Motivating climate change solutions by fusing facts and feelings

Team: Shahzeen Attari

(Funded by Carnegie Corporation, Andrew Carnegie Fellowship) 

Human behavior is responsible for the relentless rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration from fossil fuel combustion, and the planet is on course for drastic climate change impacts in the decades to come. In order to avoid the worst of these outcomes and protect the environment from further degradation, individual and institutional behaviors need to change in step with national climate policies. As a Carnegie Fellow, I aim to identify keys to transforming public sentiment in favor of climate change protection through three research challenges. (1) Articulate and compile, through expert elicitation and in-depth literature reviews, a detailed library of politically feasible climate solutions to reduce carbon emissions in the U.S. energy system. (2) Identify the psychological barriers that limit public support for these solutions using multiple online experiments to distill effective behavioral and policy heuristics derived from the expert elicitation. The goal is to test how novices understand and act on these heuristics, including increasing support for the policies and the pathways identified. (3) Investigate how to facilitate significant behavior change and positive public sentiment by teaching the expert-derived heuristics supplemented by emotional and cognitive scaffolding

Understanding and correcting misperceptions of energy use 

Team: Joe Kantenbacher, Deidra Miniard, David Landy, and Shahzeen Attari

(Funded by National Science Foundation - Decision, Risk, and Management Science) 

Prior research has shown that people’s perceptions of energy and water use are marred by systematic and sometimes large inaccuracies. On average, water use is underestimated by a factor of 1.6 to 2, and energy use by a factor of 2.8 (Attari, 2014; Attari, DeKay, Davidson, & Bruine de Bruin, 2010). Why do people perceive water use more accurately than energy use? One reason why perceptions of water use are more accurate may be due to the consistent physical characteristics of water as opposed to energy, which is transformed based on the end-use activity (e.g., heating, cooling, lighting, motion). Another reason for greater accuracy for water use is that most Americans make decisions about gallons of liquid nearly every day, e.g., buying gasoline or milk, therefore the unit of measurement may be much more familiar for water use than for energy use. These suggested hypotheses still remain to be tested. Here, we first focus on correcting misperceptions of energy use by testing the effect of different anchors on the estimation task. We then aim to explore how "manufactured heuristics" can improve perceptions and decision making for energy. Lastly, we aim to explore how these corrections translate to improving perceptions of water use.  

Curtailment versus efficiency in energy conservation 

Team: Janine Tang, Daniel Lundberg, Adam Swiatkowski, and Shahzeen Attari

(Funded by the Indiana University Office of Sustainability and SPEA)

Whenever people are asked, “What is the single most effective thing you can do to save energy?” the response is overwhelmingly “turn off the lights.” (Kempton et al. 1985; Attari et al. 2010). However, turning off the lights is not the most effective action to save energy. This misperception is very common and hard to change. Here we propose to study when and why people list ineffective actions to this question rather than effective actions. We have collected preliminary data and have begun categorizing effective and ineffective behaviors into four categories: curtailment, efficiency, hardship, and maintenance. Each of these four categories pose different challenges to adoption. For example, investing in efficiency usually requires upfront capital investment. Here we aim to identify the main barriers which prevent people from conserving household energy and analyze reasons for the persistence of these misperceptions. Identifying these barriers will be a required step in addressing the challenge of decreasing household energy use and carbon emissions. 

Ad hominem attacks on climate change researchers

Team: Shahzeen Attari, David Krantz, and Elke Weber

(Funded by SPEA and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University )

In this project we aim to investigate a climate change researchers own carbon footprint in gaining trust and legitimacy from the public. Imagine you are attending a talk from a leading climate change researcher who advocates for decreasing energy consumption to mitigate negative climate effects. You later find out that this researcher has a much higher than average carbon footprint, even after telling you and the audience how important it was to minimize consumption. Do you trust this researcher? Are you now going to change your behavior based on the advice given? The general public’s answers to these questions and overall beliefs on the topic are essential pieces of information for climate change researchers to understand. We hope to provide a comprehensive overview of public perception on this topic to better inform these researchers in their decision making of their own footprint, and how they communicate this to audiences.

Transitions and tradeoffs between food, energy, and water security in Zambia and Kenya

Kurt Waldman, Tom Evans, Beth Plale, Kelly Caylor, Justin Sheffield, and Shahzeen Attari

(Funded by National Science Foundation - Water Sustainability and Climate Change)

Despite massive investments in food aid, agricultural extension, and seed/fertilizer subsidies, nearly 1 billion people in the developing world are food insecure and vulnerable to climate variability. The ability of subsistence farmers to respond to changes in water availability involves both inter-and intra-seasonal adaptation, although most prior research has focused on inter-annual adaptation. We are conducting a comparative study that will implement a novel sociohydrological data collection scheme. We aim to use these data to develop a suite of forecast tools for improving assessment and prediction of food security and the sustainability of dryland agriculture in response to changing intra-seasonal water availability. Kenyan smallholders are often members of community-level irrigation/water governance projects who have access to modest infrastructure and hierarchical agency involvement, whereas Zambian smallholders are mostly independent or socially connected rain-fed agriculturalists who typically have limited information access. In these two contexts we are (a) deploying instrumentation to measure rainfall, soil moisture, and other environmental measures relevant to crop production, (b) collecting streamflow data in a series of catchments around Mt. Kenya where community irrigation projects are prevalent, (c) collecting weekly data from farmers using brief SMS text-based mobile phone data collection on crop conditions, and (d) conducting intensive post-harvest surveys with farmers to understand overall farm management strategies.