Kim Wolske on Climate Behavior
Ramanan Raghavendran speaks with Professor Kim Wolske about the evolutions and applications of climate psychology.
In this episode, Ramanan speaks with Kim Wolske, a research associate professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. They discuss social norms around climate, barriers to low-carbon choices, and the Inflation Reduction Act. Wolske also shares valuable advice for early-stage founders focused on climate. Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
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[00:00:16] Ramanan Raghavendran: Okay. Hello. We're here with Dr. Kim Wolske, who is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and a fellow with the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, or EPIC.
Her work draws on the fields of environmental, social, and cognitive psychology to examine the behavioral dimensions of energy issues, and behavior is what we're about here, and understand the motivations and barriers associated with consumer adoption of efficient energy technologies.
She is the past president of the Society for Environmental Population and Conservation Psychology of the American Psychological Association, and previously worked at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and as an independent consultant to Opower.
She received a BA in Environmental Studies from Connecticut College, an MS in Natural Resource Policy and Behavior from the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, and a PhD in Environmental Psychology, also from the University of Michigan. Kim, thank you for being with us. Can we, can we get started with you walking us through your life and career with a specific focus on what made you interested in the behavioral dimensions of climate action?
[00:01:32] Kim Wolske: Sure, and thanks so much for having me. I have probably been destined for this career path since I was a kid, I was one of those kids that deeply loved animals and really loved nature. And when I was seven, I came across this magazine article, I think it was in the Smithsonian, about marine litter, and it had all of these photos of things you still see today.
You know, turtles choking on plastic bags, seals that were caught in the plastic rings from soda cans. And in my seven year old mind, it was completely incomprehensible to me that this problem was occurring. I think I had a very charitable view of adults, that they could not possibly be letting this happen.
And so I reasoned that it must be that people are not aware of this problem and you know, if everyone just knew about it, they'd surely feel obligated to take action and it would go away. And this was sort of this moment that kind of committed me to a future of, "How do I engage people in environmental issues?"
And I started an environmental club, I took all these science courses in high school and college because still in my mind I thought what I needed, the tools I needed, were to really have a good understanding of the fundamental science cuz that's what needed to be communicated. And it really wasn't until graduate school, I went for environmental education that I sort of had the epiphany of, I've been going about this all the wrong way.
The irony in the way I thought about this as a kid is that my, my theory of change was all wrong. That this idea that like, you just need to tell people about an issue and then their attitudes will change and then they will act. We call this "the information deficit model" in the behavioral sciences, and we've got decades of research showing it's wholly inadequate at explaining behavior.
So, I went to graduate school for environmental education, but I started taking environmental psychology classes and that's where I realized, I don't need to be focusing on the science of the environmental problems. I need to be focusing on the science of people and trying to understand how they make decisions, really recognizing that people don't act in a vacuum. They are strongly influenced by the environments that they're in and the way information connects to their existing mental models of the world.
So that's kind of what got me on this path of thinking about behavior and to the part of, you know, Why climate action? I think at the time there was just a lot of momentum around climate change and it seemed to be sort of the issue that is not only an environmental one, but one that obviously affects us societally in terms of public health and wellbeing. So that is the path that I have been on.
[00:04:29] Ramanan Raghavendran: Super interesting. And we're, we're gonna start exploring this from the standpoint of your work, and I'll kick that up with problems with climate psychology a little bit. So you wrote an article that challenged the received wisdom in the field of psychology about climate related behaviors, which we found really insightful. And it's actually a great example of things that are in the scientific literature that need to be better known.
So for our audience, for a lay audience, could you explain what you think most psychologists are getting wrong about behavior change on climate issues, especially the foundings based on reasonably achievable emissions reduction or RAER?
[00:05:13] Kim Wolske: Sure. Yeah. So the article you're referencing was in a book about psychology and climate change, but I think a lot of the concerns that my co-author Paul Stern and I were raising really apply for anyone interested in promoting climate action. I think, and this is sort of my personal view, but I think when people try to get people to take action to help mitigate climate change, they tend to err either in the direction of, well, let's just make it simple and easy, and so let's focus on the really low-hanging fruits.
