The Last Experiment

Feature / by David Zax /

It’s up to social science to make us act in an environmentally conscious way. But can we trick ourselves into saving ourselves?

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Line up a dozen environmentalists, ask them to conjure up an image of the sort of scientist who might save the planet from global warming, and it’s a safe bet none of them will imagine somebody like Benjamin Ho.

For one thing, Ho worked for a time in the Bush White House. For another, he’s not even a climate scientist. He doesn’t study global sea rise or Arctic ice melt, and he doesn’t project temperature increases. Nor does he have suggestions for technological solutions to the problem.

And why would he? Ben Ho is an economist. His doctoral work at Stanford consisted of a “statistical examination of the role apologies play in medical malpractice lawsuits.” He also did some work on how fads and fashion are used to signal identity — there was nary a kilowatt-hour nor a molecule of carbon dioxide in sight. Nevertheless, Ho claimed at a conference last November that it was social scientists like himself who held the key to saving the world from climate change.

His claim might seem audacious, but let’s step back a moment to examine our situation. We know that climate change is caused by human activity. We know seas will rise by at least 17 centimeters in the next century. We know we can expect stronger hurricanes; we know we will face more droughts and heat waves; we know deadly diseases will spread to new regions. We know the climate demands action. We know all these things, and yet we do not act. Why? We don’t exactly know. And that makes climate change a question for social scientists like Ben Ho.

“Human beings’ decision-making processes, as individuals and collectively, are probably at least as complicated as the climate system itself,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change. Rajendra Pachauri, the Nobel Prize–winning chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has suggested that the time has come “to start looking at the social-science aspects” of climate change. “You really need to mobilize the community,” he says. “I really don’t think we’ve done enough.”

The idea isn’t wholly new — the 1980s saw the first efforts to bring social science to bear on climate change — but the field is nonetheless nascent, its impact on the mainstream minimal. The investigators themselves are still somewhat fragmented, and they come from a field that has long prized theory over action. A large portion of the public is skeptical, fatigued, and even in the best of times, can be difficult to motivate. But the newest efforts hold real promise, the researchers say. Clarion calls and wailing alarms have been of little use. Whether these newer, subtler methods will prove powerful enough to succeed, when so many environmental campaigns have failed, remains to be seen. What’s at stake, however, may be nothing less than survival — for all kinds of life, including humankind.

After finishing his PhD at Stanford in 2006, Ben Ho followed his professor, Edward Lazear, to the Bush administration. “When I got there, they asked me, ‘What do you know?’” Ho recalls. “I said, ‘I know about apology and fashion,’ and they said, ‘Well, that’s not helpful — how about energy?’” He emerged from the experience a year later with considerable expertise and interest in climate-change policy. Now, as an affiliated researcher at the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, he has begun applying the lessons of a particular field — behavioral economics — to the study of climate change.

If human beings were the perfectly rational creatures imagined by classical economists, we would have done something about climate change by now. But the central insight of behavioral economics — the once heretical but now ascendant paradigm in economics, particularly following the 2002 Nobel Prize awarded to one of its founders, Daniel Kahneman — is that humans aren’t fully rational. All sorts of cognitive limitations prevent us from being so, and behavioral economists have spent much of the past decades discovering, describing, and naming our many mental shortcuts and biases, and ascribing our various irrational tendencies to their effects. Ben Ho’s particular interest is in how people’s feelings of guilt and altruism can be leveraged to reduce their carbon footprint, and he presented his findings at the November conference in a talk he titled “Using Behavioral Economics to Save the World.”

Early in Ho’s presentation, he mentioned a book called Nudge, written by the behavioral economist Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago and lawyer Cass Sunstein, his former colleague, now a professor at Harvard Law School and the Obama administration nominee to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In their book, Thaler and Sunstein coin a term: choice architecture. They argue that because the way in which we are presented with information changes our response to it, the best choice architecture gently steers us into the salubrious behavior that more thoroughly rational beings would choose.

Ho’s own work has investigated how someone’s awareness of the carbon footprints of others influences that person’s carbon usage. Nudge describes a simple but astonishing experiment along such lines: Residents of a community were shown how their energy use measured up against the communal average. If they consumed more than the average, most reduced energy in the months ahead. If households saw that they consumed less energy than their peers, however, their energy use actually rose, except when the frugal households were given the merest of rewards: a smiley face on their bill. Nudge is full of other devices to help funnel us into more pro-environmental behavior, including glowing orbs that help make our energy use visible, and smart meters that can be programmed with precision. Rare is the engineer who would think of using them, however. It’s just not how engineers view the world, says Ho, who should know. He works with them regularly at Cornell, and is trained as one himself. “It’s a very top-down perspective: If you want to make this carbon-efficient, just put this power line here, this power line here, and bam, it’ll be fixed. But as an economist, I’m thinking, ‘You can’t just put things there.’” Engineers treat such issues more like a math problem, Ho says, than like something involving people making decisions.

The fact that most people would not choose the quantitatively soundest approach is something behavioral economics gets. “The only way to get anything done is a holistic approach,” says Ho. “We’re all speaking different languages, and that leads to conflicts. But that has to be the way forward.”

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