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The effect of public safety power shut-offs on climate change attitudes and behavioural intentions

Abstract

As climate change accelerates, governments will be forced to adapt to its impacts. The public could respond by increasing mitigation behaviours and support for decarbonization, creating a virtuous cycle between adaptation and mitigation. Alternatively, adaptation could generate backlash, undermining mitigation behaviours. Here we examine the relationship between adaptation and mitigation in the power sector, using the case of California’s public safety power shut-offs in 2019. We use a geographically targeted survey to compare residents living within power outage zones to matched residents in similar neighbourhoods who retained their electricity. Outage exposure increased respondent intentions to purchase fossil fuel generators while it may have reduced intentions to purchase electric vehicles. However, exposure did not change climate policy preferences, including willingness to pay for either wildfire or climate-mitigating reforms. Respondents blamed outages on their utility, not local, state or federal governments. Our findings demonstrate that energy infrastructure disruptions, even when not understood as climate adaptations, can still be consequential for decarbonization trajectories.

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Fig. 1: Survey sampling zones associated with PSPS events in Northern California in fall 2019.
Fig. 2: Level of concern reported by outage-impacted respondents associated with fall 2019 PSPS events in Northern California.
Fig. 3: Effect of outage exposure on policy and climate change attitudes.
Fig. 4: Effect of outage exposure on household-level adaptation and purchasing intentions.
Fig. 5: Heterogeneous effects of outage exposure on adaptation by respondent acceptance that global warming is caused mostly by human activities.
Fig. 6: Effect of outage exposure on attitudes towards utilities.
Fig. 7: Effect of outage exposure on politician approval ratings.

Data availability

The underlying data used in this article has been deposited in a Harvard Dataverse repository to accompany publication of this article, available at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/UUYMNG.

Code availability

The code and replication scripts necessary to generate the figures, tables and analysis reported here have also been been deposited in the Harvard Dataverse repository at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/UUYMNG.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported in part by funding from the Research Council of Norway as part of DEMOS grant 302869 (L.C.S.), the Swedish Formas Research Council grant 2019-01962 (L.C.S.), and the US National Science Foundation as part of both grant BCS-1753082 (P.D.H.) and grant CRISP-1541056 (M.L.). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. We also thank J. Marlon, P. Bergquist, A. Cooperman, S. Constantino and O.M. Lægreid for comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript.

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M.M. and P.D.H. jointly participated in all stages of this study, including design, data collection, analysis and writing. S.T. participated in analysis and writing. L.C.S. and M.L. participated in design, data collection and writing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Matto Mildenberger.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Ethics statement

This study was reviewed and approved by the University of California Office of Research as Protocol 22-19-0808. Respondent participation in our survey was voluntary, and respondents provided informed consent before taking the survey.

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Nature Energy thanks Fedor Dokshin, Alexa Spence and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Mildenberger, M., Howe, P.D., Trachtman, S. et al. The effect of public safety power shut-offs on climate change attitudes and behavioural intentions. Nat Energy 7, 736–743 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-022-01071-0

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