At the Net Impact conference last week, a waiter stopped by before lunch to ask if anyone at our table wanted a vegetarian meal instead of chicken. Just one or two people did.
This, as it happens, is typical. When a meat-based entrée is being served, and people are offered a vegetarian alternative, about 5 to 10 percent will request it.
But what if the choices were reversed? Organizers of the 2009 Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Conference, which began Monday in Washington, tried an experiment: They made a vegetarian lunch the default option, and gave meat eaters the choice of opting out.
Some 80 percent went for the veggies, not because there were lots of vegetarians in the crowd of about 700 people but because the choice was framed differently. We know that because, at a prior BECC conference, when meat was the default option, attendees chose the meat by an 83 percent to 17 percent margin.
More than lunch is at stake here. "Omnivores contribute seven times the greenhouse gas emissions, when compared to vegans," says Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez, the conference chair, who works for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.