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By the time climate change has permanently altered the place you live, the choices you have about how to react are relatively narrow: mitigate, adapt, rebuild, or relocate.
But for people hit less directly by climate change, the decisions have lower personal stakes—such as whether or not to pay for carbon offsets. And these can be influenced by subtle changes in how information about global warming is communicated, suggests a study by Goethe University’s René Bernard, Panagiota Tzamourani of Germany’s Bundesbank, and Chicago Booth’s Michael Weber. In their analysis, telling people what others were doing prompted them to do more to reduce their own emissions.
The researchers posed questions through a national survey conducted by the Bundesbank, asking Germans how much they would be willing to pay to offset their carbon footprint from a hypothetical roundtrip flight to Mallorca, Spain.
All respondents outside a control group were then given information about carbon emissions’ impact on global warming, and on how people can reduce their individual emissions. For some, this information was framed as coming from government experts. For others, the type of expert was not specified. For two final groups, the researchers described the ideas as practices that other Germans had already taken up: either other Germans generally, or those in roughly the same age cohort as the respondent.
At the end of the survey, respondents were asked again for the sum they would be willing to spend to offset their own emissions—this time from a hypothetical transatlantic flight.
People increased their carbon-offset spending most after hearing that other Germans—whether their age or not—were taking similar action, the research finds.
The messenger matters
In Germany, researchers asked survey respondents how much they’d be willing to spend on carbon offsets—then asked again after sharing some information about the impact of carbon emissions. Information delivered by peers of the same age cohort had the biggest effect on respondents’ willingness to spend on offsets. But information framed as coming from scientific researchers, particularly by government experts, also had a significant effect.
The “scientific framing” presented to the first two groups also had an effect, although not as much. These respondents indicated they would increase their spending on offsets, but the average sum was two-thirds as much as the “peer-framing” groups offered. Those who believed the information came from government experts indicated a greater willingness to increase their spending than those whose information came from unspecified experts—easing, perhaps, concerns that citizens are increasingly skeptical of institutions such as governments, says Weber.
These subtleties are important because individual behavior, at scale, can change the direction of global warming. Households account for almost three-quarters of emissions globally. In Germany, the figure is 63 percent, according to a 2009 analysis by Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Edgar Hertwich and the Center for International Climate Research’s Glen Peters—though the proportion of household emissions that comes from transportation, including air travel, is higher than the global average.
But the study also emphasizes the need for policy makers to think carefully about how they frame their messages. “Successful campaigns to reduce individuals’ carbon footprints cannot purely rely on providing information but also have to find creative ways to reach individuals that normally would not actively search for this information,” the researchers write.
This conclusion stems in part from a follow-up survey conducted later, which gave a new set of survey respondents one of two articles to read about climate change—one that focused on the impact of rising temperatures on landscape and weather, and another that questioned whether humans are responsible.
For respondents who did not already hold strong views about climate change, reading the first article resulted in an increase in what they were willing to pay to offset their own emissions. The readings had no effect, however, on people who had indicated that they were either deeply concerned or relatively unconcerned about global warming.
This aligned with results from the earlier survey, which showed prior beliefs affected respondents’ willingness to pay for carbon offsets in light of expert and peer information. Individuals who had indicated they were concerned about climate change, as well as those who voted for left-of-center political parties in Germany, increased their offsets by a greater degree than the control groups, whereas right-wing voters made no change to their sums, however the information was framed.
Respondents who said they were very concerned about COVID, meanwhile, were less likely to react to the information. As Weber observes, “Maybe you only have the energy to worry about one big issue at a time.”
- René Bernard, Panagiota Tzamourani, and Michael Weber, “Climate Change and Individual Behavior,” Working paper, May 2022.
- Edgar Hertwich and Glen Peters, “Carbon Footprint of Nations: A Global, Trade-Linked Analysis,” Environmental Science & Technology, June 2009.
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