The Politics of Nudging – Utilities Step Into a Familiar Political Trap

When you look at American politics today, it is hard to believe how different the political landscape was not too long ago.  The South was solidly Democratic, and Republicans used to dominate the Northeast and California.  One of the greatest conservationists in the US, Teddy Roosevelt, was a Republican; one hundred years later, a certain Republican VP dismissed conservation as a “virtue” but not necessary.—and we all know how the red/blue map has panned out.

Analyzing all this can fill up air time on cable TV news stations for hours.  There’s one little tidbit however, work exploring.   Apparently, there is some disconnect between conservatives and conservation:  two UCLA professors have found that when Democratic households learn their energy consumption compared to that of their neighbors, they reduce their energy; Republicans do the opposite.

Professors Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn studied the “nudge” efforts of a California utility.  The company sent customers within a certain district customized energy reports that listed their information on gas and electric use, a comparison of their home’s consumption to that of their neighbors’, and some energy saving tips.  The professors compared the responses to their political views, and found that more politically liberal homes cut their energy consumption from 3 to 6 percent, were inclined to purchase energy from green energy providers, and donated to environmental groups.  More conservative households, in contrast, reacted to the reports by increasing their energy consumption by 1 percent.

It’s easy to make the inference that Democrats are trend sympathetic on environmental issues and Republicans as having opposite viewpoints, though exceptions do exist.  The truth is that the argument is much more nuanced.  Democrats in energy-rich and farming states have a different approach to energy policy than their cousins in California and New York; and yes, some Republicans like Mark Sanford and Lincoln Chafee have a relatively progressive approach to energy and environmental issues.

Perhaps part of the problem is not what the message is about, but how the message is conveyed.  Today’s toxic political environment and the “Climate Gate” brouhaha do not help.  Creativity, however, is needed if utilities are really serious about reducing their customers’ energy consumption.  Perhaps financial incentives that reward and are not punitive are the answer. Perhaps comparisons between neighbors come across as “shaming” and backfire.

And on a national level, Democrats may just not be using the best strategic messaging in explaining why the US needs a better clean energy policy.  Take this quote:

While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden on civilian institutions . . .  around the world.

That is from a US Pentagon report; the US military is integrating climate change into its war game exercises, and has expressed concern that 30% of US bases are threatened by rising sea levels, which creates a long-term national security issue.

Democratic leaders could to more to parade military leaders with their medals and accomplishments and explain the potential costs of global warming.  That message could trickle down . . . to local utilities as well as other local businesses and service providers, which could offer their customers more of a financial incentive to reduce energy.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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