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Most Americans severely underestimate the popularity of climate action — here’s why that matters

Signs above the heads of a crowd of protestors read "There is no Planet B"
Image Credit: Wix

What percentage of Americans do you think would support a carbon tax? How about the Green New Deal? How many would support 100% renewable electricity mandates in the near future? How about renewable energy infrastructure such as solar and wind on public land?

If you guessed between 37 and 43 percent of Americans support any of these measures, you’re way… way off, but in line with average estimates according to a recently published study in Nature Communications. In reality, these types of policies are twice as popular as Americans think. They’re a supermajority, averaging between 66 and 80 percent.

“The magnitude is large enough to fully invert the true reality of public opinion,” the researchers write. “In other words, supporters of major climate policies outnumber opponents 2 to 1, but Americans falsely perceive nearly the opposite to be true.”

Americans falsely perceive climate action supporters as the minority. While these perceptions may seem like trivial sociological stats, they can actually have direct consequences on climate organizing and will to act on the part of powerful officials.

The study provides robust insight into the very meta question of what Americans think other Americans think.

Between 80 and 90 percent get that question very wrong in the case of climate policy support. There’s a word for this: pluralistic ignorance, or the shared misconceptions of how others think and behave. This phenomenon leads to what the researchers call a “false social reality.”

Protestors at a climate march carry a sign reading "The climate is changing. Why aren't we?"
Image Credit: Wix

For the study, researchers at Princeton and Indiana University Bloomington surveyed over 6,119 Americans last spring, asking them the four questions that began this article. All of the estimates barely topped a third. While estimates from Democrats and Independents tended to be higher than those from Republicans, all vastly underestimated climate policy’s popularity.

The researchers compared these results with polling from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, finding that Americans in every state were way off. The data shows that 1) at least two-thirds of Americans support all of these policies and 2) as much as four-fifths of Americans support policies like renewables on public lands.

The good news lies in the fact that so many Americans support these policies. The bad news, however, is that when people think their opinions are unpopular, it could make them less likely to express those thoughts, leading to what’s called a “spiral of silence.”

But there’s still hope.

When people actively discuss their opinions, misconceptions can be debunked. A study published in 2019 shows that middle schoolers, especially, are successful in fostering climate concern among their parents — especially conservative parents.

While solutions can be as simple as talking to each other more, it doesn’t end there.

When people aren’t aware of popular support, “people conform to their perception of social norms, even when those perceptions are wrong,” Gregg Sparkman, a co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at Boston College, told Grist.

In return, this can not only limit vital conversation, but also enable unchallenged misinformation, phenomena that is derailing renewable energy projects across the country. The effects of climate silence reverberate past kitchen table conversations, and can lead less people to act on the ground. The researchers write that this produced inaction happens across the political spectrum.

The butterfly effect continues. Not only can this dynamic inhibit organizing, but it can also inhibit policymaking. When elected officials believe these policies are unpopular, they may be less likely to vote on these measures. More dire, false perceptions can obstruct these policies from being developed to begin with.

While much has changed since the 2020 presidential election, especially in terms of climate action, the year marked the first time in 20 years a question about climate change even touched the presidential debate stage. According to Sparkman, preliminary research suggests that policymakers are susceptible to the same misperceptions that the public has about popular opinion.

The reason climate policies like the Green New Deal, renewable efforts, and carbon taxes are popular is because of the redistributive, social equity, and job-creating measures major environmental policies can have. In other words, the benefits go directly to the people. But in order to close the misconception gap, researchers need to figure out what’s causing it. And they’ve got a couple of theories. One factor could be that mental shortcuts lead people astray.

It’s hard to envision how millions of people think, Sparkman said, so people may be relying on top-of-mind examples, such as the loud, climate denying minority. They also might imagine that no Republicans support these policies, when in reality, almost all Democrats, Independents, and half of Republicans want climate action.

Another theory lies in the fact that media coverage tends to present a skewed picture. According to a study that analyzed media coverage from 1985 to 2013, large American outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today inflated the prevalence of climate denial and opposition to climate action. Major outlets are changing. Yet, research shows that sometimes people anchor their estimates of the public in the past, leading many of our perceptions to be stagnant, lagging by decades.

The authors of the present study also suggest that people who support these policies, notably liberals, assume less people think like them, while conservatives underestimate how many people disagree with them. Moreover, exposure to local conservative norms, consumption of conservative news outlets, and suffocation in online echo chambers leads to this skewed perception.

So, what can be done? To put it in a nutshell, action shifts perception.

Sparkman says that research suggests that people who live in states with more climate protests have a more accurate perception of how Americans feel about climate policy, even controlling for party affiliation.

It’s kind of a “duh” moment: Making climate action more visible can help show how popular it is. When people know how much support something has, the more likely they are to mobilize around it. Additionally, passing climate legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act could have a similar effect. The reasoning is simple: Action drives belief. While simple, the IRA could also cause single action bias, leading individuals and populations to believe climate action is complete.

The researchers say these findings can help understand the historic absence of major national climate policy despite overwhelming support. The analysis is particularly relevant, considering the narrow passage of the IRA. As more Americans are aware that the majority of us care about climate change, who knows what change can come.

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