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Getting Americans to Buy In to Global Warming, Part II

According to Gallup, more than 45% of Americans think the threat of global warming has been seriously overblown. In a previous article, I explored three reasons why so many of our fellow citizens continue to deny climate change and why this should concern the business community.  To recap, they were:  1) as a nation, we’re not adept at examining scientific research, so it’s difficult to prove the point with hard evidence; 2) our day-to-day experience makes it hard to comprehend the global scope of the problem; and 3) environmental messages often sound authoritarian, which doesn’t work in the U.S. because we don’t like being bossed around.

Being that I’m in the business of energy management and sustainability, I’m often asked if any of this worries me. People want to know if I’m concerned our national character will stand in the way of saving the environment. In a word, No. I’m not the least bit worried.

The global warming debate has devolved into an emotional argument, not a logical one. Emotions are incredibly difficult to change because they don’t respond to facts or logic. Once an argument becomes emotional, a person will defend his or her position to the bitter end, no matter what the evidence may be. Perhaps it’s just part of our culture; we absolutely must prove we’re right and we won’t back down. So instead of explaining the threat of global warming for the umpteenth time, I’ve stopped discussing it all together. Now I just change the subject.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on saving the environment. It just means I’ve found a better way to get people to change their habits. (Isn’t this why we started the debate in the first place?) So instead of discussing global warming, I focus on something almost everyone is worried about:  money.

When it comes to money, we’re all self-interested.  Unless you happen to have a healthy trust fund and don’t mind wasting your inheritance, you probably pay close attention to your finances. The U.S. Personal Savings Rate may be a paltry 4.9%, but the average American still tries to save a buck or two whenever possible.  Yes, money talks.  Those of us concerned about the environment can use this simple fact to help stop global warming.  All we need is the right message.

There are plenty of issues we could base our message on. Recycling, using less water, eliminating pollution – they’re all good for the environment. But if we really want change, if we really want to save the planet, we need to spend a lot more time discussing the cost of energy.

The United States uses more energy than any other country in the world. While we represent just over 4% of the global population, we’re responsible for 25% of global energy consumption. The U.S. is the world’s largest economy, so it may be easy to understand why we use more energy than other countries. Examine our per capita energy consumption, however, and it becomes obvious that something is wrong.

The average energy use per person is almost twice as high in our country as it is in Japan or Germany, the world’s third and fourth largest economies. Compared to China, the second largest economy, we use six times more energy per person.  So while the United States may have the leading economy, we also have the highest energy bill. The opportunity to save money by reducing our consumption is huge.

I realize the idea of saving money by saving energy is nothing new. Everyone’s heard that tune. The question is, if it didn’t change consumer attitudes in the past, why should we expect it to work now? That’s an easy one. Most of the time, when people talk about preventing climate change, they focus on individual actions. This seems like a smart approach, after all there are over three-hundred million people in America. Getting them to be more energy efficient would pay big dividends.

Here’s the problem –for a typical consumer, the effort required to use less energy may not be justified by the savings. Suppose your monthly electric bill is around $100, excluding taxes and other fees. If you’re able to reduce consumption by 10%, you’ll save $10. That’s about the price of a burger and fries at a premium quick serve restaurant. For a lot of people, it’s just not worth the hassle.

To a large corporation, however, a 10% savings can quickly add up. One of the world’s leading apparel retailers spends over $100 million a year on energy for their stores in the U.S. and Canada. For them, a 10% savings is worth more than $10 million. Now, apply that same 10% target to the hundreds of thousands of commercial buildings in the U.S., a group that happens to be responsible for almost 20% of the nation’s annual energy consumption. Improving the energy efficiency of these buildings by even a small percentage will have a much bigger impact on the environment than arguing ad infinitum with the global warming skeptics.

Here’s the good news: even if the cost of energy right now isn’t high enough to motivate action, it soon will be. Thanks to new technologies like smart meters, the utility industry has begun rolling out new pricing programs that penalize customers for using too much energy at the wrong time of day. These so called dynamic pricing programs include variable electricity rates that rise and fall in response to changing energy demand. Building owners who don’t invest in energy savings initiatives should expect significantly lower net operating income.

In summary, the threat of global climate change is very real, but continuing to argue about it won’t get us anywhere. If we want to save the earth, we have to change the message. Everyone cares about money, so let’s focus on that. Every commercial organization wants to reduce operating costs and increase profits. Once they grasp the financial consequences of doing nothing, they’ll quickly change their ways and operate more energy efficiently. The end result will be reduced greenhouse gas emissions and a healthier plant.

Corporate avarice may not be pretty, but in the words of Gordon Gekko, when it comes to saving the environment, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

Michael Nark is CEO of Prenova, an Atlanta-based enterprise energy management company that helps large organizations control energy spend by reducing utility costs and improving energy efficiency.

