A barn and wind turbines in rural Illinois Image: By Dori, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Researchers receive NSF grant to study how household decisions impact climate

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The National Science Foundation has awarded $1.4 million to scientists working in two suburban Illinois communities to find whether families are willing to adjust their habits to help offset the impacts of climate change.

An interdisciplinary team of scientists from five universities, including Penn State, will directly ask people in the test communities if they would voluntarily make cost-effective changes in how they consume food, energy and water (FEW) in favor of more sustainable practices. The effort marks a new ground-up approach to studying the effects of human activities on climate.

The five-year project links researchers at Penn State, Rutgers, Arizona State, Minnesota and Michigan Technological University, the lead institution. The Penn State team includes meteorology professors Jenni L. Evans, a co-principal investigator, and Jose D. Fuentes, a senior researcher on the project.

“This study is interesting because scientists have a chance to ask people from at least two communities whether there is a possibility we humans should change the way we do things as far as consuming food, energy and water,“ Fuentes said. “Those things are part of our routines, but they have very drastic consequences on the planet Earth.”

Scientists will identify ways to reduce FEW impacts in the test communities through strategies such as using renewable energy, consuming locally produced food, or cutting back on water usage. To complete the analysis, scientists will see what changes people in these communities are willing to make. The team will quantify the environmental impact of those changes, and design and apply computer models to learn how the cost-effective changes could impact the local and regional climate in the future.

“We have social scientists working all the way down to the household level trying to understand how changes in household behavior could feed back into considerations about climate change,” said Evans, who is also an associate in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State. “It’s going down to face-to-face interviews with individuals and families and all the way up to broader-scale, straight-up climate change scenarios. If you want a multi-scale, multi-dimensional project, this one is pretty multi-everything.”

The Penn State team will handle climate modeling aspects of the project, modeling future climate change scenarios in the test communities and showing possible impacts of adjusted FEW consumption.

“We have metrics for example to measure how much greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced because of these changes,” Fuentes said. “Suppose these communities in Illinois are mostly reliant on burning coal for energy. If all of a sudden we change to wind or solar, we eliminate some greenhouse gas emissions. We will gather that information, put it in our numerical models and determine how much the climate changes because of the changes in household behavior.”

Traditional approaches for addressing climate change are often top-down, like a government implementing an emissions cap or carbon tax. Fuentes said those strategies are important, but can leave individuals feeling like they don’t have personal responsibility.

“In a way, a project like this can put us on the wheel to make decisions,” Fuentes said. “I can tell you that if you go around the country and ask citizens if they would like more sustainable conditions, mostly everyone would agree.”

Funding is provided through NSF’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) program. The project includes funding for researchers to recruit, train, and graduate more than 20 students and early-career scientists from underrepresented groups.