Evanston.” The Bulletin honored both Revelles together because, as Dr. Bronson explained, “they really operate as a couple.”  

“It’s a little daunting,” says Ald. Revelle of the acknowledgement, “but The Bulletin is such an important organization, so it’s really an honor to be recognized.”

The Bulletin was founded in 1945 by scientists who, as part of the Manhattan Project, had helped develop the first nuclear bombs but felt compelled to inform the public about their risks and lobby for their prohibition. It created the Doomsday Clock, which was set at 7 minutes to midnight in 1947 to symbolically measure how close we were to a possible global nuclear catastrophe. Today the clock is set at 3 minutes to midnight because the nuclear threat is now compounded by climate change, bioweapons, and other manmade technologies, according to The Bulletin.

Dr. Bronson credits Dr. Bill Revelle – who has served on The Bulletin’s board for nine years and is currently Vice-Chair – with being a “key driver” in making sure The Bulletin included climate change in its work. He also helped develop their Doomsday Dashboard – an interactive web page that tracks the factors used to determine the Doomsday Clock’s time, such as the number of nuclear warheads worldwide, sea level rise, global temperature differences, concerns about gene editing, and loss of biodiversity.

A Family History of Environmentalism

Dr. Bill Revelle, who specializes in personality research and quantitative methodology, inherited his interest in the environment from his father, Roger Revelle, Ph.D., an oceanographer whose research concluded that the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for rising carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere.  

“I grew up with climate scientists,” he says. “My father studied greenhouse gases and climate change. It was dinner table conversation for me.”  

From 1950 to 1963, Dr. Roger Revelle was director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California San Diego, which he helped establish. He went on to teach at Harvard for 10 years before returning to UC San Diego.  

Along with his colleague, Hans Seuss, Ph.D., Dr. Roger Revelle predicted in a 1957 paper that excess atmospheric carbon dioxide would create a “greenhouse effect” and eventually cause global warming. He supported scientist Charles David Keeling’s research to measure carbon dioxide levels around Mauna Loa, a volcano on the Island of Hawaii. In 1958, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels measured 315 parts per million (ppm); today CO2 levels have risen above 400 ppm – a trend that corresponds with rising global surface temperature, according to the Global Temperature Chart maintained by Columbia University climate scientists.  

Local Climate Champion
Ten years ago, Evanston signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which committed the City to meet an international agreement addressing climate “disruption” known as the Kyoto Protocol. Ald. Revelle and other citizens were recruited in 2007 to help develop what became the Evanston Climate Action Plan, which laid out 200 strategies for reducing Evanston’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 13%, a goal the City succeeded in achieving by mid-2013. Participants went on to form Citizens’ Greener Evanston (CGE), of which Ald. Revelle served as vice president for one year and president for four years.

“When we met that target of 13% reduction in greenhouse gases, Eleanor led the initiative to raise the bar even higher,” says Jonathan Nieuwsma, current CGE president. Raising the bar resulted in Evanston’s Livability Plan, he explains, which set a 20% GHG reduction target by the end of 2016 and is on track to be met. “We would not have been so successful in reducing Evanston’s carbon footprint without Eleanor’s vision and leadership,” says Me.Nieuwsma.  

Ald. Revelle also chaired the national League of Women Voters climate change task force, and created their online Toolkit for Climate Action.   

Easing Into Energy Savings
The Revelle’s started conserving energy in small ways, such as lowering their thermostat and switching from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), which they noticed lowered their electric bills almost immediately.  One change led to another until they decided to build a house designed to be as carbon-neutral as possible using low environmental impact building materials such as recycled wood and wood alternatives, local stone, and recycled glass tiles.  

Completed in 2003, their north Evanston home uses photovoltaic roof slates that convert sunlight directly into electricity, solar hot water collectors and natural-gas-fired boilers for heating, dual-flush toilets to conserve water, and permeable driveway pavers that direct rainwater down to the water table rather than off into a sewer. Low maintenance landscaping includes native grasses and other drought-resistant plants.

Everyday Steps to Help the Environment
For people who are not ready to install solar panels or buy an electric car, the Revelles offer relatively easy energy-saving suggestions such as walking or riding bikes in lieu of driving, cycling, or taking public transportation to work, lowering the thermostat, wearing sweaters, switching to CFL bulbs, and using less water.  

“The amount of power needed to create clean water is a major energy drain in the United States,” explains Ald. Revelle.  “We are profligate in our energy use per capita. We use so much more power per person than India and Western Europe do.”  

The Revelles also suggest eating less meat, to conserve both water and energy.  According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the non-profit organization Water Footprint, generating one pound of chicken requires about 100 gallons of water, while the equivalent amount of beef requires 1,000 gallons of water.  

“Every step makes a difference, in addition to many small steps,” says Dr. Bill Revelle. “If each person cuts down a little bit every day in every way, it will get better. It’s that whole notion that each action you take adds together with lots of other people’s action.” Ald. Revelle adds that when people start making even small changes, they end up influencing their friends and sharing ideas with each other.

Vice President Al Gore Weighs In
While he was teaching at Harvard in the 1960s, Dr. Roger Revelle sparked college senior and future Vice President Al Gore’s interest in global warming and the environment. Mr. Gore has championed the environment ever since, and was the subject of “An Inconvenient Truth,” a film that documented his campaign to educate people about global warming. He praised Dr. Roger Revelle’s son and daughter-in-law via a video tribute that was shown at The Bulletin’s October dinner.

“Bill and Eleanor Revelle have truly been pioneers in seeking solutions for the climate crisis,” Mr. Gore said in the video, “working long before the climate movement enjoyed anything like the visibility and support and momentum that it has today. And in continuing the family tradition, their devotion to climate science, policy, and innovation is really inspiring. We need advocates and allies like the Revelles now more than ever.”

Meg Evans

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...