New study shows Americans are more likely to adopt the new climate law's behaviors if they think their peers are doing it too.
In August 2022, the United States signed landmark climate change legislation into law. The Inflation Reduction Act is the most promising package of climate policy investments in U.S. history.
The climate change legislation supports the case that individual climate actions matter. But it’s one thing to incentivize electric vehicles, solar panels, and energy conservation measures; it’s another to get millions of Americans to act and adopt them. Rare’s research on the state of our beliefs related to climate action shows that the strongest unique predictor of climate action is whether a person believes that other people are taking action.
So, what does contribute to the success of the Inflation Reduction Act? If we want people to adopt high emissions-reducing, eco-friendly behaviors, we must normalize and socialize them first.
About the Research
In 2021, Rare’s nationwide Climate Culture Index study measured the state of Americans’ beliefs related to climate action. This earlier research showed that the best predictor of climate action for six high-impact emission-reducing behaviors is whether a person believes other people are already taking action.
In 2023, Rare tested that finding against eight emission-reducing behaviors outlined in the Inflation Reduction Act. The goal? To see if the main takeaway remained. It did: Socializing the climate legislation’s behaviors will be just as important as incentivizing the behavior itself – perhaps even more so.
The eight emissions-reducing behaviors the Inflation Reduction Act incentivizes
Why the research matters
Given the science and urgency of climate change, we must act immediately. The latest IPCC report states that behavior- and lifestyle-related changes can enable significant future emissions reductions alongside the system-level changes needed. And research shows that large-scale behavioral data are key to climate policy.
But people who don’t sense shifting norms around these behaviors are less likely to adopt climate-friendly behaviors. People may also be less willing to discuss these behaviors and the issue of climate change when they misperceive where the norm for doing the behaviors lies.
Why run the study now?
If we want people to adopt the actions proposed by the U.S. climate legislation, we must move beyond simply offering incentives. The success of a behavioral campaign like the Inflation Reduction Act rests on a clear understanding of the psycho-social states and the decision environment of people whose behavior we aim to change.
Policymakers often default to offering incentives to spur citizen action. But economic incentives don’t always lead to implementation and are not the only tool. Take COVID vaccinations. While the incentive to vaccinate was free and available to all Americans, not everyone got vaccinated. Americans adopting the IRA behaviors is likely a similar scenario—while the incentives to buy an EV or install rooftop solar exist, people may choose not to do them. Not only do we need to identify and incentivize the right behaviors, but we urgently have to help people adopt them.
Further, the lack of public consumer behavioral data related to the U.S. climate legislation makes it hard for policymakers and solution providers to understand what needs to be done.
The nationwide Climate Culture IRA Index provides the missing insights needed to address consumer demand and offers policymakers and stakeholders data to socialize the behaviors and advance their adoption.
Using the same methodology from the first Climate Culture Index study, we sampled 1,807 US adults on their psycho-social states related to the behaviors behind the climate change legislation. (The sample was quota matched to the U.S. Census on age, gender, and ethnicity.)
Rare analyzed both ‘leading indicators of behavior adoption’ and psycho-social states to understand their current baseline. These indicators included whether people reported adopting any behavior; their perceptions of how many others have adopted the behaviors; their self-efficacy (how confident they felt in their ability to adopt the behavior); and their intentions to perform the behavior in the future, among others. We also oversampled respondents from three sub-groups of the population: Black or African American people, Hispanic people, and people with household incomes above $100,000/year.
What predicts a person’s intention to adopt the Inflation Reduction Act’s behaviors?
Similar to the 2021 Climate Culture Index study results, Americans underestimate how many other people think they should adopt the Inflation Reduction Act’s behaviors. For several of these behaviors, the findings indicate that a person’s belief that other people are engaging in a behavior is a strong predictor of intention to adopt the behavior. There is a big gap between what people individually believe people should do and what people believe others think they should do.
Other important predictors include thinking that others believe one should adopt the behaviors (normative expectations) and having self-efficacy (confidence) to adopt the behaviors. In contrast, climate beliefs, political orientation, and core demographic variables show inconsistent and largely insignificant effects
How Behaviors Have Shifted: Purchasing an EV and Installing Solar (2021 vs. 2023)
The Inflation Reduction Act reestablished an opportunity for homeowners to claim a 30% tax credit from the cost of installing solar (before the legislation, the incentive was 22% of the system cost). Similarly, the legislation extended the Inflation Reduction Act EV tax credit and established a new tax credit for used EVs. Given the changes in buyers’ incentives, Rare wanted to track the change in indicators for these two behaviors overlapping with its 2021 Climate Culture Index research.
Driving an electric vehicle
The proportion of people believing that people should drive an EV increased from 49% in 2021 to 59% in 2023, potentially indicating a growing norm around driving an EV. Similar to our findings, polling by the Pew Research Center revealed that 42% of people say they would be very or somewhat likely to seriously consider purchasing an electric vehicle the next time they’re looking for a new car or truck. We also observed an uptick in the reported adoption of EVs. Other changes were statistically insignificant.
Installing rooftop solar
While we saw a dip in the consideration indicator, the proportion of the population that believes people should install rooftop solar increased from 59% in 2021 to 76% in 2023. While the intention to purchase an EV has mainly stayed the same, the average intention to install solar has increased to 26% in 2023, potentially indicating a growing interest in the technology.
