How Consumers Can Affect Climate Change

Changes in the way Americans drive, the appliances we use, and how much we recycle can lead to a significant reduction in carbon emissions, says the co-author of an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Michael Vanderberg says change can be significant even if not everyone takes part.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Stop going green, those words published in a Washington Post op-ed over the weekend came from the executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Mike Tidwell argued against what he calls our fattish and counterproductive emphasis on small voluntary actions to save the planet. Instead, he urges Americans to take political action. But with climate talks underway in Copenhagen, we thought we'd try to find out just how big an effect things such as energy efficient light bulbs and appliances actually have on the environment.

And for some answers, we turn to Michael Vandenbergh. He co-authored an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that suggests that household actions are worth the trouble. Thank you for joining us.

Professor MICHAEL VANDENBERGH (Harvard University; Co-author, �Household Actions can Provide a Behavioral Wedge to Rapidly Reduce U.S. Carbon Emissions.�): I'm happy to be here.

SIEGEL: And what kind of actions we are looking at?

Prof. VANDENBERGH: We're looking at a range of actions from household weatherization to changing driving behavior, to changing thermostat settings, to changing purchasing behavior for more efficient appliances and things of that nature.

SIEGEL: Now, you argue in the article that changing household behavior is the cheapest and fastest way of reducing emissions. But are you assuming that everybody will undertake these steps or would just, say, 10 percent of the population doing it, would that have a significant effect?

Prof. VANDENBERGH: Even a small percentage would have a very significant effect on U.S. carbon emissions. Household behavior in the U.S. makes up about eight percent of the world share of greenhouse gas emissions. It's larger than any country other than China. We estimate that we could reduce by 123 million metric tons or seven percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years through the kinds of behavior changes that we've talked about.

SIEGEL: Seven percent.

Prof. VANDENBERGH: Seven percent. That's equivalent to the total emissions of France. It's also equivalent to the combined emissions of the petroleum refining, iron and steel and aluminum industries combined. One of the largest problems that we face is getting over the presumption that people have that individual behavior or household behavior doesn't matter. But when you aggregate it across 300 million individuals and 100 million households, it has a very large impact on total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

SIEGEL: But do you have to assume these behaviors in 100 million households in order to get to those reductions you're talking about?

Prof. VANDENBERGH: We do not. One of the most important parts of our analysis is to be very careful about understanding what we call plasticity, that is, how changeable is the behavior? Inducing people to carpool would have a great change in carbon emissions per individual, but it's very hard to do. So, for many of the behaviors we look at in our paper, we're only assuming a 15 or 25 or 35 percent change in that behavior, nothing near 100 percent.

SIEGEL: Would these reductions actually have a palpable effect on the climate over the next decade or so?

Prof. VANDENBERGH: Well, absolutely. And I think that it's a mistake to look at any one activity in isolation. We don't know precisely where that next contribution of carbon emissions will cause a very substantial change in the climate. But it's a mistake to look at the problem as if any one small piece of it doesn't matter. The problem is significant enough that all the small pieces put together matter. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by somewhere between 50 and 80 percent by 2050. And we won't get there if we slice off each small percentage.

SIEGEL: Now, I mean, part of the problem that I think Mike Tidwell was addressing in his Washington Post article is that there's a public perception that if you use a more energy-efficient appliance, if you recycle, if you bike to work, you're doing your part and therefore more macro solutions are not so necessary.

Prof. VANDENBERGH: That's an understandable assumption. But there's actually no research that supports that idea. In fact, the little bit of research that's available suggests that people, when they do something good for the environment, don't do less other good things. And, in fact, there are a number of psychological phenomena that suggests that we might actually induce more support for behavior change. When someone becomes committed to a certain behavior, they're more likely to follow through in other areas as well.

So there are a number of reasons why we might assume that if people take small individual steps, it actually contributes to additional support for political change or for governmental change. But the research is very thin on that. And that's an area that we need to do further work on.

SIEGEL: Michael Vandenbergh, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Prof. VANDENBERGH: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Michael Vandenbergh is visiting professor of law at Harvard University. And he's co-author of the article �Household Actions can Provide a Behavioral Wedge to Rapidly Reduce U.S. Carbon Emissions.�

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