Americans underestimate how much their peers care about climate change

Climate activists, including members of Extinction Rebellion, participate in a demonstration in front of the Thurgood Marshall US Courthouse against a recent Supreme Court ruling on June 30, 2022 in New York City, United States.

Lokman Vural Elibol | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Americans care about climate change, but don’t think that their peers care about it as much as they do.

That’s the rough takeaway from research published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

Between 80 and 90 percent of Americans underestimate the concern their fellow Americans have for climate change and their support for “transformative” mitigation policies like a carbon tax or 100-percent renewable energy mandates, the research said.

Between 66 and 80 percent of Americans support climate change mitigation policies, but they think that only between 37 and 43 percent of Americans hold that sentiment, the research found.

“Thus, supporters of climate policies outnumber opponents two to one, while Americans falsely perceive nearly the opposite to be true,” the report said. In every state and in every demographic category measured, Americans underestimate support for climate policies and were 20% or more off in their beliefs about the majority perception, the report said.

The research comes from Gregg Sparkman, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College; the survey polled 6,119 Americans between April and May last year.

There were three reasons for the disconnect in perceived concern for climate change, according to preliminary evidence: Conservatives tend to underestimate support for climate change policies because of a “false consensus effect,” which in psychology refers to a tendency to see your own beliefs as more widely held than is actually the case. This phenomenon can be reinforced by people paying attention to other people who have the same beliefs as they do.

Also, being surrounded by conservative “local norms” and consuming “conservative news” could also contribute to the psychological disconnect, according to the research.

“People’s estimates of national public opinion may show an outsized influence of local norms that are easier to witness firsthand or recall,” the report found.

That is also true of the media they consume. “News media coverage of scientific experts in the U.S. has historically given disproportionately too much time to climate change deniers and presentations of conservatives as oppositional to climate change policy, while the conservative electorate is actually fairly divided on these issues,” the report said.

In addition, liberals’ sense that their ideals are not as widely held as they are, known as “false uniqueness,” could be contributing to the dichotomy, it said.

This kind of psychological disconnect is especially problematic in addressing climate change because it requires collective action.

“Collective action problems pose a difficult challenge as individuals are less likely to act when there are others who stand by and do nothing — and this outcome is only more common when the problem at hand is not clearly perceived to be a threat,” the report said.

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