If you looked at your house on a cloudy day and noticed the shingles on the roof were worn, you might make a mental note to replace them at some point. But if you looked up and saw a big gaping hole, you’d move much faster to cover it up before those ominous black clouds flooded your living room. That’s just human nature. The greater the threat, the more quickly we respond.
A new survey of Americans on the most effective ways to save energy indicates that the climate crisis is not seen as a problem severe enough to warrant aggressive action. The survey also raises the question of how well people who understand the problem are communicating its seriousness.
The survey of people in 34 states, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that Americans overestimate the amount of energy they can save with small changes that actually do little and underestimate the benefits of switching to efficient, currently available technologies that could have a larger impact. Nearly 20 percent of those queried cited turning off lights as the best approach to save energy. But the report contends that step actually saves very little in energy budgets. Meanwhile less than three percent cited driving more fuel efficient cars, using more energy efficient appliances and weatherizing their homes. According to the report, previous studies have found that household energy consumption could be reduced by 30 percent if people made those choices. In other words, without waiting for breakthrough technologies such as super-efficient cars or making enormous economic sacrifices.
So why don’t they make those choices?
Shahzeen Attari, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Columbia’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, said that “When people think of themselves, they may tend to think of what they can do that is cheap and easy at the moment.” Additionally, she says that people are typically willing to take one or two actions to address a perceived problem. After that they feel they’ve done all they can.
All of which suggests a casual attitude towards conservation. But is that because people aren’t aware of the advantages of improved technology or because they aren’t concerned about the issue? For many people, even those who believe the environment is changing, the problem is still non-threatening and not motivating them to act. If covering the hole in your roof with newspaper doesn’t keep the rain out, you’ll research a more effective solution. Similarly, if energy consumers have a greater appreciation for the magnitude of the climate crisis, they’ll take a greater interest in doing more to conserve energy beyond flipping their lights off.
That raises the question of communication. Attari keeps her focus on understanding how to save energy rather than why. She suggests that scientists, government, industry and environmental groups may have “failed to communicate” the potential benefits of new technology and instead focused on funding recycling drives and encouraging actions like turning off lights. She further argues that if people are going to take one or two actions, they need to be steps that will have a high impact. “People are still not aware of what the big savers are,” she says.