Monday, September 29, 2008

Knowledge, Belief ..... Action?

We recently conducted a survey of 1,003 New Jersey adults with funds provided by PSEG on beliefs and knowledge of the causes of climate change and what relation (if any) these might have to energy consumption habits. Here are some highlights.

Belief in human caused climate change:

A majority of respondents (54%) believe global warming is a proven fact and mostly caused by human activity. 18% believe it is a proven fact but not caused by human activity. 21% believe it is not as yet a proven fact.

80% of respondents reported lowering the use of their heating and cooling systems in the last 2 years. Roughly 75% said they had installed compact fluorescent light bulbs. Roughly two-thirds each said they had bought energy-efficient appliances in the last two years and had programmable thermostats in their homes A third or a bit more each had installed more efficient heating or cooling systems, replaced windows, or added or replaced insulation. “Clean energy" options of buying "green electricity" or installing solar panels were taken by less than 10%.
However, the results demonstrated few statistically significant relationships between belief in human caused climate change and reporting having engaged in energy saving actions. Believers were more likely to say they bought energy-efficient appliances, reduced the duration of use of heating and air conditioning, and installed compact fluorescent light bulbs than others, but did not differ on seven other actions. Respondents considered “saving money” to be the most persuasive argument for saving energy when asked to rate a list of hypothetical arguments.

Other noteworthy findings:

Although respondents who believe in human caused climate change have more accurate knowledge than others about the true causes of global warming (i.e., cars, the use of coal and oil by utilities, home heating and cooling and tropical forest destruction), they also have more false beliefs – for example, rating both ozone depletion and nuclear power as major causes as well. Among all respondents, 69% list ozone depletion as a major cause and 37% list nuclear power generation.

Support of the need for both the Federal and NJ State government to take action to stem global warming finds strong support among those who believe global warming is human caused (86%), and more generally by a majority OF all respondents. A belief that climate change will have a serious impact on NJ found similar rates of support.

Discussion and implications of the findings:

Although this study reports high rates of energy saving actions by respondents, self-reports are prone to be inaccurate. Such findings need to be corroborated with measurements of actual usage data. That said, these results may throw into question how much “low hanging” fruit there is for energy saving programs to target.

Although support for government action is high, these results are apt to fall dramatically when the actions specified could have a direct impact on the respondent as opposed to (for example) business and industry. As NJ moves to implement regulations to reduce green house gases, it would be valuable to understand the contours of support for government action better.

The fact that belief in human caused climate change is correlated with accurate knowledge of its true causes, but not with accurate knowledge of false causes, underscores the fact that the relationship between belief and knowledge is not nearly as straightforward as one might wish. Believing in human caused climate change may make one more prone to thinking that the causes of it are more widespread than they actually are.

The fact belief in human caused climate change is not correlated with many energy saving actions should give pause to any planning for education programs. The goals of such education programs need to be examined. If promoting energy efficiency is a goal, other than price, alternatives to improved education about climate change causes and effective solutions also merit examination – including norm based approaches, marketing strategies and the provision of real time consumption information.

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