Good Intentions: Why Environmental Awareness Doesn’t Lead to Green Behavior

By Earl J. Ritchie, Lecturer, Department of Construction Management

Polls consistently show a high level of environmental awareness in the U.S. However, awareness frequently does not translate into action.

Use of mass transit has shown almost no per capita growth despite substantial investment in light rail and other transit improvements. Carpooling has declined.

The use of environmentally friendly technologies such as solar and wind power has grown modestly, except where subsidized or mandated. In part, this is because they have been more expensive than their fossil fuel using counterparts. However, even as those costs approach parity, growth rates drop significantly when subsidies are removed.

Models of environmental decision making

There was once, and to some extent continues to be, a belief in the simple model shown below: knowledge of the environment leads to a positive environmental attitude, which results in pro-environmental action.

Source: Modified from Kollmus and Agyeman (2002)

Source: Modified from Kollmus and Agyeman (2002)

This has not happened consistently, either in the U.S. or Europe. In a European study, Ortega-Egea et al. say “Over the past two decades, increased media coverage – coupled with economic incentives, subsidies, and related interventions – has substantially raised citizens’ awareness and concern about climate change, but has typically failed to induce persistent behavioral changes.”


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