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Public Sociology

Sociology translates to public action This occasional column highlights sociologists who successfully engage sociology in the civic arena in service to organizations and communities. Over the years, members of ASA and sociologists as individual professionals and citizens have sought to make the knowledge we generate directly relevant to our communities, countries, and the world community. Many sociologists within the academy and in other sectors practice the translation of expert knowledge to numerous critical issues through consultation, advisement, testimony, commentary, writing, and participation in a variety of activities and venues. Readers are invited to submit contributions, but consult with Managing Editor Johanna Olexy (, 202-383-9005 x312) prior to submitting your draft (1,000 to 1,200 words maximum).

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Using Social and Behavioral Science to Design Better Energy and Climate Change Policies and Programs

by Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy

Sociologists provide unique insights for resolving many public policy debates. Our insights are equally important in finding an effective means of reducing our world’s collective carbon footprint so as to minimize the prospect of global climate change. Among the urgent priorities in this field of research is the need to address the link between excessive U.S. energy consumption and our disproportionate contribution to global carbon emissions. Currently, policymakers are prone to frame this dilemma solely in terms of its technological and economic dimensions. In response to this narrow and ineffective framing, sociologists along with other social scientists and energy practitioners recently held a first-ever national conference to begin to develop a better understanding of the social and behavioral aspects of energy use, energy efficiency, energy conservation and climate change.

The 2007 Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Conference (BECC) was convened in November by the California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE), the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), and the Precourt Institute for Energy Efficiency (PIEE). The conference focused on developing an improved understanding of the energyrelated behavior and decision-making of individuals and organizations. Ultimately, the goal of the conference and subsequent research is to accelerate our transition to an energy-efficient and low-carbon economy through a better understanding and application of social and behavioral mechanisms of change.

U.S. Energy Consumption and Efficiency

Compared to less affluent countries, per capita energy consumption in the United States and other wealthy nations is disproportionately large. Current U.S. energy consumption is on the order of 100 quadrillion BTUs annually (roughly 22 percent of global consumption) despite the fact that the U.S. population represents only 4.5 percent of the global population. Conversely, however, U.S. energy consumption per dollar of economic output (energy intensity) has declined by 50 percent over the past 35 years from 17,990 btu per dollar GDP (gross domestic product) in 1970 to 9,110 BTU/GDP in 2005. In other words, the current U.S. energy consumption is only half of what it would have been if levels of energy productivity had remained unchanged. So, is the glass half empty or half full? Despite gains in energy productivity, total U.S. energy consumption has increased by 48 percent in the past 35 years. Although technology has helped us to increase our energy productivity, social and behavioral changes are required to address the growth in overall levels of consumption and to achieve the reductions needed to retard (and eventually reduce) the continued accumulation of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the earth’s atmosphere.

The BECC Conference

The BECC Conference brought together a diverse group of academic and nonacademic researchers, advocacy groups, energy practitioners, government program staff, utility and business representatives and legislators to share their knowledge regarding the social and behavioral dimensions of energy consumption and climate change. This group included sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and other academics. The conference sessions discussed a broad range of issues including (but not limited to):

  • Influencing climate behavior through political action and social movements
  • Understanding the importance of social norms and networks
  • Improving assumptions, theories, and models
  • Using behavior research as a resource for energy efficiency initiatives
  • Learning from past energy efficiency programs
  • Understanding opinions, attitudes, and segments within the population
  • Building on the experience of public health initiatives
  • Using information, education, and voluntary action mechanisms
  • Improving policy design and political leadership
  • Motivating individuals through social marketing and public programs
  • Accelerating technology solutions
  • Catalyzing change within the business community
  • Working with community-based organizations

Appropriately, two of the three conference co-chairs, Loren Lutzenhiser (Portland State University) and myself (ACEEE), were sociologists. Lutzenhiser has a long history of research focused on the environmental impacts of socio-technical systems. His studies look at a variety of topics including variations in energy consumption practices across households, commercial real estate mechanisms that have resulted in poor-performing and environmentally exceptional buildings, and the degree to which environmentally friendly business practices have been influenced by local sustainability movements and business actors.

My research is focused on understanding climate change through cross-national studies of carbon dioxide emissions and deforestation. My participation in the BECC conference resulted from my recent decision to pursue an applied career and my subsequent employment with ACEEE. Following graduate school and several years of teaching in a tenure-track position, I decided to return to Washington, DC, to pursue a position in which I could focus full time on environmental policy research. After joining ACEEE, I was invited to work with Linda Schuck at CIEE, Carrie Armel at PIEE, and Lutzenhiser to organize this inaugural conference.

Future Opportunities

A large and growing number of people are interested in learning more about how the social sciences can help accelerate our transition to an energy-efficient and low-carbon economy. With more than 500 participants, registration for the BECC Conference exceeded initial expectations by more than 200 percent. In addition to practitioners and researchers, participants included utility representatives and representatives from a diverse group of U.S. states and cities. ACEEE is currently working with PIEE and CIEE to plan a research workshop to be held in the summer on this topic and a subsequent conference to be held late in 2008 or early in 2009. Contact me for more information about future workshops and conferences ( For more information about the 2007 BECC Conference or updates on the upcoming conference, see