How our brains make it hard to solve climate change

Source: By Chris Mooney, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, May 17, 2020

Shahzeen Attari studies the psychology behind energy use and our views of the climate problem

A molten salt solar thermal tower situated in the Atacama Desert in Chile. (Tamara Merino Bloch for The Washington Post)
A molten salt solar thermal tower situated in the Atacama Desert in Chile. (Tamara Merino Bloch for The Washington Post)

Shahzeen Attari, 38, is an associate professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. She’s particularly focused on the way people perceive their personal energy use and the decisions they make in their daily lives, and how that impacts greenhouse gas emissions linked to a warming planet.

She published a paper earlier this year that examined how people understand the energy system in the United States and what they hoped it would look like in 2050. She and her team of researchers found that both liberals and conservatives expect the energy system of the future will be dominated by renewable sources, such as solar and wind. This Q&A with Attari has been edited for brevity and clarity.

One of the things you found is that people really don’t understand a lot about energy in their lives or in society. Tell us about that work.

Attari: In general, people are able to rank appliances in terms of energy use, but they don’t have a clear understanding for what magnitude the energy differences might be. So they will know an air conditioner might be using more energy than a desktop or laptop computer, but they don’t know how much. And so I think that’s somewhat problematic.

But the good news is, in 2050, both conservatives and liberals want a severely decarbonized energy system. That’s really hopeful. But the question is, how do you get from where we are today to this 2050 vision?

Okay, so people don’t know how little the iPhone is drawing and how much the washer is drawing. What are the implications of that?

Attari: Since the 1980s, when people have been asked what is the single most effective thing you can do to conserve energy in your life, people have said … turn off the lights. Turning off the lights is great, but it’s not the most effective thing we can do … It’s actually the HVAC system. So these misperceptions are really important because if I am a motivated individual and I wanted to decrease my carbon footprint or my energy footprint, I’m putting my effort into the wrong bucket.

What would you do to correct this?

Attari: One avenue of research that we’re looking at is trying to … provide novices with a “heuristic,” which is a simple rule. So we just told people, hey, large appliances that heat and cool use a lot more energy than you think. And that actually improves people’s perceptions. That actually makes them more accurate.

Are you of the belief that people can make pretty big differences within their four walls … for the whole world or not?

Attari: Are individuals enough? No, when it comes to climate change or energy use. Are individuals required? I think yes. … And I’m not just saying individuals decreasing their energy use, but individuals going from the personal, which is changing their energy use, to the societal.

Why is it that it’s not enough to just tell people pretty clearly that, your Energy Star appliance, your electric car, your solar panels, they’re all gonna save you lots of money.

Attari: You’re exactly right. Except we have this pernicious problem called “status quo bias.” We’re kind of stuck in our ways as social animals, so it’s very hard to get people to change.

You find people care a lot about the person who’s communicating to them [about climate change], and they don’t just want that person to be an expert. They want them to practice what they preach.

Attari: What we found was, the climate communicator’s carbon footprint really matters when it comes to credibility …

When a scientist gives a talk, usually the auditorium doesn’t fit more than 100. You’re not changing society when that happens.

Attari: In terms of modeling change, I completely agree with you. I don’t think climate scientists and climate communicators in the traditional sense are the best communicators for this. … We need people who are conservatives and liberals and people of religious and not religious [beliefs]. I mean, like all hands on deck because they’re getting really, really different swaths of the audience out there, the world out there.

You also found it was credibility enhancing for a communicator to be green, but you could go too far and be too green, and then people got angry at you. Is that right?

Attari: If you’re super extreme, that actually hurts you as a communicator … it puts people off, which makes sense. Like you’re too holier than thou, so I don’t want to listen to you or change my behavior.

What are some other blockages that are psychological to getting people to care about the climate or energy?

Attari: One pattern that I’m trying to understand how to break, is how do we bridge this growing partisan gap when it comes to a lot of different things, everything from who people choose to marry to the coronavirus response to climate change. So where are the points where we’re more similar than we are different? And what are the types of stories that can actually bridge those gaps?

The one bright spot is that both conservatives and liberals want this green future, which is the report that we just published, which was really surprising to us. Because everything we’ve seen in climate change over the past few decades has shown that there has been this growing gap when it comes to conservatives and liberals. But here we have data that show that both of them want a green future, which is dominated by renewables. That’s amazing.

What behavioral changes could be made by people, employers, organizations as we emerge from the pandemic that would help mitigate the effects of climate change?

Attari: We have made unprecedented changes to our behavior in the past few months. This tells us that when we face a problem, we can indeed activate, even while suffering large losses. … To deal with climate, I tend to think about behavioral changes that are personal, social and political. Examples of personal behaviors are decreasing your carbon footprint and making changes to your lifestyle that help to transition away from fossil fuels. These behaviors include getting your home energy from renewable sources (solar panels on your roof for example), going meat free, buying and using an electric vehicle, and switching to efficient home appliances. On the social side you can talk to friends and family members about climate change, you can discuss how you have made changes in your life and inspire others. On the political side, write to elected officials about why acting on climate change now is a priority for our community. Vote people into office that take climate change seriously and will act to transform our energy system

I love what Arundhati Roy said: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our databanks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”