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Energy efficiency

By Linda Stewart

Energy efficiency is often a hard sell in the US. Energy efficient devices can require a bit more money up front, which is then paid back gradually often over the course of several years. But a new study in the latest edition of PNAS suggests that the problem isn’t only a matter of economics—instead, like so much else, energy efficiency has become politicized. Because they so strongly object to the thought of climate change, many conservatives won’t spend more for energy-efficient light bulbs if their packaging contains a message about cutting carbon emissions.

The study had two parts. All participants were asked a bit about their demographic information and their political leanings. Then, one set was asked a series of questions about energy efficiency, which gauged how much the participants valued things like energy independence, limiting carbon emissions, or simply saving money on energy.

In the initial analysis, each of these factors appeared to be a negative for the conservatives, which didn’t make a lot of sense—who actually devalues saving money on energy? But the lack of enthusiasm for curbing carbon emissions among the conservatives was rather dramatic, so the authors separated that out. When it was controlled for, it turns out that the conservatives in the study actually valued energy independence and saving money more than the more liberal study participants. It’s just that they disliked the thought of avoiding carbon emissions so much that it overwhelmed these tendencies. (This effect was much stronger among conservative males.)

To see whether this played out in practical decisions, the authors gave a second set of participants some cash and asked them to buy either an incandescent or compact fluorescent lightbulb; they were able to keep the change. When the two bulbs cost the same amount, all but one of the participants opted for the more energy-efficient bulb.

Then the researchers priced the incandescent bulb at $.50 and the compact fluorescent bulb at $1.50. When the bulbs carried no special label, the majority of participants opted for the energy-efficient one, even though it cost more up front, and there was little ideological divide on matters. Slap a “Protect the Environment” sticker on, however, and things changed—only the most liberal participants were more likely to opt for it. The more centrist liberals were indifferent to the message and, by the time moderates were examined, the message became a turnoff. Things got even worse with the conservatives.

In other words, a pro-environment message is enough to get a significant number of people to change their purchase decisions and avoid an environmentally friendly product—even if it would save them money.

In many ways, these results echo those of a variety of previous surveys, which suggested things like energy-efficient and renewable technology was more popular when it was sold as that—technology. This resonates across the political spectrum, because most US citizens appreciate technological advances and associate them with jobs and economic well-being.

But environmental concerns have become politicized, and conservative candidates often portray environmental regulations as a threat to jobs. In that context, helping the environment in any way can seem like an attack on a person’s cultural identity—even if it’s something the person would happily support otherwise. “Our results demonstrate that individuals will forego economically beneficial options if these options promote a value that is in conflict with their political ideology,” as the authors put it.

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