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Climate News - January 2021

What's Holding Us Back from Climate Action?

Lessons from the BECC Conference

Caroly Shumway, Ph.D.


And someday, our children, and our children’s children, will look at us in the eye,

and they’ll ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave

them a cleaner, safer, more stable world? And I want to be able to say, yes, we did. Don’t you want that?

                                                                                       Former President Barack Obama, 2013


Recent studies show that the majority of Americans worry about climate change and support climate policies (Yale Climate Opinion Survey, 2019). So why doesn't climate action reflect this concern, and what can we do about it? Lessons learned from the recent Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change (BECC) Conference suggest that both behavior change and education are needed to get climate action to scale.


1. Utility companies, cities, and countries worldwide are applying behavior change to propel action.

  •        Utility companies are using behavioral tools, but not to the fullest extent. Energy companies and government energy agencies primarily apply simplification (making change easy), and to a much lesser degree apply social norms, feedback, rewards, goal setting, commitments, and choice architecture (i.e., changing the default). In part, the lack of use of the full suite of behavioral tools is due to unfamiliarity with them. The International Energy Agency (2020) reviews 40 case studies on behavioral use in European countries, Canada, and Australia. The Consortium for Energy Efficiency in the U.S. has a similar report defining behavior change tools and providing case studies from their 80 members in the United States.
  •        Cities are embracing a behavioral approach too, but struggling to get to scale. The City of Fort Collins, Colorado created the SHIFT program to encourage 3 climate actions: stop junk mail, save money on energy bills, and improve health by shifting their ride to a bike. The program incorporates games, pledges, and social norm messages on social media. The program was so successful, they have now expanded to encouraging 12 climate actions. Embraced by over 500 homes, the program has saved over 500 tons of CO2 emissions to date and has an ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions in the city by 80% by the year 2030.  The City of Baltimore used peer-to-peer 'block" leaders in a neighborhood by neighborhood energy challenge, reaching 15,000 homes, and reducing energy use by 80 KwH/month/household on average.


2. Consumer misinformation is a major barrier to electric car purchasing and to home energy conservation. According to a 2020 review created by E-Source for the Colorado Energy Office, roughly 70% of consumers have range anxiety: fear that they'll run out of battery charge before they reach their destination, despite the fact that most people drive less than 30 miles/day. I get it; I have the same irrational fear about electric cars myself. Fifty-four percent also wrongly think they can't charge their car at home unless they have special equipment. You can just plug an electric vehicle in to a standard 3 prong outlet to charge; the charging stations just have a faster charging option. Less than 50% of people were aware of federal and state tax credits to help recover the cost of purchase. On the home energy front, people mistakenly think that lighting and appliances use more energy than their home heating.  


My take-away from the conference is that ways to overcome the barriers to scaling up climate action include: 1) increasing familiarity of use of behavioral techniques; 2) research on how to ensure maintenance of behavior change; 3) better understanding on how to engage the Hard-to-Reach, including renters, low-income earners, and small businesses; and 4) increased use of influential change agents to get the climate actions to scale.


Both behavior change and education are at the heart of what we do at The Center for Behavior and Climate. If you want to learn more about cutting-edge methods for behavior change and climate change, register now for our new course, Behavior Change for Climate Action 101! Or volunteer, and help us make a difference. If you have environmental work experience and interest, send a cover letter and resume to me at


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