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Speaking Sustainably

Could patriotism motivate Americans to use less energy?

Linking climate change to national security might just change the way consumers think about energy consumption.

Several years ago, back when we were still fighting a war in Iraq and we were all very tense about that, we tested some messaging around national security as a reason to make one’s home more energy efficient.

It tested pretty well; not as well as saving money and increasing comfort, but pretty well. And, as you might imagine, it tested best with Americans who weren’t bought into climate change, but were bought into America.

As time passed, the message waned in its performance, and we stopped testing it, opting instead for some other drivers such as health/indoor air quality and resale value. But last week at the BECC conference, I heard something that made me think we need to start testing it again — but with a different twist.

Here’s the background: I sat in on a panel discussion called "Mission Critical, Mission Possible," where three military leaders (two Marine Corps, one Navy) gave specifics about how, as the session description read, "for the U.S. military, energy efficiency is not just about money or sustainability — it is a mission-critical priority. Smarter use of resources enhances energy security, expands military capability and saves lives."

They gave very concrete examples of the benefits of being more energy efficient, such as:

  • When we teach soldiers not to idle trucks while they’re waiting to go into battle, we can keep them in the field doing what they’re there to do up to eight hours longer before they have to come back and refuel. In this case, energy efficiency = winning battles and saving lives.
  • Marines are carrying 100-pound packs on their backs. If we can give them solar blankets to carry for their energy needs (I’m guessing instead of fuel or batteries), we can lighten their pack by 13 pounds, which means they can go further faster or carry more munitions. In this case, energy efficiency = better human performance.

There were many other examples, but the takeaway was that this is a no-brainer. The military absolutely should keep working to be as efficient as possible.

But at the end of the session, Col. James Caley said something that I thought could be a compelling reason for civilians to be more energy efficient:

"When the waters rise, schoolroom brawls break out … and they go get guns."

The panel already had detailed how our military seeks to be the worst enemy to others in times of conflict and a best friend in times of crisis. They are the first responders when typhoons, hurricanes, you-name-it devastate a country.

Caley was speaking from firsthand experience. Our soldiers are called in to restore order when weird weather events happen. And given the chaos and the emotional rawness of the people living through the nightmare, they’re ready to grab guns and get the food, water and shelter they need.

So, in essence, disastrous weather events put our sons and daughters serving in the military in harm’s way. In essence, climate change — and the human fallout — is the new enemy they’re fighting.

My gut instinct is that this could be a compelling reason for some Americans to do their part to reduce their personal environmental impact.

Many of us know someone serving in our military — and the notion that one’s personal energy consumption leads to weather events that put soldiers we love in danger hits some big emotional buttons (not unlike the buttons leveraged when we were fighting WWII to inspire folks to ration/conserve/do their part for their country while at war).

We’ll find a way to craft this message and test it in some upcoming research and let you know how it performs. In the meantime, if the U.S. military wanted to create behavior change with the families of its soldiers, I’d recommend they take a test-and-learn approach with this kind of message.

As we’ve seen repeatedly, when someone is personally affected by energy and environmental issues, behavior change is a whole lot easier. And nothing's more personal than having someone you love put in harm’s way because of climate change.

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