Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Japan's energy future - Finding the opportunities in trying times

Image by AFP/Getty Images via @daylife
It’s no surprise that the recent earthquakes and tsunami in Japan, along with the fear of a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, have caused the Japanese government to reevaluate their energy future. Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced on May 10th that they will curb current plans to build more nuclear reactors, and will focus instead on renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and hydro. But while the government thinks about changing the supply side of energy, it’s important to remember that the biggest bang for the energy conservation buck is on the demand side, through behavior change – how do you motivate people to use less energy as they go about their daily lives?

One of the primary types of appeals used in community interventions is the fear appeal – a persuasive message that aims to frighten the audience into engaging in the desired behaviors, by showing them the negative consequences that could occur if they don’t. It struck me that Japan’s situation is one that would be ripe for this kind of messaging. Japan is located on an extremely seismically active piece of real estate, and if they need to build more nuclear plants to meet increasing energy needs, there’s no way to be sure that Fukushima Daiichi won’t repeat itself. Certainly the threat of nuclear disaster should inspire the kind of motivation that is needed to seriously change behavior. But do fear appeals work, and if they do, under what circumstances are they effective, and when are they actually counter-productive?

One important component seems to be the amount of fear elicited. The more frightening a message is, the more effective it is – however, insert big BUT here: It turns out that fear is not the sole component of an effective fear appeal. The other essential ingredient is a feasible recommended course of action to combat the threat – in other words, you can’t just scare people by saying “If we don’t use less energy, we run the risk of nuclear disaster.” Research indicates that giving people this kind of message will lead to rejection of and resistance to this message, probably because of a need to counteract the fear, without any know way of doing so. In fact, it is here that a “more fear” tactic might backfire – the least effective messages are those that are high on fear, but low on behavioral recommendations. A more effective message would probably be something like, “If we don’t use less energy, we run the risk of nuclear disaster. So, make sure you lower the thermostat 2 degrees, turn off the lights when you leave the room, and run your dishwasher during off-peak hours.” If the audience has that kind of attainable behavior to help alleviate the threat, the combination of fear and action can really produce results. However, for the reasons described above and others, constructing an effective fear-based message is a tricky thing, and runs the risk of being more counter-productive than useful.

There is also some controversy over the ethics of using emotional appeals – even if they work, is it fair to play on people’s emotions, rather than their logic, when trying to elicit a behavior from them? That may be an issue for another day, but it’s certainly an issue worth thinking about.

The Japanese government does not appear to be using fear appeals, and that is a good thing. It would probably be seen as exploitative in a time when the message they really need to be sending is one of national unity, demonstrating that the government has a plan, and if everyone in Japan comes together for a common goal, they can overcome any disaster.

The good news is, that is exactly what the Japanese people are doing. They are recognizing the importance of energy savings, not only to prevent major problems like nuclear disaster, but to avoid the more minor inconveniences like rolling blackouts. Japan’s largest utility, TEPCO, says that its customers are doing such an incredible job saving energy that their predicted shortfall has reduced significantly, and they are “ceasing implementation of rolling blackouts in principle” (presumably meaning it’s a tentative cessation).

How have they been so successful? In the wake of the crisis, it turns out the Japanese people have banded together, out of national pride and a can-do attitude, and decided to curb their energy use. The concept of setsuden, an energy saving culture, has emerged, and the people are embracing it. Everywhere you turn in Japan now, residents and companies are posting posters, starting incentive programs, and generally rallying around the idea of energy efficiency. It's a spirit of optimism, motivation, and forward thinking. It's working extremely well. And it's much more rewarding than fear.

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