Saturday, August 21, 2010

Behavioral wedges (and science reporting)

One of the items of scratched vinyl in my head is this strange notion that we can get a good deal of climate emissions reductions and energy savings without a climate bill. Not that I don't want one. I do. I just don't think we'll get one for a year or five. The current political stand-off in Congress, especially the senate, is rather persistent. It will take a fairly major climactic event, several more Katrinas, or a Pakistani monsoon in the Mississippi drainage, or the wildfire destruction of a major southern California city, or all of the above plus $5/gallon gas, to shake the senate and/or the US public out of complacency.

This is just a notion of mine, but based on my growing experience in practical green building and retrofit. These days, if you invite me over, I'm likely to start investigating the air leaks in your basement, or telling you just how much money you're paying to run that "retro" fridge. But I'm too busy with my regular teaching, our wind research, and other related projects to do the actual scientific number crunching to test the hypothesis.

(So I write about it here instead, as I do with a lot of my bugbears. I also post on other people's blogs. This is not of course, how I was taught to "do" science reading or research, but the Internet is changing all that very quickly.)

But a group of fairly senior researchers has done the number crunching, and so it's official.

Recently I posted on Revkin's blog (at the NYT) and the authors of this article responded.

There's a moderately popularized version here, and a more formal one here.

(The authors are Thomas Dietz, Gerald Gardner, Jonathan Gilligan, Paul Stern, and Michael Vandenbergh.)

They also have a web site for their work. I find it helpful that more and more peer-reviewed work is now being made widely available through these dedicated sites that authors post or other similar means. Typically, if I wanted to read the original, I'd have to buy the journal or write our librarian and have her ILL it.

But these guys, like a lot of others, provide a link. Speeding up the dissemination of useful ideas is a very good thing.

(Interesting how so many of my colleagues still ban Internet sources for research papers. I expect when the first science journals came out, there were Oxford and Cambridge dons that decried their presumption, criticized their authority, and sent their students to go read Aristotle instead. Actually, I just read, in William Rosen's The Most Powerful Idea in the World (p125), that one of the best sources for scientific information in 18th century England was The Ladies Diary. Apparently, more by accident than design, this magazine, previously more or less what it's title suggests, became a leading reporting forum in its day. So go figure. Time and ideas wait for no man or woman.)

Dietz, one of the co-authors of the behavioral wedge idea, I've met, I think, at US Society for Ecological Economics conferences or something like that.

There's still the question of how to overcome the complacency. The authors evaluate the various methods so far used to interest the public in emissions reductions/energy efficiency methods. They conclude, in that wonderful values-neutral science langauge, that large reductions are possible and can be achieved if policymakers use the best ideas and the most effective incentives.

The most effective? Cash, it turns out. Duh.

But still, this is a very helpful contribution, and one I might not have found were it not for my Internet habits. I'll add the paper and some discussion of it to a couple of my classes.

Here's their concluding paragraph:

"Lifestyle changes may become necessary in the out-years under constrained energy supply or economic growth scenarios, and they may become more attractive as a result of changes in social attitudes or national or community priorities, some of which might evolve from grassroots efforts to achieve the emissions reductions analyzed here. Additionally, policies that add a financial incentive for carbon emissions reduction are likely to increase behavioral plasticity and may also induce downsizing of household equipment. A U.S. demonstration of leadership on achieving the behavioral wedge might help induce other countries to do the same. The potential of behavioral change deserves increased policy attention. Future analyses of the potential of efficiency in meeting emissions goals should incorpo- rate behavioral as well as economic and engineering elements."

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