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Eight Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change Lessons
Caroly Shumway, Ph.D.
The Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change conference (BECC) brings together behavioral scientists, energy utility leaders, nonprofits, academics, and governments annually to explore how to advance climate action and transform energy, food, and transportation choices for households and businesses worldwide.
Here are eight key takeaways that I gleaned from this year's conference which I hope you'll find useful too.
- Individual climate action can spill over into collective climate action. Lacroix, Carman, and Leiserowitz showed that personal climate mitigation behaviors are positively associated with collective climate mitigation behaviors. For example, behaviors such as reducing home energy use were correlated with increased political actions for climate change.
- Both liberals and conservatives greatly underestimate the popularity of support for climate policies. A supermajority of the country (outnumbering opponents two to one) supports climate action. Unfortunately, the public doesn't know this. Sparkman, Geiger, and Weber presented evidence that misperceptions of lack of public support for climate policies affected individuals' own policy support. One key driver of such misperception, also known as pluralistic ignorance -- the inaccurate perception of others' opinions -- is the media, which consistently provides the same amount of time for supporting and opposing views on climate science and solutions. The researchers showed that media across the political spectrum contributed to the problem. Why is pluralistic ignorance a problem? People are less likely to talk about climate change, organize for climate action, or support public policies. Geiger and Swim (2018) reported that pluralistic ignorance led to self-silencing of climate change discussion among students. The good news is that this misperception can be corrected.Ballew et al (2020) found that perceptions of pro-climate ingroup consensus in both Democrats and Republicans alike were correlated with increased likelihood of climate change discussion and increased intention for public activism.
- A new app, i4thePlanet, makes it easier for individuals to change their own individual and household behaviors to reduce carbon through gentle nudges. The app, developed by Aida Warah, provides a list of over 100 pro-environmental choices within four lifestyle categories: food, fashion/electronics, materials, travel, and energy. The app's interactive features engage and reward the user to help a person feel good about their actions. Individuals can monitor their individual and age-group performance with a community performance chart.
- Behavioral researchers need better understanding of the variables that cause pro-environmental behaviors to persist over time. Susan Schneider argued for maintaining pro-environmental behaviors through social reinforcers for newly-established social norms, behavioral tools such as prompts to help establish a new habit, and natural reinforcers (money, increased endorphins, feeling of warm glow, etc.) to maintain the behavior change. She presented information about Seattle's King County In Motion campaign which tried to reduce use of solo car trips and encourage public transportation. The group provided free transit cards as incentives, and offered weekly email prompts and individual tracking charts online. The group reduced solo car trips by 20% even after 18 months post-intervention.
- Conservatives don't feel that climate solutions suit their values. In the Center for Behavior and Climate's joint workshop with RepublicEN, "How to Get Conservatives and Liberals to Act", former Congressman Bob Inglis noted that to increase climate action in conservatives requires helping them find solutions that do fit their values. We provided information in the workshop to help participants do just that. For example, one can frame pro-climate actions as patriotic or as consistent with a conservative's preferred moral values of authority, ingroup loyalty, or purity/sanctity. Or one can highlight the co-benefits of a climate action (such as reducing energy costs), which can be more persuasive to conservatives than highlighting the global warming benefit.
- Researchers are urging expansion of the criteria for climate effectiveness to include behavioral or political feasibility. On the behavioral side,Vanderbergh, Shwom, and Stern described criteria they use to determine the most effective climate choices that people can make, based on technical potential, behavioral plasticity, initiative feasibility, pace of implementation, and equity. On the political side, Peng et al. (2021) provide several political-economy insights that they suggest could be incorporated into Integrated Assessment Models on climate change. For example, risk-averse investors could restrain access to capital for low-carbon energy transitions; unequal costs and benefits of climate policies can affect political and moral acceptance; and public opinion could aid stronger climate actions. The incorporation of these insights could help decision makers make the best policy choices in the years to come.
- Behavioral researchers need to increase their efforts to understand the hard-to-reach (HTR) energy users. The hard-to-reach are a broad group that is both underserved and under-researched by behavioral scientists. This group not only includes low-income households, renters, and small businesses; it also includes high-income people, landlords, and building operators who provide great energy-saving potential and comprise over 2/3 of energy users, according to Sea Rotmann and colleagues.
- Governments worldwide are exponentially increasing their behavioral insights teams. In just over ten years, the world has moved from one behavioral insight team established in the UK to over 300 behavioral insights teams in governments. A trio of behavioral economists from the U.S., Japan, and the Netherlands shared success stories of large-scale pro-environmental changes following nudge interventions.
My take-away from the conference is that individual behaviors can lead to collective action, we should all spread the word that the majority of the American public support climate policies, we can reach conservatives and the hard-to-reach through behavioral strategies, and behavioral and political considerations need to be incorporated into prioritization of climate actions.