Soon after the U.S. Congress passed the country’s most substantial legislation aimed at mitigating climate change, a new study led by Princeton University has found that the average American significantly underestimates how much their fellow citizens support climate policy. Although 66 to 88 percent of the Americans support climate action, the experts discovered that the average American believes that percentage to be only 37 to 43.
“It’s stunning how universal and shared that idea is, among every demographic,” said study lead author Gregg Sparkman, who conducted this research during a postdoctoral fellowship in Psychology at Princeton, and is now an assistant professor at Boston College.
The researchers found that, although conservatives underestimated national support for climate policies to the greatest degree, liberals also believed that significantly fewer Americans support climate action. This misperception occurred in every state, across climate policies, and among all demographics, including political affiliation, gender, race, media consumption habits, or rural vs. urban/suburban. However, factors such as consuming conservative media or living in a red state were linked to a greater discrepancy between estimates of popularity and actual popularity of climate policies.
While supporters of climate action outnumber opponents two to one, most Americans falsely believe that the opposite is the case. Since people tend to conform to what they think others believe, this underestimation is problematic and could actually weaken actual climate support and stifle constructive public discussions on the topic.
“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,” Dr. Sparkman explained.
Some methods of fighting such misperceptions could include displaying signs in favor of climate action or talking about it with friends, family, and local community groups, as well as educating people about the already high levels of support for major climate policies. Media outlets could also help correcting these false beliefs by offering more coverage to public support for climate policies and not overrepresenting the opposition.
“It’s important to remember that ‘being fair and balanced’ means accurately showing how popular something is, not pretending it’s fifty-fifty,” said Dr. Sparkman.
Future research is needed to clarify the sources of the misperception and to develop efficient interventions to help Americans understand the true popularity of climate policies.
The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.