Like what are the really easy everyday behaviors? And honestly about 15 years ago, about the time An Inconvenient Truth came out, there was a lot of communication about this. Newspapers and non-profits would have these, "Here's the 50 things you can do to fight climate change," and those lists would range from turn off the lights and recycle to buy a fuel efficient car.
And they never had any guidance about the relative impact. And it kind of, confused things and it also seemed like a mismatch of, oh, so turning off the lights is gonna help the polar bears that you're showing me are, you know, stranded on different ice floes. So a lot of psychology has sort of followed suit and a lot of behavioral science. We've been studying behaviors that, in the grand scheme of things, don't have that big of an impact. How do you get people to reuse, bring reusable shopping bags, or recycle, which is a good environmental behavior, but maybe not the most impactful for climate change. And there hasn't been enough attention on these higher impact behaviors, and some of these behaviors have the advantage of, they're actually sort of one time deals or very infrequent, once a decade that you replace your furnace with a more efficient one or get other more efficient appliances.
We tend to err in this direction of focusing on the low hanging fruit. There's also, swinging in the other direction, you'll see some communications focus on the most impactful things you can do. And some of these I think, are non-starters for people. Things like, "Have one fewer child," or "Live a car free life."
Things that are just not practical for where most people, the circumstances that they're in. So this idea of reasonably achievable emissions reductions, it's sort of the, the middle ground of we need to focus on behaviors that have big impact, but we need to think about what's the likelihood that people are actually going to adopt them based on the best behavioral interventions we have available to us.
[00:07:56] Ramanan Raghavendran: And, you know, this paper was, or this chapter in a book, rather, as you point out, was written four years ago. What's been the reaction to it?
[00:08:05] Kim Wolske: I think what I'm seeing within my field is that there's a growing group of environmental psychologists who recognize, yeah, we need to be shifting the focus of our research to look at these more challenging behaviors.
It's a tricky thing though, because, for us as researchers, you know, how do we study appliance adoption? Well, we really need to have partnerships with companies that will, you know, at least share that data, that kind of thing. So maybe this is a plug to anyone watching, there's a whole army of researchers out here who would love to collaborate with you.
[00:08:40] Ramanan Raghavendran: You know, these interviews are not designed to be Amasia sales pitches, but I have to, I have to comment here that as we define our own investment thesis and invest in companies that operate within that thesis, you know, certainly there's the low hanging fruit elements of, well do a virtual meeting instead of a physical meeting and things of that nature, right?
But a lot of the things we invest in are companies that in fact, make these less commonplace things in theory easier. Now we don't have a company that makes it easier to electrify your home, to move from whatever you have right now to heat pumps, for instance. Right? Which would be an example of the one-time thing that you mentioned here.
But these behaviors are catalyzed by commercial activity of that kind. And if we run into companies that are relevant, we will connect them with you. So you can take their data cuz they need to prove the same points.
I'm gonna use that as an excuse to move on to our next question, which is on social norms, which is one of our favorite topics here. We moan about it all the time.
You've done substantial reviews of the determinants of individual climate action and you've looked into peer influence in areas like solar adoption. In which areas do you find that social pressure, which we are big believers in here, in which areas does it have the most power as a tool for affecting behavior change?
[00:10:11] Kim Wolske: Yeah, I think it depends on sort of what the behavior is. It's probably in situations where people discover their behavior is not aligned with the norm. So home energy reports like what Opower and some other companies provide that compare your energy consumption to your neighbors and show you that maybe you're not performing as well as your most efficient neighbors, tend to be a little bit startling to folks. And in general, part of the psychology here is that we often are poor judges of how common different behaviors are. So like, especially things that you can't see, like you don't know how much energy your best friend uses or if they have Energy Star appliances or use the eco settings, you have no idea. So getting information about how common a certain behavior is, or that people are performing at a certain level can be eye-opening. And because we are so strongly motivated to align with what others are doing around us, even though we will deny that we are, it tends to shift people's behavior.
