Changing Consumer Behavior is Crucial to Reducing Energy Use, Baird Says at AAAS


U.S. Rep. Brian Baird

While efforts to address U.S. energy needs often focus on developing non-carbon power sources and new "green" modes of transportation, U.S. Rep. Brian Baird told a AAAS audience that changing consumer behavior could reduce energy consumption by as much as 20%—in a matter of months.

In fact, Baird (D-Wash.) told the recent AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy, changing consumer behavior is "the single most immediate thing we can do" to reduce energy consumption.

Baird, an enthusiastic and witty advocate for science in the Congress, is a former chairman of the psychology department at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. He is a firm believer in the power of social and behavioral sciences to help address urgent national issues, including reduction of consumer demand for energy.

The steps are no secret: carpooling, driving one less day a week, turning down thermostats, buying more efficient appliances. But how can consumers be motivated? "Social sciences," Baird said. He cited the work of Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University and others who have been studying the science of persuasion.

Nearly 600 leaders from U.S. and foreign governments, businesses, research centers and universities attended the opening day of the 34th annual AAAS Policy Forum, a two-day immersion in the issues and sometimes gritty political realities that dominate the nation's science and technology agenda. Meeting just blocks from the White House, the Forum is regarded as the largest and most important annual science and technology policy conference in the United States, focusing on federal budget and R&D issues; public- and private-sector research; education; innovation; and other high-profile domestic and international S&T issues. It was organized by AAAS Science & Policy Programs.

Baird is now chairman of the subcommittee on energy and environment of the House Committee on Science and Technology. Last year, when he headed the subcommittee on research and science education, he convened a series of hearings on the contributions of social and behavioral sciences on energy, national security, and health-care issues.

Speaking at the AAAS Forum on 1 May, Baird surveyed some of the items on the science and technology committee's plate in the current Congress, including energy issues. He said he would like to see recognition in energy legislation for behavioral changes that lead directly to reduced consumption. If companies can get tax credits and utility rebates for installing energy-efficient light bulbs and other equipment, Baird said, "why not give credit for changing the way power bills are distributed to people?"

Studies suggest that simply by changing the way power bills are worded—so that consumers are informed how their usage compares to that of their neighbors—power consumption can be cut by 2% or more. Baird mentioned a study that had 50,000 homes in the control group and a comparable number in the group that received bills with a revised message. "There's an 'N' for you," quipped Baird, who comes from a discipline where the number of subjects in a study—or N—typically is much smaller.

"I am passionate about science," Baird said. "I love the process, I love the discoveries, I love the contributions. It is a guiding principle of my life as a person and my work as a legislator." He added: "For me, the day-to-day satisfaction of being in Congress really tends to come more and more from the science committee."

Also a keen student of politics, Baird told the Forum that the change of administrations is having an immediate impact on issues of interest to the Democrat majorities in the House and Senate. "When I was younger I believed the four sweetest words in the English language were, 'I love you, dear,'" Baird said. "I now believe they are 'We have the votes.' "

There are many differences whenever a new administration comes into power, Baird said, but perhaps the most significant change, from his perspective, is a new attitude toward the use of science in environmental policy-making. "I just have to tell you what a sea change it has been in government with the election of the new administration," Baird said. He mentioned some of the environmental issues he plans to spotlight in his subcommittee in the coming months, including the interplay between rising carbon dioxide levels and the state of the oceans.

The effect of carbon dioxide emissions from human activities is at least as great in the oceans as in the atmosphere, he said. Moreover, the effects of uptake of carbon dioxide and resulting acidification of seawater can be demonstrated on test organisms in the laboratory, Baird said.

"We are going to focus tremendously on the oceans," Baird said. "The oceans are in dire shape." In addition to acidification, he cited harmful algal blooms, expanding dead zones, warming temperatures, over-fishing, and polluted runoff from coastal lands.

Baird mentioned one of his pet peeves. He resists talking about "global warming" or "climate change," terms which he considers too benign. "It is lethal overheating of the planet," Baird said. "The problem is scientists don't like to talk like that because 'change' allows you a fudge factor." Scientists can speak in terms of statistical probabilities and confidence factors, he said, and "meanwhile, the fish are going, 'aaagh.'"

"We have a responsibility as scientists to be more affirmative about this and speak in language that gets people motivated," Baird said. "So I speak of lethal overheating and ocean acidification."

Baird also spoke of his continuing commitment to international scientific cooperation, which he said can be a bridge to better understanding between societies where official, government-to-government relations might be strained. He noted that the House science and technology committee recently passed his bill to establish a committee within the Cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council to help coordinate international scientific cooperation and identify new opportunities for partnerships.

"I'm as excited about that contribution as anything I've done in Congress," Baird said. He praised the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, established last year as a non-governmental vehicle for using science and scientific cooperation to promote international understanding and prosperity. The center, led by AAAS Chief International Officer Vaughan Turekian, provides a forum for scientists, policy analysts, and policymakers to share information and explore collaborative opportunities.

International opinion polls consistently show that the American spirit of enterprise and inquiry is widely admired, Baird said. "Even if they may hate us on a number of other fronts," he said, "they still say, 'You got to hand it to those guys. They're pretty good at science and technology.' "

Scientific and academic exchanges build lasting bonds that are beneficial for the societies involved, he said, and as an illustration, he recounted a visit he and other members of Congress made to a World Economic Forum in the Middle East. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced himself to an elderly Arab woman wearing a hijab, or head scarf, and said he is from Southern California. "And her fist shot into the air and she said, "I'm a mighty Trojan!' " Baird said. "She had attended the University of Southern California."

The friendships, knowledge and awareness that result from academic exchanges are invaluable, he said, "and we need to expand that."