Greer Gosnell

Date of Completion


Degree Type

Honors Thesis - Campus Access


Economics (ECON)

First Advisor

Dorothea Herreiner


For decades, significant research has focused on human behavior and its impact on the natural environment. The current climate crisis—along with several other environmental predicaments of the past and present—have beckoned scientists, politicians, and economists worldwide to discover new and more effective ways of reducing the impact of human beings on the planet. In the international arena, America has become the main culprit with regards to anthropogenic climate change, its carbon emissions per capita exceeding that of any other nation. Our consumptive behaviors and apparently enviable lifestyles have at once defined the aspirations of developing countries and distinguished American culture as the primary enemy of earth’s ecosystems and of future generations.

Political motivations and economic concerns at the federal level have prevented the U.S. government from passing significant climate legislation; therefore, it appears that environmental progress will require solutions that limit potentially adverse effects on the economy and circumvent politically disputed market-based incentives to abate. What policies can the government implement that will simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions and demonstrate initiative—which can attract both environmental lobbies and issue-specific voters— without compromising political and economic prospects? In other words, where can we find a “win-win” method for politicians to reduce America’s overwhelming environmental footprint?

I hope to begin this discussion by highlighting the most effective low-cost ways to reduce energy consumption at the individual level. Almost nine thousand pounds of carbon dioxide are emitted from American homes each year, accounting for a sizeable portion (about 17%) of American carbon emissions. What low-cost [economic and] non-economic incentives can cause residents to conserve energy? Moreover, how can the government utilize these methods to move society closer to a locally and globally optimal level of carbon emissions?

My research seeks effective low-cost methods to reduce energy consumption at the individual level by uncovering non-economic incentives that can cause residents to conserve energy. I collected data from a four-week field study in university apartments, where I distributed mock bills to residents with variable types and degrees of information to test the effects of information and social norms on conservation behavior. Residents completed surveys to reveal information on demographics, altruism, civic cooperation, and attitudes toward the environment. Results from a supplemental controlled lab experiment enhance the validity of the study and provide detail regarding the nature of residents’ incentive to lower energy use.

The results of the study hold implications for energy consumption in all residences, particularly those in which monetary disincentives are either non-existent or ineffective in deterring consumptive tendencies (e.g., student housing, military barracks, social housing, and government-subsidized facilities). While the utilization of these methods will not be sufficient in lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to a globally sustainable level in the long run, their implementation will constitute one of the least costly solutions that will be necessary to sufficiently reduce American emissions.