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18 thoughts on “Getting Americans to Buy In to Global Warming, Part II

  1. Nice. So those who don’t see global warming as being real, or as a threat are only reacting to emotions, and not logic?

    Because, there is no possible way that any intelligent person could disagree with your opinions, right!

    What an unfortunate and closed-minded attitude.

  2. As we have been promised for 25 years now, the CO2 climate crisis was going to be a comet hit of an emergency, not sustainability, or recycling, or kids planting trees. It was a specific CO2 death threat to billions of children and if there were consequences for you fading remaining believers continuing to spread this needless panic, you wouldn’t be issuing these CO2 death warrants. Here is a challenge to you remaining climate blame believers; ACT LIKE it’s the world’s worst emergency and danger ever! Show some committeemen otherwise we see right through “comfortable lie” you doomers live with. It’s so obvious. You believe in this doom but don’t do anything about it or even try acting like it really is a crisis. But we DO love the millions of personal definitions of climate change from not just the ordinary lazy believer, but also from the scientists milking this consultant’s w&t-dream of climate change. They could have continued to study the effects of something that never happened yet all they want. It doesn’t make it real and just builds a bigger lie.
    Remove the CO2 factor from the environmental equation entirely and nothing changes, except fear of the unknown. History will call us all omen worshipers with superstitious tendencies for this political correctness on steroid called climate change. History is watching and laughing just as we laughed at those back in 1900 that worried about where to put all of the horses needed by the year 2000.

  3. “Save the Earth” Please!

    Look, I agree that reducing energy costs is important, but on who’s dime? Most of these these alternative sources provided and funded are at the taxpayers dimes. After all, its people like you that depend on it for a living and play a big role in the energy conservation end.

    I for one keep my home in good shape energy wise and agree business should as well. It is about mind-set, but not a mind-set derived from AGW. “Save The Environment” Please enough with the scare slogans and tactics.

  4. thanks mark. and hiram i think you missed the point…..this helps me narrow my focus to where it can be most effective. i still want my friends and neighbors to reduce their home energy use, but it helps to remember that is smaller reward.

  5. STILL want to tax the air to make the weather colder?

    Climate Change wasn’t energy or sustainability or oceans or little kids planting trees. No! It was a specific CO2 Death Threat to billions of children. Without the CO2 mistake nothing changes, except the spear of fear in our backs and billions wasted on “effects” of CO2, not causes.

  6. Typical of the “warmists”. 45% of Americans are skeptical becuase the argument hasn’t been positioned properly to us? How insulting. But not as insulting as “as a nation, we’re not adept at examining scientific research. No, that’s just condescending. Actually, Michael Nark, you don’t appear to be too “adept”.

  7. The comments for both of these two segments couldn’t illustrate the authors points any more clearly. Bravo to you – the proud, provincial, perplexed American proletariat!

  8. Are the above commenters smarter than the National Academy of Sciences?

    “A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems”¦.
    Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small.Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”

    No, they are not.

    As for this article, see Joe Romm’s “can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?” I would say maybe but ONLY if we include all the other negative affects of coal/fossil fuel making renewables more competitive.

    Of course we still have the people above (who may or may not be bought-and-paid for commenters) who think the NAS and every other scientists/scientific organization is in on some massive conspiracy….

  9. Mr. Nark: Welcome to the world where the tables have turned and you are the new denier. You deny the fact that the AGW scare was overblown. You deny the fact that the science is at best not settled. Most importantly, politically speaking, this is a dead issue and you write articles like this to keep the scare going because your livelihood depends on it. Sorry your whole career has been rendered pointless.

    The AGW crowd after years of denial and attempted cover-ups, has finally admitted the temperatures have not increased since 1998. Polls consistently show global warming dead last of even environmental concerns, doesn’t even register when compared to real issues like jobs or the deficit. And furthermore, now with the revolution of the shale oil and gas industry, we don’t have to worry about energy for generations, and buzz words like peak oil, are in the same bin as population bomb.Business will not hire you for sustainability consultation. It would be a lot cheaper for them to get Obama out of office, develop our own energy, and then they will have way more savings then you could have provided.

    And last but not least, I just want to point out that you are shooting your on self in the foot. Articles like this where you insult Americans and question their intelligence is why the movement fails. If anything, people have begun to awaken to the scam. And before anyone tries to dismiss my claims, please explain these:
    http://notrickszone.com/climate-scandals/
    You are the denier for still believing this crap in the face of all this shadiness.

  10. @hiram bertoch: Well, you certainly can’t be holding your denier positions based on any believable logic or science – since the science overwhelmingly supports the AGW hypothesis. About the only things left on which to base your beliefs are emotion or just plain ignorance. Take your pick.

