House Watch

How to motivate people to make homes energy-efficient

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, April 10, 2010

When parents buy a house, some aspects of their children's future weigh heavily in their decision. For example, many parents will sacrifice to get a house in a good school district, even if it means buying a house that barely meets their space needs or involves a commute to work that is hugely inconvenient.

But another aspect of their children's future, the environment that the kids will inherit one day, can also be affected by the parent's housing choices, and this aspect generally gets short shrift.

In the United States, buildings are the largest source of the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. More than half of those buildings are houses. Homeowners produce emissions as they consume fossil fuels for home heating, cooking and water heating. Those emissions make up about 28 percent of the household's total, according to the EIA. The other 72 percent is generated off-site at the plant that produces the household's electricity, which most likely runs on coal or natural gas.

When homeowners make a house more energy-efficient, they reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with it. Collectively, even small actions by millions of homeowners can make a difference. For example, by replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, CFLs, the average American household can reduce its total energy use by 7.2 percent, based on EIA data. If every household in the United States did this, it would be, in the words of energy experts, "hugely significant."

So why aren't we doing anything? To find out what motivates us to make some decisions and not others, I asked three scholars, with different areas of expertise.

Jonah Lehrer, author of "How We Decide" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009) and a former researcher in neuroscience said: "We're very good at focusing on the immediate, especially when it involves our children, but we're simply not geared to think about the future. It's a well known blind spot." When climate scientists offer grim scenarios of what the climate might be like 50 years from now, most people are not scared because "it's too remote and abstract," he said.

Scientists also talk about the global scale of climate change, but facts and figures by themselves are not compelling, Lehrer said. They won't motivate us or touch our emotions, a connection that is critical when you are trying to get people to act. You need a powerful emotional story that makes the statistics personal. Then we will start to connect the dots.

For example, when we see a photo of a child in Nepal who is hungry because changing weather patterns have drastically reduced the amount of food her family can raise, we can empathize with the situation, and the issue begins to become personal.

Lehrer concluded by suggesting that if society wants to change behavior, it's much more effective to raise its cost through taxes. "That doesn't require people to think about the future," he said, "just the immediate trade-offs. Would you rather spend money on a T-shirt or a pack of cigarettes?"

Matthew Kotchen, an environmental economics professor at Yale University, agreed that price can be a powerful inducement to alter behavior. For example, if electricity costs in the United States were comparable to those in Europe, which can be more than double what they are here, we would consume less.

But in the absence of such price incentives, Kotchen said, most people decline to do anything when they perceive that the effects of their actions are marginal at best. He said: "The average homeowner is likely say, 'The benefits of my home improvements for reducing carbon dioxide emissions are so infinitesimally small, the future benefits to my kids are so small, and I'm such a small player, it won't make a difference.' "

If you leave climate change out of the equation and simply focus on the money that people can save when they use less energy, research has shown that most homeowners don't make good energy-saving choices because the dollar savings are not big enough, Kotchen said. In the commercial property realm, start-up firms are tapping into this aversion and proposing to install energy-saving measures free, if the owner will split the cost-savings with them. Even with this, people don't do it, he said.

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