Designing Better Environmental Programs with Behavioral Science and Experimental Designs

My research in this area is supported by a wide range of collaborators and is motivated by two beliefs:

1. Environmental problems are human behavior problems. Yet environmental programs and policies are not typically designed or managed by behavioral scientists, but rather by physical and natural scientists, engineers, and lawyers. That recognition led me to switch from ecology to economics, and then more broadly to the behavioral sciences. I direct or co-direct two centers (CBEAR, EPIC) that aim to encourage environmental scientists and program managers to see environmental solutions as a matter of human behavior change, which is complex and thus requires strong science to address.

2. Every innovative idea that we implement as a good idea to try, rather than a good hypothesis to test, is a missed opportunity to learn. No one would argue with the claim that effective environmental programs require high-quality scientific evidence. Most people, however, think “scientific evidence” refers to our understanding of natural or physical environments, like the atmosphere, rather than our understanding of how environmental programs perform. Yet there is no reason we cannot use scientific principles to evaluate how programs perform and to probe our assumptions about how humans make decisions. I’ve spent more than a decade encouraging government and non-government institutions to embed science into their implementation activities. This “implementation science” is part of the missions of CBEAR and EPIC. It requires academics and program managers to collaborate and deliberately design programs, or changes to programs, to generate evidence.

Given my interest in environmental issues, I am particularly interested in understudied areas of human behavior change: (1) how can we influence businesses and institutions, such as polluting facilities or bureaucratic organizations, where decisions are made by a group rather than an individual; and (2) how can we induce persistent behavioral change with short-term interventions? For example, can peer comparisons encourage polluters to reduce their pollution beyond what they are legally required to do? Can announced inspections do a better job of encouraging long-term environmental compliance than surprise inspections? Can short-term incentives for using environmentally friendly technologies encourage long-term use of the technologies? I am also interested in addressing some of the recent hype about the potential to induce large, persistent behavioral changes with inexpensive interventions based on theories from psychology (“nudges”). These interventions definitely have a role to play, but the notion that we can induce large and persistent behavior changes simply by, for example, changing the framing of decisions is not well supported by credible, empirical evidence.

Related Publications

More Nudging, Less Shoving on the Road to Sustainability
Ferraro, PJ. 2014.

Using Non-Pecuniary Strategies to Influence Behavior: Evidence From a Large-Scale Field Experiment
Ferraro, PJ and M Price. 2013. The Review of Economics and Statistics 95(1): 64-73.

The Effects of Environmental Programs on Human Welfare and the Environment

Evidence-based environmental policy and programs requires credible, empirical evidence about what has worked in the past, what has not, and the reasons for which they have worked or not worked. To generate this evidence, my collaborators and I use research designs and statistical methods that aim to isolate the effects of environmental interventions, both regulatory and voluntary, and to elucidate the mechanisms through which they affect human welfare and the environment.

Should we expect that listing a species under the Endangered Species Act will make the species better off than had it not been listed at all? Should we expect national parks and reserves to slow habitat conversion and make local communities better off economically? If national parks do make local communities better off, how do they do that and is there any way we can redesign our park system to increase both the environmental and human welfare benefits? These questions are not easily answered when the interventions were not implemented with the intent of measuring these effects, and simplistic designs and methods that populate the environmental science literature can often give us wrong answers. In addition to publishing research in this domain, I have tried to train more researchers across a wide range of disciplines in appropriate designs and methods. I also seek to encourage environmental funders to provide appropriate incentives for learning, particularly from failures.

Related Publications

Through What Mechanisms Do Protected Areas Affect Environmental and Social Outcomes?
Ferraro, PJ, and M Hanauer. 2015. Invited article for Special Issue for the 350th Anniversary of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 370. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2014.0267

Nature & Prosperity: The Evidence We Still Need & the Right Questions to Ask
Ferraro, PJ. October 9, 2013.

The Effects of Anti-Poverty Programs on the Environment

Two of the great global challenges of the 21st century are to reduce poverty and slow global environmental change. Solutions to these challenges are often framed as conflicting with each other. Much of my prior research has focused on whether actions to slow global environmental change increase or reduce poverty, on average. I am increasingly interested in whether actions to reduce poverty increase or reduce global environmental change, and through what mechanisms. Very little is known about these causal relationships.

For example, can targeted anti-poverty programs achieve their goals without exacerbating ecosystem degradation? We don’t have much evidence to answer that question. This gap in the evidence base is important because expenditures on anti-poverty programs, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, dwarf expenditures on environmental programs.

Causal Relationships in Coupled Human-Natural Systems

My early training was in ecology. Since completing graduate training in economics and statistics, I’ve been interested in bringing methodological insights from that training back to the natural and physical sciences. The fields of economics and biostatistics have spent decades developing approaches to inferring causal relationships from non-experimental data. These approaches can open up new ways to examine causal questions with which natural and physical scientists have been wrestling for decades.

For example, how does species diversity affect ecosystem productivity in a world in which human impacts are ubiquitous? How do changes in impervious surfaces, like roads and parking lots, affect the magnitude of floods? When working with data, rather than just theory, ecologists and hydrologists tend to use designs and methods that are not well suited to the task of estimating the causal relationships in ecosystems, particularly in naturally occurring ecosystems. By combining forces with ecologists and hydrologists open to new approaches, I am seeking to provide insights into long-debated scientific questions with important policy relevance.

Related Publication

Causal Inference in Coupled Human and Natural Systems
Ferraro, PJ, JN Sanchirico, and MD Smith. 2018. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.