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The 80 Percent Challenge

MassINC, Boston
May 19, 2011

Peer pressure: it’s not just for high school anymore.

In 2008, Massachusetts passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), putting the Commonwealth on the leading edge of US climate-change policy with an ambitious goal: reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050. That target will require significant cultural shifts. Realizing this, independent think tank MassINC conducted a statewide survey to gauge public response to climate change and then convened an expert panel and a public forum to discuss the results.

For the most part, the findings confirmed information many attendees had probably seen elsewhere, such as the fact that most people simply don’t rate climate change as a “high priority” issue (only 32 percent in this study). Jobs and the economy, healthcare, and education all dominate their concerns. But one finding did jump out: Even among those people whom the study defined as “convinced” (people who believe that climate change is both the result of human activity and a serious threat), only one-third of those aged 18 to 29 are taking personal action to conserve energy; thus the cohort widely considered to be most concerned by climate change is doing the least. The panel offered the explanation that, no matter one’s age, environmental behavior, like behavior in general, is strongly influenced by the actions of peers, known as “normative messages.”

Panelist David Cash, the undersecretary for policy in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, provided an illustration. In communities where one household installs PV (photovoltaic) panels within view of neighbors, it is often just a matter of time before panels start to pop up throughout the neighborhood. Similarly, as an audience member observed, residents of city blocks tend to recycle either almost entirely in unison or not at all. Whether these examples provide evidence of environmental peer pressure is debatable, but normative messages have proven to be successful as part of other cultural-shift campaigns, such as anti-smoking initiatives.

Ultimately, meeting the GWSA’s ambitious targets will require tougher regulations at a policy level. But if this research is any indication, individual action can influence the action of others, and collective action in turn builds support for policy. It is through the creation of this “culture of climate protection” that real change is possible.