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Thursday, May 2, 2013

We need new messaging on carbon emissions


How can we get people to embrace the idea of reducing carbon emissions? By not mentioning carbon emissions, for one thing. University of Pennsylvania researchers Dena Gromet, Howard Kunreuther and Richard Larrick have found that politically conservative people are less likely to favor products that are explicitly labeled as ‘environmentally friendly’.

The researchers asked 657 people how much they supported investing in energy-efficient technologies as well as how much value they placed on three specific consequences of these technologies: reducing carbon emissions, reducing dependence on foreign oil, and lowering the price of energy. The more conservative people were, the less they liked the idea of investing in energy-efficient products. They particularly had little interest in lowering carbon emissions. They did however, like the idea of energy independence.

In the next set of experiments, 210 volunteers were given the chance to put their money where their mouths were. Each person was given $2 with which to buy a light bulb. They were given a choice between an incandescent light bulb and a compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb. In some cases, the two bulbs were the same price ($0.50), and in others the CFL was $1.50 and the incandescent bulb was still only $0.50 (reflecting real world price differences). In either case, participants were allowed to keep the change.

The subjects were all provided with information about how much more energy-efficient the CFL bulbs were (lasting 9,000 hours longer, reducing energy costs by 75%) than the incandescent bulbs. The CFL bulbs came with either a ‘Protect the Environment’ sticker or a blank sticker. Other than this sticker, the bulbs did not explicitly mention environmental benefits.

When the two types of bulbs were the same price, all but one person chose to buy a CFL bulb regardless of sticker. Conservatives and liberals were equally likely to buy CFL bulbs costing three times as much as incandescent bulbs when those CFL bulbs came with a blank sticker. Apparently, under neutral conditions, anyone can see the value in a product that lasts ten times as long for only three times as much money. However, unlike liberals, conservatives were less likely to choose the more expensive CFL bulbs if those bulbs were accompanied by an environmental label. This suggests that idealogically conservative people would rather pay more than be associated with protecting the environment. 

Although I could take this as rather depressing news, I think it’s important to be aware of these attitudes. If people don’t care about protecting the environment or reducing carbon emissions but do care about energy independence and cost efficiency, then by all means, let’s focus on those attributes. After all, energy-efficient technologies will provide all those benefits.


Gromet, D., Kunreuther, H., & Larrick, R. (2013). Political ideology affects energy-efficiency attitudes and choices Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1218453110.