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Convincing people to live greener lives makes them less likely to support real climate policy

To really reduce emissions, we need big, sweeping policies like a carbon tax. But as long as people think little actions like reducing energy consumption are equivalent, it will struggle to gain support.

Convincing people to live greener lives makes them less likely to support real climate policy
[Source Photo: iStock]

In the face of a challenge as massive as climate change, it can be daunting to try to figure out what you as an individual should do to help. Should you change your light bulbs? Take transit to work? While all those things are important, changes in government policies are going to be necessary for the world to rapidly decarbonize the economy over the next decade. Now researchers have found that when people are encouraged to make small personal sacrifices to help the climate, it can actually backfire, making them less likely to support the bigger policy changes, like a tax on carbon.

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To date, carbon tax proposals in the U.S. have struggled, both because of intense lobbying by industries and because people are afraid that they could transfer the cost of the tax to consumers. An easier pill for people to swallow is a more incremental and personal approach to reducing emissions. This strategy might comprise converting consumers to green energy providers, or encouraging people to reduce their energy usage by showing how their utility bills stack up with their neighbors.

These green energy “nudges” often form the backbone of more popular policies because they come at little to no cost to consumers, and enable people feel like they’re doing something, personally, to combat climate change. But they’re difficult to scale meaningfully across populations, their actual effect on emissions is minimal at best, and it seems they blunt people’s appetite for more fundamental change.

“Merely reminding people of their own past actions to reduce energy consumption has been found to decrease support for government action on climate change,” the study authors write. “The simple consideration of a green energy nudge can crowd-out support for more effective, but also more burdensome, environmental policies.”

In a randomized test, the study authors presented 800 participants at Carnegie Mellon University with a decision: to implement a $40-per-ton carbon tax versus doing nothing, or to implement the tax, a nudge, both, or neither. They were looking for the difference in how likely people were to want implement the carbon tax when there was no other option, versus how likely they’d be willing to do so when presented with doing a nudge instead. The difference was significant. When participants could only implement the carbon tax, 70.3% said they supported it. But when a green energy nudge became available to implement, only 55% supported implementing the carbon tax along with the nudge, or on its own.

“Part of the limitation of this study is that it’s very hypothetical–it’s asking people whether or not this is something they would support implementing,” says David Hagmann, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who studies decision-making and behavioral policy interventions. But the study still confirms peoples’ move away from sweeping policies like a carbon tax when a smaller alternative is present. “We find even though it doesn’t cost them anything to say yes to both a carbon tax and a nudge, they still become less likely to support the carbon tax in the presence of a nudge,” Hagmann says.

Hagmann and his team’s findings have significant implications for how climate policies should be designed going forward. Nudges, Hagmann says, are not in themselves bad policy–they do encourage individual engagement on climate issues, and they deliver small-scale emissions benefits. “They’re a nice addition to policymakers toolkits,” he says. But policies that frame nudges as a feasible alternative to larger interventions like a carbon tax are detrimental, he says. “Saying let’s talk less about taxes and more about this thing that doesn’t involve taxing people is not equivalent,” Hagmann says. Instead, policymakers should be emphasizing the small effect that nudges have, and making it clear that wide-scale policies like a carbon tax are what’s necessary to combat climate change.

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After all, climate change is too large an issue to assume it can be tackled cost-free. Most of the burden of a carbon tax, after all, will be born by large emitters like manufacturers, and emphasizing the relatively minimal costs to everyday people–as well as the substantial benefits to the planet–of supporting such a policy could lead to more ready adoption.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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