Department of Environmental Sciences

Department of Environmental Sciences

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Seminar Abstracts
Environmental Sciences Seminar Abstract            

  Human behavior and climate change: Preferences for change and perceptions of energy consumption
Shahzeen Attari
Columbia University

In this presentation, I aim to discuss two studies. My first study is on preferences to change behavior. Pittsburgh residents (n = 209) reported their preferences for voluntary actions, soft regulations, and hard regulations to (a) limit the number of SUVs and trucks and (b) increase green energy use for household energy consumption. These two goals were presented in one of two motivating frames, as addressing either environmental or national security issues. For the goal of limiting SUVs and trucks, results indicated that participants favored voluntary actions over hard regulations, and soft regulations over voluntary actions. For the goal of increasing green energy, results indicated that participants preferred both voluntary actions and soft regulations over hard regulations, but had no significant preference between voluntary actions and soft regulations. Participants' environmental attitudes (as assessed using the New Ecological Paradigm scale) had a strong positive relationship with support for regulatory strategies intended to change the behaviors in question. Women were more likely to support voluntary actions than men. The loss of personal freedom was frequently mentioned as a reason for saying no to hard regulations.

My second study is a national online survey of participants (n = 505) who reported their perceptions of energy consumption and savings for a variety of household, transportation, and recycling activities. When asked for the most effective strategy they could implement to conserve energy, most participants mentioned curtailment (e.g., turning off lights, driving less) rather than efficiency improvements (e.g., installing more efficient light bulbs and appliances), in contrast to experts' recommendations. For a sample of 15 activities, participants underestimated energy use and savings by a factor of 2.75. In addition, they overestimated consumption and savings for low-energy activities and underestimated consumption and savings for high-energy activities. Other estimation and ranking tasks yielded similar results. Across several tasks, participants with higher numeracy scores and stronger pro-environmental attitudes had more accurate perceptions. The serious deficiencies highlighted by these results suggest that well-designed efforts to improve the public's understanding of energy use and savings could pay large dividends.

Last updated: 10/23/2009