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A soft approach for better climate and energy related outcomes for disadvantaged communities (I/II)

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By Makario Sarsozo

· 7 min read

This is part one of a two-part series on addressing environmental justice issues for disadvantaged communities.


Soft approaches, or nudges, can be useful in addressing issues of equity in the areas of energy and climate justice for disadvantaged communities. The application of behavioral economics is relatively new in the area of climate research and there is, therefore, a knowledge gap currently in understanding the complex dynamics of justice and power in these areas. Not only is a more nuanced approach to climate research needed through newer methods and perspectives, such as intersectional feminist theory, but considerations such as ethics of climate nudging must also be weighed. Beyond an updated macro approach to climate research, specific soft approaches to energy and climate issues, like nudging and boosting, can also benefit disadvantaged communities in related outcomes and decision making. 


This paper will explore the use of soft approaches through behavioral economics to increase beneficial decision-making and outcomes for disadvantaged communities, specifically communities of color, when addressing climate and energy-related issues. These are, in essence, environmental justice issues and for the purpose of this paper, the definition of environmental justice given by the Environmental Protection Agency will be used.

“Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” (EPA, 2022).

This paper proposes that recent research suggests a new approach to energy and climate-related policy and decision-making is warranted with respect to disadvantaged communities. Further, new methodologies may provide a more accurate assessment of energy and climate justice by examining the inherent power imbalances that have existed in our culture and social science research approach.

The organization of the paper will include a literature review of relevant studies, a proposal explaining how the literature relates to this area of concern and an analysis of related studies in the areas of environmental justice and behavioral economics. Finally, this paper will end with a summary of findings and highlight the importance of soft approaches in the areas of energy and climate justice and provide recommendations for the future. 

Literature review

The academic literature regarding soft approaches to energy and climate-related decision-making in the environmental justice space is still developing. However, I have found several studies that speak to the broader context of environmental justice research and the specific decision-making process for disadvantaged communities and communities of color in the areas of energy and climate. 

Social science research has not historically been incorporated into climate research, and results are therefore mostly quantitative, but they fail to adequately address areas of equity and justice. With climate change continuing to impact communities of color disproportionately, these viewpoints and additional factors must be taken into consideration when making decisions about energy and climate change. In the article by Ryder (2018), “Developing an intersectionally-informed, multi-sited, critical policy ethnography to examine power and procedural justice in multiscalar energy and climate change decisionmaking processes,” the author looks at improving climate change research through new methods and perspectives like intersectional feminist theory, which better identify and incorporate issues of power and justice in decision-making processes.

The Mormann (2022) article, “Climate Choice Architecture,” looks at the implications of choice architecture on decision-making and stresses that even though individuals’ choices are driving global warming almost as much as institutions, policymakers have traditionally focused almost exclusively on institutions when it comes to addressing climate change. The author supports the idea that soft approaches, such as nudges, should become a pillar of climate change mitigation, with a focus on both institutions and individuals. Climate choice architects are credited with successfully using nudges to produce changes in environmental policy, and around climate justice, by aiding disadvantaged communities in taking a more active role in environmentally focused decision-making. 

In the article by DellaValle (2019), “People’s decisions matter: understanding and addressing energy poverty with behavioral economics,” the study examines the impacts of limited cognitive resources and scarcity conditions on decision-making for disadvantaged communities. The study shows that access to clean and affordable energy is reflected in disparities falling along traditional social and racial inequality distributions. Making energy available to all homes is one strategy to address energy poverty and inequity in energy access. The experience of living with scarcity, including scarcity of energy, is shown to affect cognitive ability and results in increased susceptibility to cognitive biases. 

The article by DellaValle & Sareen (2020), “Nudging and boosting for equity? Towards a behavioural economics of energy justice,” states that energy justice continues to be an under-researched area in relation to behavioral economics. From this field of the social sciences, we see that people make predictive decision-making patterns that can give decision-makers additional information when making energy justice-related policy decisions. However, these patterns are often not considered. This study looks at using behavioral economics to address issues of energy justice through “soft approach” tools like nudging and boosting that can help with energy poverty alleviation.

Finally, in “The ethics of climate nudges: Central issues for applying choice architecture interventions to climate policy,” Siipi & Koi (2022) take a step back and look at the ethics of using climate nudges altogether. The article suggests that while soft approaches in the areas of behavioral economics have been given more attention in recent years, one aspect that has not been closely studied is ethics. This article looks at the debate about using nudging ethically and explores areas that are particularly relevant to climate-related nudging. Some of these themes include justification for non-self-regarding nudges; transparency; best practices and behaviors; environmental justice concerns; and justification for nudges in light of their proven efficacy (Siipi & Koi, 2022). The authors conclude that there are ethical issues that should be considered when using and developing climate-related nudges.


The purpose of this paper is to explore how soft approaches can help address environmental justice issues that result in limited tools and a lack of consideration for disadvantaged communities surrounding energy and climate justice decision-making. This undertaking requires an examination of the broader system in which these soft approaches exist, and how an updated perspective can possibly shed light on behavioral economics as it relates to climate and energy justice. This dynamic of power and justice imbalances in the areas of environmental research, as well as limited tools and access for communities of color in decision-making, results in inadequate input in making energy and climate-related decisions despite these communities being disproportionately impacted. This pattern not only impacts energy governance and energy justice but also relates to equitable mitigation and adaptation efforts in addressing climate change.

Looking at possible nudges to increase self-benefitting decision-making for disadvantaged communities may result in a more fruitful area of behavioral science research as it relates to climate justice. This paper aims to lay out an empirical basis for the usefulness of nudges for increasing beneficial decision-making for underserved communities regarding climate and energy and to provide a more holistic perspective on climate research for improved decision-making for disadvantaged communities.


DellaValle, N. (2019). People’s decisions matter: Understanding and addressing energy poverty with behavioral economics. Energy and Buildings, 204, 109515. doi:10.1016/j.enbuild.2019.109515

DellaValle, N., & Sareen, S. (2020). Nudging and boosting for equity? towards a behavioural economics of energy justice. Energy Research & Social Science, 68, 101589. doi:10.1016/j.erss.2020.101589

EPA. (2022). Environmental Justice. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow (1st ed.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN: 978-0-374-53355-7 

Mormann, F. (2022), Climate Choice Architecture. Boston College Law Review, Vol. 64, 2023, Forthcoming, Texas A&M University School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 22-47,

Provost, C., & Gerber, B. J. (2019). Political control and policy-making uncertainty in executive orders: The implementation of environmental justice policy. Journal of Public Policy, 39(2), 329-358. doi:10.1017/S0143814X18000077

Ryder, S. (2018). Developing an intersectionally-informed, multi-sited, critical policy ethnography to examine power and procedural justice in multiscalar energy and climate change decisionmaking processes. Energy Research & Social Science, 45, 266-275. doi:10.1016/j.erss.2018.08.005

Siipi, H., & Koi, P. (2022). The ethics of climate nudges: Central issues for applying choice architecture interventions to climate policy. European Journal of Risk Regulation, 13(2), 218-235. doi:10.1017/err.2021.49

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Makario Sarsozo is a senior storyteller and science communicator with many years of experience creating innovative content for broadcast and digital platforms. He has worked as a showrunner, writer, and producer on projects for National Geographic, Science Channel and YouTube.

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