A seesaw with pollution on one end and Earth on another

Fighting climate change is wildly popular, but most Americans don’t know that other people feel the same way

Just after the U.S. Congress passed the nation's most substantial legislation aimed at battling climate change, a new study shows that the average American dramatically underestimates how much their fellow citizens support substantive climate policy. While 66% to 80% of Americans support climate actions, the average American believes that number is 37% to 43%, the study found.

“It’s stunning how universal and shared that idea is, among every demographic,” said Gregg Sparkman, the paper’s first author, who did this work as a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton.

The research, co-authored by Elke Weber, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment and professor of psychology and the School of Public and International Affairs, was published in Nature Communications this week.

The study found that conservatives underestimated national support for climate policies to the greatest degree, but liberals also believed that a minority of Americans support climate action. The misperception was the norm in every state, across policies, and among every demographic tested, including political affiliation, race, media consumption habits, and rural vs. suburban residents.

The measures the researchers asked about were major climate policies that could play a role in mitigating climate change in the U.S., including a carbon tax, siting renewable energy projects on public lands, sourcing electricity from 100% renewable resources by 2035, and the Green New Deal. Americans underestimated support for every policy.

Sparkman said this underestimation is problematic because people tend to conform to what they think others believe, which would weaken actual support for such policies. 

“They fall into a trap of: I support this but I think other people don’t, so in a democratic society, that means there’s nothing else to be done, beyond maybe convincing your peers,” said Sparkman, an assistant professor at Boston College.

The research could help focus the agenda for climate advocates who think they are facing an uphill battle with fellow Americans, Sparkman said.  

“They might feel alone in support because of this false social reality,” said Weber.

Co-author Nathaniel Geiger, assistant professor of communication science at Indiana University, said misperceptions of public opinion can also stifle constructive public discussion on the topic.  “My previous research showed that people concerned about climate change are more likely to discuss the topic when they are aware that others share their opinions,” he said. In turn, Geiger said, these conversations are a key way that societies come together to reach solutions on social issues. 

According to the authors, the work may also suggest a new approach to organizing that focuses on educating people about the already high levels of support for major climate policies. “Spending a lot of time trying to convince opponents of climate policy may ironically suggest that there are more people in those camps than there really are,” Weber said. The researchers said there may also be a role for media organizations to play in countering misperceptions.

In their next work, the authors said they want to explore the source of the misperception. While there are some indicators of the cause, those do not fully account for its ubiquity.

The work was supported by National Science Foundation grant, SES-DRMS 2018063 to E.U.W. and G.S.