Tackling the IRA’s “Last Mile” Challenge

One-year after the landmark climate legislation was signed into law, do Americans intend to adopt key climate-friendly behaviors?

Brandon Schauer, Rakhim Rakhimov
August 14, 2023

August 16 marks the 1-year anniversary of President Biden signing the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law. This landmark legislation, which invests heavily in clean energy and provides tax credits for people to adopt key climate-friendly behaviors, is considered the most significant climate change legislation in U.S. history.  

In the year since its passage, the law has supercharged the clean energy sector. This is great news for the economy. But its climate impact cannot be measured solely by dollars invested. For the law to be successful, people still must act by adopting the actions the IRA incentives. It is one thing to offer tax credits for solar panels, heat pumps, and electric vehicles. It is another to get people to buy them.  

Take heat pumps, for example. According to a recent report from Rewiring America, a nonprofit organization focused on electrification to combat climate change, only 16 percent of U.S. households currently have a heat pump. To meet U.S. climate goals, they are targeting 100% adoption by 2050, which they predict would require a tripling of heat pump sales by 2032.  

This is a good example of how policy change and behavior change must work together. The right policies and regulations set us on the right path. But we still have a “last mile” problem, where individual action takes us the rest of the way. 

At Rare, we are focused on tackling this last mile piece of the puzzle – and using insights from the science of human behavior to guide us. And one key insight in particular: According to our own research, a strong predictor of whether someone intends to adopt a climate-friendly behavior is whether they feel those around them – friends, neighbors, family, or colleagues – are already doing it.  

So, one year after the IRA was signed into law, where are Americans on adopting the climate-friendly behaviors it incentivized? To explore this question, scientists with Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment ran the Climate Culture Index: Inflation Reduction Act in 2023, which measures the psycho-social states of Americans relative to key climate actions. The Index provides a window into whether people are sensing norms around the eight IRA-related behaviors and what they intend to do personally

Here are five key takeaways from our research: 

  1. Believing that other people are already taking climate action is a strong predictor of intention to take climate action.  
  2. Confirming a finding from our initial Index survey from 2021, we found that Americans underestimate how many other people believe they should adopt these behaviors.  
  3. More than a quarter of the population sampled has considered adopting seven out of eight of the IRA-related behaviors. Reported consideration is the highest for energy-related behaviors, such as home retrofitting, rooftop solar, and electric vehicles. 
  4. We see a growing norm around driving an electric vehicle (EV) and installing solar panels. When looking at the 2021 Index survey and this most recent 2023 Index survey, these two behaviors attracted the most interest from those surveyed. 
  5. Certain behavioral interventions will be more effective than others. Increasing individuals’ perceptions that society is embracing the target behaviors, as well as self-efficacy are more likely to increase their intention to pursue these behaviors than appealing to their beliefs about politics or climate change.

So, what lessons do these insights offer to policymakers, nonprofit organizations, and other climate advocates looking to translate the massive policy win into a real win for the climate?  

First, let’s create some “climate-friendly FOMO (fear of missing out).” Helpful messages and behavioral interventions are those that increase people’s belief that others are already taking action. People do not want to miss out. Messages about shifting norms within networks and communities toward the IRA behaviors  –and other impactful behaviors like eating less meat or curbing food waste – can help.  

Second, the self-efficacy message to people must be clear: You can do it. Building self-efficacy, or the belief that these behaviors are easy to adopt, is more likely to get people to motivate them than political messaging or climate doom-ism.  

The success of the IRA hinges on Americans taking advantage of the incentives it offers. This last-mile problem requires strategies that reflect how people behave and make decisions. When we close the gap between incentivizing impactful behaviors and getting people to urgently adopt them, we will realize the IRA’s promise.