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Plummeting renewable energy costs open a new way to bridge the political divide

New study finds that cost savings arguments have both the largest and the most durable effect—with little difference across the political spectrum
September 20, 2022

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Cost savings is the most persuasive argument to change the opinions of both Democrats and Republicans about renewable energy, according to a new study. Messages about the benefits for a household’s bottom line have both the largest and the most durable effect, with little difference across the political spectrum—suggesting that emphasizing cost savings could have bipartisan appeal, a rare opportunity overcome political polarization on energy and climate in the United States.

Past studies have shown that support for renewable energy depends on which benefits are emphasized: some arguments in favor of a switch to renewables hold more sway than others. Past research also suggests that cost is a major driver of people’s support for energy policy.

But so far, studies have mostly included messages pointing out that renewable energy could increase household energy costs. The research hasn’t kept up with the rapidly falling cost of renewable energy, which has now rendered renewable electricity cheaper than coal in many areas.

In the new study, researchers set out to update the picture, as well as test two other aspects of communication about renewables that haven’t been well covered in the past: how long the effects on people’s beliefs last, and whether Democrats and Republicans respond differently to messages about the benefits of renewables.

“There are many different benefits of renewable energy that could be emphasized when trying to change opinions and build support for it,” says study team member Abel Gustafson, a climate communication researcher at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. “The findings of our study suggest that—for both Democrats and Republicans—it may be more persuasive to emphasize renewable energy’s cost savings than to emphasize its ability to reduce global warming or to create jobs and boost the economy.”

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Gustafson and his colleagues recruited Americans for an online study in which they asked people about their support for renewable energy, then directed them to read a short passage emphasizing one of three benefits of renewables: their potential to shrink household energy costs, boost the economy at large, or lessen global warming.

Then, the researchers asked the participants again about their level of support for renewable energy policy, as well as their belief in a statement about renewable energy corresponding to the passage each person had read. About a week and a half and three weeks later, the researchers again asked people about their support for and beliefs about renewable energy. A total of 2,071 people completed all three surveys.

The message that renewable energy can shrink household costs was the most effective message by a number of different measures, the researchers report in the journal Nature Energy. It was most effective at shifting participants’ immediate beliefs about renewable energy, had the most durable effects on beliefs, and had the same effects among both Democrats and Republicans. The cost savings message also increased support for renewable energy policy across the political spectrum, albeit to a smaller degree.

The other two messages had smaller initial effects on beliefs about and support for policies promoting renewable energy. In addition, the researchers detected partisan differences in the immediate effect of these messages, and possibly also in their durability.

The effects of all three messages diminished over time, showing a steep decrease in the first 10 days of the study and a plateau at the three-week mark. Overall about half the effect of the message about cost savings remained at the end of the study.

“The effect of nearly all messages fades over time, so it is more a question of how fast it fades,” Gustafson says. “We should keep in mind that these are the effects of reading one single, brief, text-based message. If we’re seeing this level of persuasion durability with these relatively weak and basic messages, we can expect even greater durability with messages that are more compelling and engaging or with messages that are repeated multiple times.”

Repeated and more comprehensive, compelling messages would also likely lead to more support for renewable energy policy, rather than primarily just shifting people’s beliefs about renewable energy as was seen here, he argues.

“We are currently conducting research to try to determine what types of characteristics of the message and of the audience cause more or less durability in persuasion effects,” Gustafson says.

Source: Gustafson A. et al.  “The durable, bipartisan effects of emphasizing the cost savings of renewable energy.” Nature Energy 2022.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine.

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