    @Climate Blame Game: Your hyperbole is laughable: “a comet hit”, “a specific CO2 death threat to billions of children”, “needless panic”, “,CO2 death warrants”, “millions of personal definitions of climate change”, and so on. These are not even elements of any rational debate; instead they simply amount to name-calling, groundless claims, ridiculous charges, etc. This type of posting is typical of deniers who have long since given up on debating the science, because the science does not support their positions. And the scientific ignorance of this specific denier is revealed by the comment “Remove the CO2 factor from the environmental equation entirely and nothing changes” – which of course completely ignores the scientific fact that climate is known to be strongly influenced by atmospheric CO2 levels.

    @Matt: These are not scare slogans. Climate change is real; and the longer we wait to tackle it, the worse the effects will be, and the more our responses will cost. And those costs and effects will be borne to greater or lesser degrees by all of us. Moreover, it is the proper business of government to address such long term and widespread challenges – challenges that are too diffuse and too big for individuals, or even individual companies, to effectively address on their own.

  11. I believe global warming is real, and so does NASA, because 5 of 7 base are on the water and seeing water tables rise. The New York Metorpolitain area (14000 gov agency’s) are planning for 7 to 14 ft sea rise by 2050. The emotional comments to your article prove your point. I started my energy conservation business 25yrs ago thinking people would use less energy because it was good for the environment, but I quickly learned it was about each purchase needing to make economic sense.
    With lighting it was an improvement in safety and and reduced maintenance. Recently I took up organic gardening, and that has been eye opening to learn how we actually kill our soil with chemicals, so we need more chemicals. I’ve continued to study the eco psychology of what will trigger people to act, get involved and it typically is self interest for their children, guilt, and a desire to improved their living environment and save money. People need to be shown the economic benefit to act. For example, they buy electric car to save on gas (money) and feel good about less pollution (emotional). The insulate their house to save money and be more comfortable. As for the goverment funding, its helped oil companies, natural gas companies, ethanol development ($6 bil in payola to big biz and farmers). Yes it emotional now because the US is having an identity crisis due to wall street(money)only being interested in profits and growth, while gutting US of decent jobs. But I degrees. Global warming is very real, and there is plenty of proof. As stated now its just a matter of how can we live with it as it is already starting to effect the worlds Food and water supplies. It not personal, it not emotional, its just a fact of life in the future.

  12. Unfortunately the scientists that collect the data are not masters at public marketing–and there’s little money in telling people to buy less (less gasoline, less single-use packaging, less plastics, less chemicals). Without the marketing, the message for Global Warming has been difficult to pick up for the average consumer–especially when those who would continue with status-quo have great marketing campaigns.
    There are things we can do as consumers that are free–like carpooling, bringing our own bags to the store and simply conserving water and energy. I think that’s the point, here. We can do it without government regulation, but without regulation, will we do it? Food for thought (hopefully organic, but who can afford it?)

  13. @Former Believers …: No one is “tax[ing] the air”. … Your so-called “specific CO2 Death Threat to billions of children” is nothing more than typical denier hyperbole. … There was no “CO2 mistake”.

    @Bruce: The science is overwhelmingly in support of the AGW hypothesis. If a large minority of US citizens are skeptical, it can only be due to ignorance, an inability to understand the science, emotions, confusion, or some other invalid reason. The science stands by itself.

    @WhatConsensus: First, to address your tagline; there is an overwhelming scientific consensus in support of the AGW hypothesis – to claim otherwise is to present a lie. … The AGW scare has not been overblown; the threat is real and it is continuing to grow every day that we delay addressing it. … The science is settled; and anyone who does just a little objective research of their own would immediately see that it is settled. … Temperatures respond to both natural and man-made climate forcings, and focusing on one inadequately short time period is meaningless (‘climate’ refers to average weather patterns over decades to centuries, not short-term trends). … It isn’t energy we have to worry about – it is the inevitable climate consequences of burning fossil fuels to produce that energy that is the true concern. … You are the denier; and you continue your denials in the face of the objective, peer-reviewed, scientific research that overwhelmingly supports the AGW hypothesis.

  14. You talk of saving energy costs and in almost the same breath talk of more expensive energy to save the planet. Bit of a disconnect there I feel.

  15. @DennisA: But you are not seeing the whole picture. Fossil fuel derived energy costs are going up – inevitably and inexorably. Why? Because they represent non-renewable energy, and we keep using up the remaining reserves. As we do so, the costs to extract the remaining reserves will always increase (since the less-expensive reserves are always tapped first). So the trendline for fossil energy is monotonically upwards.

    In contrast, the costs for renewables has been monotonically downwards. This is because the technology is always improving, and as deployments increase, a bulk savings is also realized. And since the fuel is free, that cost can never increase – ever.

    Just wait a little. Renewable energy will soon cost less than conventional, and we will never look back. Indeed, parity has already been achieved in some markets, when choosing between wind and coal, for example. Solar costs are also dropping fast.

  16. All of the pseudo-science poppycock posted on this comment thread by climate denier drones is thoroughly rebutted on SkepticalScience.com

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