But I also think that you can think about peer influence beyond just social pressure, and think about peers as sort of an important source of information for learning. I do a lot of research on solar panel adoption, and the review you mentioned is looking also at EVs and other types of technologies.
And I think part of the value when you start to see others around you, like when I drive to work, I'm noticing more and more Teslas on my commute, it catches your attention and I think also just sort of primes you to be thinking about, well, maybe this is a possibility for my next car. So it's drawing attention to a behavior that you may not necessarily think of on your own.
And I think too, if you see your neighbor put up solar panels, maybe several neighbors put up solar panels, it starts to change your beliefs about that behavior. Well, maybe this isn't as risky as I thought it was, or maybe this is more manageable or doable. It also means you can go chat with those people, and the research is showing that having those types of conversations, it's not necessarily what initially causes someone to consider solar, but it really assuages their concerns and helps them navigate the financial incentives that are available and, and what is the process? And it just makes that all a little bit more doable and manageable for someone.
[00:12:54] Ramanan Raghavendran: And it comes back, you know, some of what you're touching on just comes back to the forms we think will work from a communication standpoint and what in fact really works, which are, you know, two different things.
Which brings me to the next question, which is, in your work you demonstrate, as we've discussed a little bit so far, a keen awareness of the ways that climate action is explained to and implemented by the public, and we've just begun touching on that. What are some of the barriers to engaging people in low carbon choices?
[00:13:28] Kim Wolske: I think one of the biggest challenges is that people actually don't know what they should be doing. And that sounds silly because we have all of this information and I think, you know, people broadly understand that energy consumption is related to climate change.
And if you look at survey research, they know, okay, I should drive less and maybe adjust my heating. Actually, in the grand scheme of things, people are bad gauges at the relative impact. And some of that we can blame back on those early communications. You know, "50 things you can do, turn off your lights or get a whole new furnace."
But it's also the case that I think sometimes the folks who are designing interventions to try to get people to conserve energy or invest in efficiency or renewable energy, they sort of let their own expertise get in the way. They lead with energy in a sort of technical wonky way, and for most people, one, energy is out of sight, out of mind. It's a service, you know, that is allowing us to have a warm home or get from A to B, right? And even if they have the opportunity— it's time to get a new car, it's time to get a new appliance— when they're in that moment of shopping, energy is probably furthest from their mind.
They're worried about what does this thing look like, the reliability, and even if they're maybe slightly attuned to it, there are a lot of cognitive biases that get in the way. For these higher impact actions like energy efficiency investments, there's usually a price premium. The more energy efficient model costs more, and often it will pay for itself over several years.
But people are present biased, they wanna save money now.
[00:15:16] Ramanan Raghavendran: Now. Right now. Right now.
[00:15:18] Kim Wolske: Yeah. And, and if you know about loss aversion, there's this idea of, "well, I'm gonna for sure lose money right now to pay more for this, for this really uncertain gain. Maybe I'm gonna have savings in the future, but I don't really know."
And it's also the case that a lot of these technologies are sort of new, you know, solar panels are still relatively new. EVs are still relatively new, and so there's a riskiness to that that can also make them less appealing.
[00:15:47] Ramanan Raghavendran: I wanna briefly comment on that. We have solar panels in our house, and I went through a process and evaluated vendors and installers and so on. And it's pretty amazing, the analysis is a reasonably technical net present value calculation, that the installers calculate for you and present to you, and I am in the world of finance, and so I understand NPVs and I can't say some of this stuff comes naturally to me, but it certainly comes more naturally to me than to a lot of people. That's not good.
[00:16:22] Kim Wolske: Yeah, you're not the first person in finance who has told me this story. And this was actually the second part of my comment. You know, a lot of what I just listed off are sort of barriers on the side of the end user, the consumer, but we are also sort of creating barriers on the supply side that the way we talk about products or that we, the way we design programs and policies to try to shift people's behavior, often assumes that people are rational actors. That you just need to provide them the information. There's not enough attention to how that information is conveyed or it just assumes we need the right incentives in place.
