Skip to content Skip to navigation

Tailored messages, prizes and technology seen as key to pro-environmental behavior

By Mark Golden

Some people save energy because they care about the environment. Others just want the PopChips.

And that’s okay, according to Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of the journal Science. At Stanford University’s annual Connecting the Dots conference, McNutt told participants that to promote good environmental behavior they must tailor their messages for different types of audiences.


photo: Mark Shwartz

Some people “always want to do the right thing and all you have to do is get them the right information,” even if it is complicated, she said. “Others want to try to do the right thing, but the information might be really, really complicated. So, if you want them to do the right thing, you’ve got to make it really easy for them.”

In fact, McNutt said, the right actions can be counterintuitive, situational or even ephemeral. To illustrate her point, she asked the audience: What is better for the environment—driving a diesel-fueled Volkswagen or an electric Tesla? Most of those present probably assumed a Tesla would be better, especially considering that Volkswagen for years illegally installed pollution controls in its diesel cars that worked only during emission testing.

In California, where most of the conference participants live, electric vehicles are better for the environment, but that is not true in most of the United States, said McNutt, who will leave Science in July to begin a six-year term as the president of the National Academy of Sciences. States east of the Rocky Mountains, except Texas, still generate enough of their electricity from coal-fired power plants that driving electric cars does more ecological damage than diesel motors.

“We have to make it trivially easy for everyone to make the right choice,” said McNutt, adding that the right choice on cars in the eastern United States will likely change as its electric grid becomes greener.

Monterey Bay Aquarium delivered such convenience when it developed a phone application for its Seafood Watch list, she said. The traditional wallet-sized card had been effective, but the information had become increasingly complicated. The right decision on whether to eat Chinook salmon, for example, varies widely depending on the region and river it comes from, and how it was caught, because some populations are endangered while many others are healthy. The mobile app not only manages such complexities, it uses geolocation to help travelers find nearby restaurants that buy fish from sustainable suppliers.

Without any government involvement, Seafood Watch has been enormously effective, said McNutt, who from 1997 to 2009 was president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, which is associated with the aquarium but independently operated.

“It was purely a consumer movement that moved up the supply chain,” she said. “And now some of the largest seafood suppliers in the country, like Walmart and Costco, use it to decide where to buy their seafood because that’s what their customers want.”

The toughest sell

Of course, some people are not inclined to change their actions to achieve environmental goals, so policymakers need to find other incentives for them. This takes a lot of work, McNutt said, but numerous examples show that extrinsic rewards can be effective. A Minnesota program, for example, gave points to consumers who reduced their electricity use. The points could be redeemed for any of a number of prizes, including a free month supply of PopChips.

“To each their own,” said McNutt. “Some people might say ‘Well, I don’t care about reducing power because I worry about climate change. But I love PopChips, so yeah, I’ll reduce my power.’”

Everyone has different reasons why they would involve themselves, McNutt concluded, but the ultimate enabler for everyone easily making the right choices will be advances in clean energy technologies.

“The more we can come up with solutions that don’t disrupt people’s current lifestyles, the more we will get buy-in that the issues we’re dealing with are very, very real,” she said.

In response to an audience question, McNutt downplayed a topic that has received much attention lately: that the U.S. natural gas system—far more than previously thought—is leaking a lot of methane, which is an an extremely potent greenhouse gas, albeit relatively short lived.

“If you look at methane emissions, they are a problem now, but the impact of methane long-term is nothing compared to CO2” she said. “So if we really want to put a lot of effort into policy, to put the effort into methane as opposed to CO2—it’s really CO2 that we have to get at.”

While leading the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, McNutt was also a professor of marine geophysics at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, where she is now a member of the advisory board.

The annual conference Connecting the Dots, which was held April 19, explores the interconnections among humanity’s need for energy, food and water, and their impact on human health and the environment. It is convened by the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy and several other Stanford organizations as part of the campus’s Earth Day events.

Media contact:

Mark Golden, Precourt Institute for Energy: (650) 724-1629, mark.golden@stanford.edu