Shocker: Conservatives have no taste for conservation, study finds

By Stephen C. Webster
Saturday, July 17, 2010 15:33 EDT
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A pair of University of California, Los Angeles professors tracking subtle socioeconomic responses to detailed consumer information about power consumption have effectively pinpointed something oft’ joked of by so-called “liberals” but never genuinely proven until now: conservatives, by and large, have no taste for conservation.

By studying average household electricity consumption after what they called a “nudge” (more specifically, giving the residents a detailed chart of that home’s drain on the electric grid), UCLA professors Dora L. Costa and Matthew E. Kahn pinpointed distinctly different response patterns along political fault lines. Using voter registration information and data about charitable contributions, they picked out homes that bought renewable energy, voted for Democrats or contributed to environmental causes, and compared consumption to addresses given by registered Republicans.

People who fell under the prescribed labels of liberal and conservative, as it turned out, seemed to show behaviors quite the opposite. Liberal-leaning households tended to reduce power consumption 3-6 percent after seeing a detailed usage outlay, but on average so-called “conservatives” used 1 percent more.

Something is backwards here.

While some might scoff at a mere 1 percent increase, it remains statistically significant because the study piggy-backed on a prediction that a 1-2 percent decrease in California’s residential electricity consumption could save up to 110 million kWh per year.

The professors, whose backgrounds are in economics, environment and public policy, ultimately determined that the “effectiveness” of their “nudges” hinged “on an individual’s political views.”

They elaborate: “Although liberals and environmentalists are more energy efficient than conservatives [...] – thus making it harder for them to reduce consumption further – we find that liberals and environmentalists are more responsive to these nudges than the average person. In contrast, for certain subsets of Republican registered voters, we find that the specific ‘treatment nudge’ that we evaluate has the unintended consequence of increasing electricity consumption.”

Their conclusion: a “mixed-messages strategy” is needed to help encourage less frivolous power consumption among Republican-leaning households.

Methods of saving electricity are so simple, they’re commonly taught to children. Things like turning off a device when it’s not in use, keeping the thermostat a few degrees higher in the warmer months and keeping windows and doors well-insulated are steps anyone can take within seconds that collectively produce a significant savings on that home’s monthly electricity bill.

Replacing older lightbulbs with new energy-saving CFL lights can also have a significant effect on overall costs. Industry standards group Energy Star claims each CFL light saves about $30 over its lifetime when compared to an incandescent bulb.

The researchers’ greater goal, of course, was to find power-saving messaging techniques that did not require blunt-force acts of policy like building code updates.

On the issue of global warming, the vast majority of Americans are still supportive of government measures to forestall the crisis, although an increasing percentage of conservatives have come to doubt the scientific community’s virtually unanimous consensus on the issue.

While a Gallup poll in March emphasized the growth in disbelievers rising 10 percent, from 38-48 percent in six years, that change was mostly along party-lines. Another poll, conducted by the Woods Institute for the Environment, showed a different drop with a differently-worded question, with respondents who said that temperature has been going up the past 100 years shifting from 85-74 percent since 2006.

The dramatic change may or may not be at least partially attributed to a dramatic increase in astroturfing efforts by the oil and gas industries, many times vis a vis the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Astroturfing is the practice of creating fake grassroots activism using corporate dollars and a carefully crafted messaging strategy to capture media and public attention.

A memo from the American Petroleum Institute, leaked to activist group Greenpeace and published online nearly a year ago, revealed a massive, industry-wide effort was underway to recruit oil and gas industry employees and retirees to attend staged rallies against enhanced emissions regulations.

Recent global climate data released by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed Earth experienced its hottest month on record in June 2010, with the periods of January-June and April-June also obtaining the same alarming status.

A plan in the U.S. Senate to limit emissions economy-wide estimates would cause the U.S. gross domestic product from 2013-2035 to drop 0.2 percent, according to an Energy Information Administration analysis released Friday. President Obama has made it a priority to put a price on carbon emissions by the end of 2010.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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