For me, this is my biggest criticism, yet also maybe the biggest opportunity is I think a lot of programs are designed poorly. They're not designed to be compatible with the way people think, and there's a lot we could be doing to improve that.
[00:17:22] Ramanan Raghavendran: Well, let's file away here that we run a cohort based course now for behavior change for climate founders, and I think they might benefit from hearing some of your wisdom.
I wanna switch to the Inflation Reduction Act, which in the popular discourse has been presented as this earth shattering development, the most we have done here in the US from a legal and policy standpoint, it includes sweeping provisions to help households invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy technology.
Which parts of the IRA are you most excited about? That's part A, and then part B, what are the things that need to happen for the IRA's initiatives to reach their full potential?
[00:18:04] Kim Wolske: Sure. I think I would agree with the idea that it's earth shattering. I think for any of us in the energy space, it's amazing to see all of these things happening at once, just on the behavior side, it's incredibly exciting to see not only that, there are more incentives being put out there, but I think they're being designed a little bit better than they have in the past. So the IRA includes tax credits for solar and both new and used electric vehicles. I believe that it's the case that, those tax credits can roll over because one of the concerns with tax credits is a lot of people don't have the tax liability so you can't really take advantage of it. And then there's rebates for, weatherization, I think for heat pump technology. And what's exciting is that there's a very strong equity angle to this, that lower income households get much bigger incentives, in some cases covering a hundred percent of the cost of something.
And that's really important. One of the things that we know is that lower income households pay a disproportionate amount of their income on energy cost. So it's great to see this focus. I'm really excited about that.
I think for it to have the impact that it's projected to have, I sure hope there are gonna be some behaviorally minded folks designing the implementation for this. Um, you know, it's obviously still very early. It just passed in August and we don't quite know how it's going to exactly operate. But although it's great that those incentives make it easier for some folks to take advantage of them, or rather the amounts are larger, it's a little unclear exactly how it's gonna work.
It's supposed to be the case that some of these rebates are instant, so you take away that problem of the high upfront cost, but now you've gotta somehow prove your income qualifications. So I'll be very curious to see how that works out. And just in general, I have a concern that it assumes people will just naturally want these technologies. There needs to be some sort of intermediary of trying to help people recognize, well, why would you wanna weatherize your home? There's also rebates for improving your electric panel or upgrading it or electrifying your stove.
This isn't the first time we've seen federal incentives. One of my colleagues who's been doing energy research for decades, back in the eighties, he's got a paper in 1986 about weatherization and the impact of those incentives varied tenfold depending on how a community implemented them and where they saw it was more successful is that there was really heavy word of mouth marketing. They took advantage of sort of the social norms within the community. And that's the thing that I most worry about is, we have to get away from this thought that an incentive is enough. It matters so much how that incentive is built into a larger program that makes it easy for people to take advantage of. Because so often these things are overly complex and just the process of, you know, Googling around to try to figure it out, you throw your hands up in the air and say, I can't figure this out.
[00:21:35] Ramanan Raghavendran: No question. I could not agree with you more. And hopefully there'll be a little cottage industry or ecosystem of "simplifiers" that arises, that takes the incentives and makes them actionable in ways that wouldn't occur otherwise. Okay. We're gonna, we're gonna finish up with our last question here.
You previously worked at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and as an independent consultant to Opower. So you've, you've kind of straddled academia and the for-profit realm in ways that we don't often see. You know, I just mentioned our cohort-based course to you.
And so the question for you is a broad one, which is, any advice for companies looking to affect behavioral change around climate (which basically is our entire portfolio)?
[00:22:19] Kim Wolske: Sure. Maybe to date myself with my quote, but I would resist the mindset of, "If you build it, they will come."
[00:22:28] Ramanan Raghavendran: I don't wanna give you a quote that'll date me, but please continue.
