Roughly 80–90% of US citizens underestimate the true level of concern for climate change, as well as the level of support for transformative climate policies like a carbon tax, 100% renewable energy targets, and a Green New Deal, according to a new study. This could explain the historic absence of major climate policy in the country, the researchers said.
Generally, our perceptions about the world are shaped by society and are part of a “social reality.” Whether or not these perceptions are accurate, they can influence our actions and beliefs, including our expectations or judgment of others. Misconceptions, or “pluralistic ignorance,” can then lead to false conclusions about majority beliefs.
Studies have shown people underestimate the public’s belief in climate change, with potential challenges for advancing climate policies. Gregg Sparkman and colleagues were curious if this was also the case for climate change mitigation policy support, and decided to explore it, using a sample of over 6,000 Americans taken back in 2021.
“Americans from all walks of life greatly underestimate the true level of climate change policy support and how concerned fellow Americans are about climate change,” Sparkman told ZME Science. “Americans essentially live in a false social reality as it pertains to climate policy support: these misperceptions are held near-universally.”
For the study, Sparkman and his colleagues asked participants to estimate the percent of Americans who were at least somewhat concerned about climate change. They then chose a set of specific climate policies especially relevant to meeting the Paris Agreement targets, such as support for carbon tax against fossil fuel companies.
While most Americans believe that less than half of the country is worried about climate change, in reality, it is actually two-thirds. Participants also underestimated public support for major climate policy, when in fact two-thirds of the country support such policies. This was true across all states, demographics, and political affiliations.
Democrats, Independents, and Republicans all estimate levels for climate concern and climate policy support below 50%, while actual values are much higher, the study shows. There was also no demographic group for which the estimated range reached accurate levels – all groups were at least 20% off. This was also true for consumers of all news media outlets.
“While a super majority (66%) of Americans support mandating 100% renewable energy, Americans believe that only a minority (39.5%) support this. This was true for a number of transformative climate policies, policies that generally have a greater potential to mitigate climate than the Inflation Reduction Act,” Sparkman told ZME Science.
These results have a number of concerning implications, the researchers said. People’s personal policy beliefs are shaped by what they perceive to be the beliefs of others. So, supporters of environmental policies soften their support when they believe they are in the minority. Also, when people misjudge how concerned others are, they don’t discuss the issue, which leads to more people thinking no one cares.
Sparkman said they plan to dive deeper into the various possible factors that contribute to people being mistaken about national sentiment concerning climate change. Some likely contenders are that people often form their opinions by anchoring their estimates on past information, which is often outdated, and the fact that people use the actions of the federal government to estimate how most Americans feel about national issues.
“Once we have a sense of which factors contribute the most to people’s misperceptions, we will use those insights to design interventions that provide an accurate picture of the nation. That way, people who are concerned about climate change won’t feel alone in those concerns, and so those taking action will feel empowered–as they should,” he added.
The study was published in the journal Nature.