Our soon-to-launch Eco Pulse study found that American opinion about climate change has shifted more strongly than ever before toward belief in the phenomenon and in its human causality: 62% agree or strongly agree with the statement, “Global warming, or climate change, is occurring and is primarily caused by human activity.”
Hallelujah! Our troubles are over! Americans should be lining up in droves to make energy-efficient home improvements, buy more fuel-efficient cars and purchase greener products, right? Wrong.
In the same study, only 16% reported purchasing more energy-efficient heating or air conditioning units, only 15% have completed energy-efficient home renovations like adding insulation or replacing windows, and only 28% say they drive a hybrid or a small, fuel-efficient automobile. And the percentage of Americans who say they’re searching for greener products has been trending downward since 2012.
A March 2015 study conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication publicized in Slate found that Americans don’t think climate change will affect them personally.
Residents of more than half of U.S. counties aren’t worried about climate change (1,951 of 3,143, or about 62%). Worse: There wasn’t even one county in which a majority of respondents believe global warming will harm them personally.
And yet, as the Slate article puts it …
- “Majorities in 3,122 of 3,143 counties (more than 99 percent) do agree that future generations are at risk.
- Every single county believes we should fund research into renewable energy.
- Every single county believes we should regulate CO2 as a pollutant.
- Nearly 95 percent of counties … agreed with ‘strict CO2 limits on existing coal-fired power plants.’
- Nearly 99 percent of counties … agreed with a requirement that utilities should produce 20 percent of electricity from renewable sources.”
So we (theoretically) believe it’s happening and are (theoretically) worried about our children and grandchildren. And what are we doing about it? Not much. We want our government and our utilities to take care of it for us.
Dan Ariely, noted behavioral economist, explains a weakness in the human decision-making process that makes this behavior change challenge even more difficult.
“One of the challenges of human life is in knowing that what’s good for us in the long term often doesn’t seem good for us right now. Dieting, for example, is not very fun now, but good for us in the future; the same goes for saving money or submitting to preventive medical tests. When we face such tradeoffs, we often focus on the short-term rather than our long-term goals, and in the process we get ourselves into trouble.”
So even if Americans believed climate change might personally affect them in their lifetimes, we’re all terrible at changing current behaviors for long-term benefits.
So, what should climate communicators and those of you who market environmentally friendly and energy-efficient products and services do?
First, when it comes to communicating about climate change, in general, immediacy should be a priority: Climate change is affecting us now (and the more visual, the better). This is a good example from NOAA on the EPA’s website:
Second, it is usually better to focus on immediate rather than long-term benefits. Even though the impact of climate change dwarfs immediate personal benefits in the great scheme of things, it’s human nature to minimize/ignore scary predicted impacts. Plus, climate change feels like a huge, insurmountable problem that’s beyond our control. It’s better to focus on what’s right in front of the target audience. For example, communicate the immediate financial savings and noticeable comfort benefits of adding insulation.
Finally, since humans generally are no good at voluntary self-sacrifice or doing the right thing for long-term gain, manufacturers, regulators and building codes officials must do it for them. Inefficient equipment should no longer be allowed to be sold. Building codes should be changed across the country to make it impossible to build an energy-inefficient home. The better choice should be the status quo, not an opt-in option.