Main Takeaways from the Study
Americans underestimate how many other people think they should adopt the Inflation Reduction Act’s behaviors.
There is a big gap between what people individually believe people should do and what people believe others think they should do. Research by renowned behavioral scientists Gregg Sparkman, Nathan Geiger, and Elke U. Weber validates the fact that Americans experience a false social reality by underestimating popular climate policy support by nearly half. People who don’t sense shifting norms around the Inflation Reduction Act’s behaviors or misperceive where the norm lies are less likely to adopt them and less willing to discuss the behaviors or the issue of climate change altogether.
Of the population sampled, most have considered adopting the behaviors underpinning the climate legislation.
Most of the climate actions behind the Inflation Reduction Act are familiar to people. More than a quarter of the population sampled has considered adopting seven out of eight of them, and more than half of Americans believe that people should adopt these behaviors. Further, almost half of the surveyed adults say replacing their existing natural gas or propane appliances with electric versions would significantly improve or somewhat improve their quality of life.
There is likely a growing norm around driving an electric vehicle (EV) and installing solar panels.
Based on the trends in the two behaviors overlapping with Rare’s 2021 Climate Culture Index research (see Figure 4), American interest in adopting these two behaviors is growing.
Certain behavioral interventions will be more effective than others.
Behavioral interventions increasing the belief that others are engaging in one of the legislation’s proposed climate actions and boosting a person’s self-efficacy are more likely to increase an individual’s intention to pursue the targeted behavior than solutions that narrowly appeal to political or climate beliefs. In contrast, political orientation and climate beliefs are weak or insignificant predictors of someone’s intention to adopt the behaviors.
Some behaviors appeal more naturally to individuals than others—and may be adopted more readily.
Insulating your home: This behavior appeals to people – there is a high degree of interest and belief that people should insulate their homes. People understand the benefits of insulation. Nearly half of the people say they have insulated their home in one way or another, and there is strong interest in a program that would help add insulation.
Purchasing a heat pump dryer: Adopting this behavior, relative to other actions proposed by the climate change legislation, shows the least traction: low consideration, low program interest, and low confidence to do it. Low perceived personal benefit indicates that people may not fully understand how heat pump dryers operate.
People are interested in participating in a program to help them adopt the Inflation Reduction Act’s behaviors.
There is a stronger programmatic interest in behaviors with potentially high-upfront costs and ones where they think their actions will matter: driving electric vehicles, installing rooftop solar, and completing whole-home energy retrofits. The latter often include adding insulation and replacing one or more gas appliances with electric equivalences. Possibly due, in part, to the high up-front financial costs of all three of these behaviors, we see a sizable gap between people considering the behavior and their reported adoption of it.
Programmatic interest is lowest for two heat pump technologies: a dryer and AC. Likely, most people are not yet familiar with heat pump technologies, compared to EVs, rooftop solar, or home energy upgrades.
Further, we found that program interest in the behaviors moderately correlates with a person’s perceived efficacy to mitigate climate change and their frequency of discussing it with others. In contrast, core demographic measures (except age, where older age negatively correlates with interest) show no to weak correlation with the programmatic interest.
Recommendations to Policymakers and Stakeholders
Build social expectations for the climate actions in the Inflation Reduction Act
To create this shift, we need to make it more normal and observable that others are already starting to adopt these behaviors, particularly within existing social groups; Doing so will help to spark behavior change even before it is the norm. For example, making a behavior like energy consumption more observable makes people think that more people are doing it. Importantly, it also increases the social benefit of adopting the behavior by letting people demonstrate their values to others.
Beyond helping to shift beliefs about behavior, it is equally critical to give people the opportunity to learn that those around them think they should also adopt these behaviors. For example, when people were told that their neighbors believed that saving energy is important to them, they were more willing to reduce their energy use.
To build social expectations for adopting the U.S. climate legislation behaviors, we need to make use of the fact that Americans underestimate just how much others expect them to adopt them—and shift this perception to reveal the social reality that others are doing it, and others expect we should too.
Increase peoples’ confidence in their ability to adopt the behaviors
The research shows that self-efficacy—one’s confidence in doing a behavior—is a great predictor of an individual’s likelihood of adopting the U.S. climate legislation’s behaviors. Two ways to increase self-efficacy are providing successful experiences of others who have adopted a behavior and giving people the opportunity to learn that others like them are able to adopt a particular behavior. Solutions like Acterra’s Karl Knapp GoEV Program are designed to increase community members’ confidence in driving an electric vehicle (EV) by offering test drives, consultations with EV owners, and educational workshops.
What’s Next for the Climate Culture Index?
The Index sets the baseline for understanding current climate action and mindsets and informs how to design interventions that help people adopt high-impact behaviors. The Index also provides valuable insights for media and consumers and empowers climate activists, advocates, and allies to design data-driven interventions more likely to move people along the journey from inaction to action—and ultimately, start building the critical mass needed to drive large-scale change and shift our climate culture.
Rare plans to run the Climate Culture Index annually to collect trends and examine how its predictors and levers differ by geography in the U.S. Future studies will allow Rare to track whether Americans have adopted these behaviors, the predictors that signal that people are about to adopt one or more of the behaviors, and the levers that these predictors might change soon—giving an upstream view of predictable upcoming behavior changes.
For more information related to the Climate Culture Index research or findings, contact Brandon Schauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.