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May 20, 2013

The politics of saving energy vs. saving the planet

Buying an energy-efficient appliance or light bulb can seem like a green act and a good idea.

But that depends on if the buyer is red or blue.

Thomas Dietz of the Michigan State University Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability and colleagues muse on the complexities consumers exhibit when deciding whether or not to put their money where their carbon footprint is.

In a commentary in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they discuss a study that shows there’s a difference between supporting energy-efficient policy and energy-efficient products. And both are affected by politics.

Turns out that a consumer’s political views affect under what conditions they’ll buy energy-efficient products, at least when the energy-efficient products are more expensive and when they are labeled environmentally friendly. Take away the label or offer the energy efficient product at the same price and then politics don’t matter.

People who are politically liberal are inclined to buy the energy miser products – whether or not packaging promotes that it’s environmentally sound.

The politically conservative tend to reject the energy-efficiency if environmental impact or climate change buttons are pushed. But it doesn’t mean they don’t like energy efficiency. If a policy touts that it supports energy independence or reduces energy costs, the conservative will support it.

”People’s decisions, whether to support policies or to buy products, are complicated." Dietz said. "People care about why we might adopt a policy, not just about the policy itself. And buying something as simple as a light bulb has a political aspect to it, at least when we have to pay a premium for the environmentally friendly product.”

The distinctions and motivations are important when it comes to creating policy, Dietz said. The work also gives scientists a perspective on how the public mixes politics and perceptions on climate change science.

Dietz, a professor of environmental science and policy, sociology, and animal studies, is joined by MSU colleagues Christina Leshko, a doctoral student in the Environmental Science and Policy Program, and Aaron McCright, Lyman Briggs associate professor.

The commentary, "Politics shapes individual choices about energy efficiency," was based on a study by Dena Gromet of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

The work is funded by the National Science Foundation, MSU AgBioResearch and the MSU Office of the Vice President of Research and Graduate Studies.


By: Tom Oswald