What percent of the US population want climate action, do you think? 40%? 50% 60%? More? Less? With so much negative media coverage from fossil fuel-dependent constituents, you’d think the numbers of individuals who support legislative climate action would be mediocre at best.
Not so, says a summer, 2022 study released in Nature Communications. In fact, the authors explain that a shared misperception of how others think or behave poses a challenge to collective action on climate change. People conform to their perception of social norms, even when those perceptions are wrong, and this applies to climate action.
The question is: what can we do to help people find their climate awareness voices?
Take a guess. How many people when surveyed about endorsing a carbon tax or a Green New Deal answer Yes? Most people who answered that question put the estimate of positive respondents between 37% and 43%. The answer may be quite surprising to you — people who want a carbon tax or Green New Deal actually ranged from 66% – 80%.
That low response estimate isn’t just from cynical, diehard, NIMBY conservatives. Tree-hugging, granola-eating, dreamy liberals — and lots of people whose worldviews fall outside these stereotypes — also underestimated the massive endorsement for climate action across the political spectrum.
In fact, across all demographics, people underestimated support for forward-thinking climate policies.
It’s also been a summer of extreme weather events. Heat waves in the US. Wildfires in Europe. Floods in Asia. This summer has been so radical, so in-your-face that our everyday life is now directly affected by climate change.
The research about climate opinion misperceptions was published in Nature Communications just 2 weeks after President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the grandest climate legislation ever in the US. The law affects food and agriculture, electric vehicles, and conservation justice funding for renewable energy, to name a few. The legislation could become impetus for mass public agreement about more necessary legislation to reduce emissions.
But, in the here-and-now, the Democratic party, which made the $369 billion bill a reality, is having a hard time making people aware of how they can take advantage personally of its perks. Most people don’t speak about how the IRA helps the US to meet goals inherent within the Paris Agreement to ensure US carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions may fall by 40% by 2030, compared with 2005.
The absence of such understanding about climate action consensus could explain the historic gap in previous major climate policy in the country, the researchers at Princeton and Indiana University Bloomington determined.
Why aren’t we listening to each other as we express our fears about the existential crisis that confronts us? In 2019, a Pew Charitable Trust survey revealed that a majority of US adults said they were taking specific action in their daily lives to protect the environment. That was 3 years ago, and we didn’t notice?
Why our Perceptions Blind Us to Each Other
The Nature Communications team surveyed more than 6,000 individuals. They examined whether people in the US accurately perceive national concern about climate change and support for mitigating policies. They found what they termed “a form of pluralistic ignorance” that they described as a “false social reality.”
A near universal perception of public opinion that is the opposite of true public sentiment was rampant.
There’s a serious consequence to this. What happens if people aren’t aware of the majority support for climate action?
They may think their opinions are unpopular, making them less likely to express those thoughts to their friends and family — which can lead to something called a “spiral of silence.” This 1982 theory popularized by Taylor draws upon perception, communication, and certainty that one’s perception of the distribution of public opinion motivates one to express political opinions.
The act of self-expression, as a result, changes the global environment of opinion and alters the perceptions of other persons, ultimately, affecting their willingness to express their own opinion. Indeed, because individuals monitor their social environment as a cue to opinion and action, opinions with visible adherents appear to be more widely held than they are. The appearance of strength becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — those who think they are in the majority are more willing to speak out, and those who think they are in the minority have an extra incentive to remain silent.
The description of those who believe they are in the minority gives the name to this spiral of silence.
The newer 2022 research builds on Taylor’s work and determines that 3 climate action misperceptions exist:
- Conservatives underestimate support by a greater degree
- Exposure to more conservative local norms increases underestimation
- Consuming conservative news corresponds to greater misperceptions
Why Climate Action Faces Reluctant Voices
Addressing a collective action problem like climate change requires individuals to recognize the problem as a threat and to engage in coordinated actions that result in major structural and social change. All of this is a difficult challenge, as individuals are less likely to act when there are others who standby and do nothing—and this outcome is only more common when the problem at hand is not clearly perceived to be a threat.
It’s not only organizing for climate action that’s affected — so, too, is politicians’ will to act. In the same way that the general public underestimates when they believe climate policies are broadly unpopular, politicians refrain from sticking out their career necks to support such measures if they’re uncertain of mass acceptance.
The research suggests that it helps if we know what causes misperception gaps. Then we could help to make the consensus around climate action more transparent. One theory is that mental models create a broad picture of mass, top-down thinking. Instead of envisioning, say, Republican unanimity against climate legislation, we can project a more accurate image that virtually all Democrats, most independents, and about half of Republicans want action.
Media coverage, too, can present a more authentic depiction of public views on climate action. Instead of the popular trend to match view to oppositional view — regardless of the weight and evidence of each side — the media can emphasize and personalize the widespread desire for climate action, helping people to catch up with recent and vast perceptual changes.
Making support for climate action more visible might help people understand how popular it really is.
“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,” one of the researchers told ZME Science. “Americans essentially live in a false social reality as it pertains to climate policy support: these misperceptions are held near-universally.”
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