‘Green’ Bandwagon is Getting a Big Push

Usa_today_logo_jpegOriginally posted March 24, 2008
By Marilyn Elias, USA Today

"The missing ingredient is the force of public opinion."

That’s the line Cathy Zoi recalls from former
vice president Al Gore when he urged her to become CEO of the Alliance
for Climate Protection.

Green_bandwagon_jpeg
Americans are aware of global warming, "but they don’t get the urgency
of it and that this is solvable," says Zoi, who took the job last year.

The new group is about to launch the most ambitious U.S. marketing
campaign ever on climate change, at a cost of more than $100 million a
year for three years, to focus on the urgency of the problem and
solutions.

The need for a different approach is apparent, environmentalists say.

"We’ve come up against a brick wall with
Americans," says Lee Bodner, executive director of ecoAmerica, an
environmental group based in Washington, D.C. Despite Americans’
widespread familiarity with global warming, "only a small group are
changing their behavior."

There’s little research on how to lower people’s energy use, but early evidence suggests that many people will change if:

• They think others similar to themselves are jumping on the "green" bandwagon.

• They get frequent positive feedback for effort.

• They feel able to make a difference by taking concrete steps.

• They think their children will be harmed by global warming, or children encourage the family to lead a greener life.

Though research about green behavior is sparse,
there’s strong evidence on what sparks behavior change in general. "We
just haven’t applied it to global warming the way we have to public
health issues like smoking and cholesterol," says Douglas
McKenzie-Mohr, environmental psychologist in Fredericton, Ontario.

Fact-jammed books — appeals often used by global
warming activists — and terrifying threats about the future that don’t
offer solutions won’t motivate many people and may even backfire, says
Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale University Project on Climate
Change. The more people are inundated with facts and figures, the more
emotionally turned off many become, "and you have to have an emotional
response — bad or good — to put a high priority on doing something."

That’s not to say dire threats work better. If
not paired with positive, doable actions, fear tactics can make people
feel overwhelmed and powerless, Leiserowitz says.

Spreading the word

It’s understandable that activists want to
heighten a sense of the threat. Most Americans see global warming as a
problem of the future in a far-away place, likely to affect other
species but not people, Leiserowitz’s surveys show. Although concern
has grown, fewer than one-fifth of Americans are passionate about the
issue, suggests a sweeping 2007 poll by Jon Krosnick of Stanford
University.

Amping up awareness could raise pressure for
policy changes by government but won’t necessarily change personal
behavior. Decades of research show little correlation between attitudes
and behavior, says Carrie Armel of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for
Energy Efficiency. On global warming, action can be hard: Even
concerned people may live where there’s no good public transportation
and be unable to afford solar heat panels.

So what does spark change?

For one thing, many are prompted to take green actions if they think others like them are doing it.

In studies at hotels, guests who read in-room
cards urging them to reuse towels to save energy were much less likely
to comply than travelers whose cards said most hotel visitors recycled
towels. Cards that said most who stayed in that very room had reused
towels were even more likely to recycle.

"We most want to follow those who seem similar
to us," says study leader Robert Cialdini, a persuasion expert at
Arizona State University.

Cialdini’s studies also have found that people use less energy if they think most neighbors have cut back.

"This ‘everybody’s doing it’ pitch is almost
never used in the PSAs around energy conservation." If people hear
they’re doing better than neighbors, they’ll raise their energy use.
But they’ll come down again if they just get a smiley-face icon on
their bill praising their extra effort, Cialdini says.

Tailoring messages to diverse audiences and
hearing them from many sources also fosters change, says Edward
Maibach, director of a new center on climate change and communication
at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

"We have to mainstream this. It has to become easy and normal," Zoi says.

The Alliance for Climate Protection will buy ads
and partner with grass-roots groups to spread the word on how to cut
greenhouse gases. It also is seeking partnerships with consumer product
makers "to amplify the message" on how to curb global warming through
their packaging, websites or ads, Zoi says. The website
www.wecansolveit.org, scheduled to launch in the next week, will spell
out concrete steps for change.

Even with mass exposure, "you need to offer a
reason to make changes that connects to something they care about,
probably something close to home," says ecoAmerica’s Bodner.

At work and at home

For Brian Flynn, it was bears creating havoc in
Aspen, Colo. Bears were coming into town a few years ago, breaking open
containers of discarded vegetable oil behind restaurants and scaring
people.

Companies supply and pick up the containers,
because commercial oil can’t be dumped into landfills. Flynn, a manager
for the city, came up with the idea for a bear-proof container. He
learned of a company in Denver that converts the oil into a cleaner
fuel for automobiles, "and the next thing you know I had a recycling
business on the side," picking up the oil so it can be converted into
fuel. His own Ford pickup has been modified to run on the recycled fuel.

When Flynn and his wife, Lisa, built their first
house three years ago, they used recycled wood and framed with huge
foam panels that cut the need for heat. That and other green features
increased costs by $50,000 to $60,000 — roughly 8% more than a similar
house without such materials, he says. "We have a very large mortgage,
and we don’t have a lot of extra money, but I don’t want to be a drain
on this society. It makes me feel good to live this way."

Surprisingly, money doesn’t matter nearly as
much as many think in deciding whether to buy a gas hog or
fuel-efficient car, according to new research. "Most people don’t buy
cars based on fuel economy," says Tom Turrentine, director of the
Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of
California-Davis. "Again and again, we hear ‘I buy cars I really like.’
"

As for buying a hybrid car, money matters, "but
buyers often are much more motivated by making a statement about their
values and beliefs. They feel it shows they’re ethical people, that we
need to get together as a community to solve this," says Rusty Heffner
of Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm in McLean, Va.

Tom Creasman, 61, of Cincinnati says he likes
the $3,000 he saves — compared with previous cars he has owned — by
driving 25,000 miles a year in his Prius.

"But it’s equally important that it fits with
our lifestyle," he says. The family has drought-resistant landscaping,
eats organic and is considering adding solar heat panels. "I’ve always
been a backpacker, kind of leave-no-footprint-oriented. We try not to
live our lives like pigs at the trough."

Persuading people such as Creasman to lighten
their carbon footprint is easier than persuading others, says Bill
Guns, CEO of SRI Consulting Business Intelligence, a consumer behavior
research firm. Since 1990, SRI has used a method called the VALS System
that separates Americans into categories based on what motivates them
to make choices.

About 20% will be driven by facts and ideals to
change behaviors that contribute to global warming, he says. Most are
already convinced of problems linked to climate change.

But another, highly influential 25% are
middle-of-the-road, achievement-oriented people, many of them 30 to 50
years old. "They never have enough time or money," he says.

Wonky research gives them a desired pretext to
toss global warming concerns in the "ignore" box, he says. They’re
drawn to appeals that promise more success or financial security.

The youth factor

And one thing matters greatly to many of them: their children.

"Kids are particularly effective in getting
changes into these ‘achiever’ households," for example by demanding a
greener household, Guns says.

Any pitch that suggests their children will
suffer harm from global warming would hit this group hard, and their
choices often spread to the rest of the population, he says.

To achieve widespread greener behavior and big policy changes, "we need to get this group on board," Guns says.

Changes in how people live and use energy are inevitable, "because nature bats last," McKenzie-Mohr says.

"We’ll be forced into it, whether we do it
proactively or retroactively, and I hope it’s not retroactive because
then we’ll always be in a crisis mode. If we do it proactively, we’re
more likely to do it wisely."

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