[00:22:33] Kim Wolske: But I think this really is a problem and we too often think that like once we put a technology or a service out there, you know, that its benefits will be self-evident.
I think there's a really great classic example of this, which is that in many developing countries, people use firewood to cook, which is not good both environmentally, because it tends to lead to over-harvesting nearby forests and it's really bad for people's health because there's, you know, particulate matter that's released and a solution has been engineered in the form of solar cook stoves, which in theory, sounds great because now we're using a renewable energy source and it's often different countries of Africa that, you know, this would be applied. There's ample sun, and economists are potentially happy because it means people are freed up, timewise. They don't have to go scavenge for wood. They can use that time for other things that might enhance their welfare and by and large, a lot of communities have rejected this technology.
[00:23:39] Ramanan Raghavendran: Really?
[00:23:40] Kim Wolske: Yes, because you've maybe engineered a solution to avoiding particulate matter, but it's not a solution that's really been engineered with end users in mind.
[00:23:53] Ramanan Raghavendran: Oh, those pesky end users.
[00:23:55] Kim Wolske: Yeah. Yeah. Cause you know, now you're talking, you can't get up in the pre-dawn hours and start the cooking fire for breakfast. You've got to wait til the sun's out. Right. Cooking's gonna take longer. So, it's a massive shift in habits. And habits are such a hard thing to change unless, one, people want to, and two, there's something that helps disrupt those habits. I mean, they really are a form of automatic behavior that people just continue doing. It's also culturally disruptive. One of my favorite anecdotes I remember reading in some research article is that, the women would go together to collect firewood, and that was their time to complain about their husbands. So now you know, you've switched to this different cooking source, you're removing a really important social aspect.
[00:24:47] Ramanan Raghavendran: Okay. That is fascinating.
[00:24:50] Kim Wolske: But I see the same kind of thing play out now. I mean, I mentioned earlier this idea that, especially those of us in the energy climate space, you know, we nerd out on on energy talk.
[00:25:02] Ramanan Raghavendran: No question, no question. And I should, I should tell you, Kim, this is also happening in the climate tech investment space where there is massive nerding out, especially on things that touch the energy infrastructure or new kinds of materials or edibles. Right. So there's massive nerding out that's going on, but this huge gap between that and people actually behaving differently.
[00:25:29] Kim Wolske: Yeah. Well, I sometimes worry that we think about end users or consumers as the last step instead of thinking about them at the beginning. And that may not make sense, like on the surface, you're thinking, but I'm designing a solution that will help them, but we're not really putting ourselves in the shoes of those end users of, what is it that they really want.
And maybe that's my second, related to my second piece of advice of, get behavioral scientists in from day one to help you design this in the first place. It's almost a bad joke among social scientists, how often we're approached by engineers or others—"we've designed this great thing. We want you to come in and convince people to use it." And at that point it's too late.
[00:26:24] Ramanan Raghavendran: Well, that is a major reason we do this interview series, in which we are bringing a set of knowledge that you would think people would be involving very early and are not. And I'm hoping people will hear this interview and say, well, how do we get a hold of Kim? In fact, I'm having that question.
I think the other observation I would make in Silicon Valley is, you know, the rise of the iPhone and Apple products brought an incredible focus on beautiful design into the ecosystem, which has many positives. But you know, a beautifully designed solar stove doesn't solve the behavior problem, and we see this repeatedly.
[00:27:11] Kim Wolske: I mean, I would say too, right, there's this proliferation of apps, which is amazing, right? Like now you can do all kinds of things from your phone, but there's a lot of energy and climate related apps. I think probably appeal to the energy nerds. But the average person is like, I don't know what this is.
And so there's still this other step of translating this information to something that's more usable that needs to happen.
[00:27:39] Ramanan Raghavendran: We would agree 1000%. And on that note, we will end the recorded part of our interview.
This was awesome. This interview was a great example of exactly why we do this series. So I wanna thank you for your time and maybe you'll come back and do another episode with us.
[00:27:57] Kim Wolske: Thanks so much for having me.