Can Behavioral Science Help Address Climate Change?
On Tuesday, President Obama issued an executive order to federal agencies, asking them to use behavioral science when developing programs to address key policy problems, including climate change. The goal with regard to climate change-related programs is to get the American people to do more to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, chiefly by reducing energy consumption.
This isn’t a new idea. Last year the White House created the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team to test new ways to get citizens to change their behavior. So far, some efforts have been successful — such as a pop-up computer window to urge government workers to use double-sided printing — but many have failed.
With regards to energy consumption, studies have shown that people will reduce their energy use if they see that their neighbors are using less than they are. Opower has based their entire business model on this idea. The company uses insights based on behavioral science to influence consumers in small ways that make a big difference in aggregate. The idea is basically to give consumers better information on their energy consumption habits so they can take appropriate actions. After all, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
Interestingly, according to Opower, the behavioral and social motivators have a stronger influence on behavior than providing customers with accurate data: they have found that real-time data helps, but what really works best is persuading people that they need to keep up with the crowd.
Take this famous experiment for example: it showed that asking hotel guests to reuse towels is largely ineffective. However, by instead suggesting to guests that most visitors do reuse towels, reuse rates went up by 30 percent. The same is true with energy consumption. If a note on your bill suggests that you are using more than the rest of the houses on your block, you are more likely to try to catch up. It’s peer pressure applied to positive outcomes.
Another way to influence consumer decisions is to use carbon labeling. According to a study published in Nature Climate Change, labeling products with the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during production, use, and disposal could have cross-border effects, influencing production and consumption choices around the world.
Examples of Past/Existing Initiatives
Cash for Clunkers was a federal program that offered a rebate to Americans that replace older and less efficient cars with newer ones. The benefit to consumers was immediate because the program was simple. You get rid of your car, you get the cash.
Other programs, like tax incentives for energy efficiency retrofits, have been less successful. There was too much friction built into the program: too many steps and procedures to disengage or ward off potential applicants.
Older government programs are also helping to reduce residential energy use. The Green Button Initiative makes it easy for consumers to download utility data from their utility’s website. Moreover, the deployment of smart meters has helped with providing more accurate energy consumption data.
The recent executive order will help spur flood insurance take-up rates. Public materials will be redesigned with behavioral science in mind to present flood insurance information more clearly. The White House Team is also working on strategies to increase energy efficiency in government buildings, increase access to renewable fuels in federal fleets, and encourage energy efficient appliance purchases.
Behavioral Science — A Part of the Solution
In the absence of policies that directly limit greenhouse gas emissions, programs based on behavioral science insights could be the next best option. Influencing consumer behaviors could have repercussions beyond individual consumption habits. Even small changes in consumer behavior could send a signal to producers and result in a changes to carbon-intensive production processes. But these programs based on behavioral science need to be easy to understand and easy to implement to be effective.