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Climate News - February 2023

Climate Corner: From the Center for Behavior and Climate

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Encouraging Difficult Climate Actions

by Caroly Shumway, Ph.D.


We feel good when we engage in an easy pro-environmental behavior such as rejecting a plastic straw. Feeling good from a pro-environmental action taps into our brain's dopamine reward system, the same pathway that is triggered when we do something pleasurable. And that encourages us to do more of these types of actions.

But what about more difficult, costly, or time-consuming climate behaviors — things like switching to renewable energy on one's utility bill, getting solar panels, using public transportation, etc.? What holds people back from these types of behaviors, and how can we inspire more people to do them?

One factor is the difficulty of the task. When tasks are hard, we procrastinate. While we all procrastinate on such unpleasant tasks as tax filing, choosing a retirement account, etc.: some procrastinate more than others. Behavioral and neural research by Bouc and Passaglione (2022) demonstrated that the main factor in procrastination is effort. Behavioral and neural measures of temporal discounting for effort (i.e., discounting over time), but not reward, were significantly associated with procrastination. Genetic studies of twins show that the trait is even heritable.

Another factor is inconvenience. A recent study (Ross, 2022) showed that the leading barrier for undergraduates to engageinmore impactful actions was inconvenience. This reason was cited by Colorado State undergraduates as the cause for inaction for three out of four impactful choices, including living car-free, following a plant-based diet, and avoiding a plane flight.

A third factor is motivation. Karlin et al. (2014) demonstrated that environmental concern and motivation caused people to engage in easy curtailment actions such as turning off lights or unplugging appliances, but did not cause people to engage in energy-efficient behaviors requiring time, purchases, and effort.

To understand how people react when confronted with difficult tasks, we need to identify the variables to which people attend. In a groundbreaking study of energy conservation in the home, Boudet et al. (2016) reviewed 261 energy-saving behaviors across nine attributes.The behaviors included such actions as installing an energy-efficient appliance, turning off energy-using devices, insulating, washing laundry in cold water, setting thermostats, etc. The theoretically derived attributes were defined as the “constituent characteristics that comprise a behavioural domain,” based on Rimal et al. (2011).

The nine attributes included:

  •        energy savings (i.e., amount of energy saved in kilowatt-hours per year)
  •        cost
  •        frequency of the task
  •        skill level required to complete the task
  •        observability (the degree to which the benefits of that behavior are noticeable to others)
  •        who makes the decision to adopt a behavior
  •        household function (heating/cooling, cooking, etc.)
  •        home topography (the location where the energy activity is performed, such as the building's shell (walls, floor, ceiling and roof), room (e.g., kitchen, etc.) and
  •        appliance topography (i.e., type of appliance: electric appliances, electronics, etc.).

The researchers then used cluster analysis, a multivariate statistical technique, to categorize these 261 energy-saving behaviors by the nine attributes, ending up with four distinct types of energy-saving behaviors: call an expert, weekend project, family-style, and household management. Call-an-expert behaviors cost the most and required the highest skill level, but yielded the greatest energy savings. Weekend projects, such as adding weather-stripping to doors or hanging padded curtains, yielded the second greatest energy-savings and were the most observable. A family-style project was one that had higher frequency of performance, required little skill, low cost, and was a project that children could be involved in, such as turning off lighting or air-drying laundry. While one-third of these behaviors yielded high energy savings, one-third were relatively ineffective. Household management required high frequency of effort but less cost than weekend projects.

Boudet et al. note that focusing on behaviors within a cluster enables nonprofits, utilities, and policy-makers to create more targeted and effective messaging. For example, the authors suggest that checklists and 'how-to' messages might be most effective for encouraging call-an-expert behaviors. Messaging for weekend projects can emphasize that these are visible project that the whole family can do together and feel good about.

The authors take the position that that "the cost, the required skills, the frequency with which the activity is performed, the “fit” of behaviour in household routines, and the amount of energy that is likely to be saved are all critical factors in determining whether an energy-saving behaviour is likely to be embraced and sustained."

While we await a similar analysis for other high-impact climate actions, these studies and research on changing habits (Fogg, 2020) suggest the following solutions to encourage difficult but more impactful climate behaviors:

1. Make the task easy and less effortful: for example, by providing a state-specific “how-to” for choosing renewable energy options with one's utility.

2. Make the task more convenient: for example,by providing a one-stop shop for solar panels and heat pump comparisons.

3. Provide incentives or subsidies to reduce cost: for example, by offering up-front discounts rather than tax credits to incentivizepurchases.

4. Make people feel good with public recognition for those who act: for example, by creating Climate Champions.

Check out our webpage to explore the top ten most impactful climate actions that you can take.

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