As scientists reiterated at a just-concluded conference in Copenhagen, climate change is a serious but solvable problem. So what role should governments play to persuade the populace to take the necessary actions? A paper recently published in the journal Ecological Economics provides some clues.
In 2006, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University asked people in Pittsburgh about the extent to which the government should encourage environmentally friendly behavior. A remarkable 80 percent of respondents favored "soft regulations" such as tax incentives to encourage the purchase of more energy-efficient cars.
After being informed of the social costs of gas-guzzling SUVs and light trucks, 67 percent of people surveyed expressed willingness to sign a pledge stating they would avoid such models the next time they purchase a vehicle. Some survey takers framed the issue in terms of environmental degradation, while others emphasized the national-security issue (i.e., the threat of relying on imported oil), but the two-thirds number held steady either way.
However, only 30 percent of respondents agreed with the notion that the government should have the power to restrict the purchase of such vehicles.
A second question on "green energy" — that is, electricity generated from renewable sources such as wind farms — received a similar response. Seventy-six percent of people said they'd pledge to buy green energy from their power company; 69 percent favored tax incentives to encourage others to do so. However, only 39 percent expressed the view the government should make the purchase of such energy (which comes at a higher cost than energy from conventional sources) mandatory.
"Our results suggest that there may be more public buy-in for softer regulations such as market-based mechanisms intended to change behavior," write the researchers, who noted that "the need for personal freedom and choice was the most frequently mentioned reason by participants who did not want to accept hard regulations."
The results confirm the notion that Americans chafe at the notion of strict rules, even when they realize the benefits of the mandated behavior. But they do respond to incentives. So when it comes to convincing people to make changes in their lifestyles — something President Obama has pledged to do — a carrot (preferably organic) might be more effective than a stick.