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Perspective: How to make US climate policies more effective

Experts discuss how insights from social science research can help U.S. climate policies overcome polarization and spur lasting change in consumer behavior.

Two workers in hardhats carry a solar panel on a tiled roof
Some analyses suggest recently passed laws could reduce emissions by more than 40% below 2005 levels by 2030. (Image credit: Getty Images)

The United States has enacted three major laws in recent years aimed at least in part at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act. 

These laws provide investments in clean energy projects and encourage technological innovations. Some analyses suggest they could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40% below 2005 levels by 2030. 

However, in a perspective piece published Jan. 16 in Nature Climate Change, researchers including Gabrielle Wong-Parodi of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability write that these estimates may be overly optimistic, with challenges including the way consumers commonly arrive at decisions, political polarization, and popular misconceptions about public opinion. 

Failing to address these challenges could “breed cynicism” about future government efforts to address climate change, the authors write. But overcoming them could fuel “virtuous cycles,” said Wong-Parodi, who is an assistant professor of Earth system science and of environmental social sciences. “Policies that make EVs cost competitive may result in greater uptake and a change in social norms regarding EVs, and inspire more ambitious policies to enhance EV adoption,” she said.

Past research points to several promising solutions to the general challenge of inspiring consumers to look beyond near-term considerations like upfront installation costs, the authors write. For example, they suggest increasing focus on training the professionals who interact with customers, such as heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning specialists, to effectively communicate available incentives and the long-term savings from installing solar panels or heat pumps, or weatherizing homes. 

When it comes to overcoming polarization, the authors recommend that policymakers emphasize economic considerations and highlight actions being taken in the private sector in addition to government policies. They also call for more inclusive deliberation and concrete steps to minimize financial impacts on citizens. For example, because lower-income consumers are less likely to be homeowners, they are less able to take advantage of incentives for technologies like electric cars and heat pumps, “and when climate policies expand to include carbon pricing, lower-income consumers will bear the brunt of those costs,” the authors write. This disparity could be offset by expanding access to inexpensive credit, for example, or by using carbon-tax revenue to fund social-welfare programs.

“America stands at a pivotal moment with the passage of its ambitious climate legislation,” said Leaf Van Boven, a co-author of the paper and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. “The nation’s ability to unite behind these transformative policies will either ignite a sustainable energy revolution or fumble into the familiar deadlock of political discord.” 

This story was adapted from a press release originally published by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Wong-Parodi is also a center fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

Work on the Nature Climate Change perspective article was funded by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the Center for Creative Climate Communication and Behavior Change at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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Josie Garthwaite

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability
(650) 497-0947

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