Onscreen scientist Mark Ruffalo visits Stanford to discuss clean-energy strategy

Life imitated art when MARK RUFFALO, the actor who plays scientist Bruce Banner (aka “The Hulk”) in the blockbuster film The Avengers, came to Stanford.

The Oscar-nominated actor/director teamed up with MARK JACOBSON, a real-life scientist and senior fellow with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy, for an informal discussion June 20 with students about a nascent initiative to convert the world to renewable energy. The talk was part of a series of dialogues Ruffalo and Jacobson had with Stanford students and staff at companies such as Google, Facebook and Tesla Motors. Joining Ruffalo and Jacobson were clean-energy advocates Marco Krapels, executive vice president of Rabobank, and Jon Wank, co-president of Skadaddle Media.

Actor Mark Ruffalo at Stanford
Actor Mark Ruffalo, second from left, visited Stanford to discuss renewable energy with faculty and students

“It’s the right time for this,” Ruffalo told the 30 or so audience members, most of them students in the Atmosphere/Energy Program Jacobson heads in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. People are more aware of and more ready than ever to grapple with climate and energy problems, Ruffalo said, adding, “Now we’re able to talk about it without going through a centralized media.”

Ruffalo explained that his interest in creating a roadmap to repower the energy infrastructure with clean energy began when he moved to upstate New York a few years ago and learned about hydrofracking, a polluting natural gas extraction method used in the region. “It sounded more and more like a nightmare,” he said.

Local involvement around the hydrofracking issue led to a broader engagement in the sustainability movement for Ruffalo, who has been speaking out to his social media followers and the blogosphere about the need for clean energy. Ruffalo connected with Jacobson and Josh Fox, the director of the 2010 fracking documentary Gasland, at an event in San Francisco last year. The three had an in-depth conversation about Jacobson’s work with Mark DeLucchi at the University of California-Davis to develop a global renewable energy plan. The plan – featured on the cover of Scientific American – is a blueprint for building an energy grid based only on clean sources such as solar, wind and hydroelectric. This grid, not subject to price fluctuations, would eliminate energy insecurity, air pollution and global warming.

Following that dinner conversation, Ruffalo, Jacobson, Fox and researchers at Cornell University began reaching out to other scientists, business people and cultural figures to further develop a roadmap for repowering the world. The effort would galvanize support for a clean-energy economy at state, national and, eventually, global levels. Jacobson described it as a “grand vision” involving science, economics, policy, finance, multimedia and activism. Ruffalo and Jacobson wrote about their vision in the Huffington Post earlier this month.

The next step will focus on informing policymakers about viable options for converting to a clean-energy economy, Jacobson told the Stanford audience. Beyond that crucial component, the way forward will not have to depend on good intentions alone, he added. “This will be driven a lot by people who want to make money,” he said of developers interested in building renewable energy infrastructure. Krapels echoed that sentiment, saying that Rabobank, the world’s largest agricultural bank, is interested in how renewable energy can save money for its clients. “We’ve been looking at this very much from a business perspective.”

During a question-and-answer session, students offered suggestions for connecting with college students, ranging from campus advocates to conferences. One student’s suggestions of imitating a Stanford/NASA teacher-training partnership elicited particular interest from the speakers.

Ruffalo – who also tweets about sustainability and politics to his more than 227,000 Twitter followers – brought his renewable energy message to HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher on June 22.


Rob Jordan is the communications writer for the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment