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Americans are convinced that climate action is unpopular. They are very, very wrong.

It can be difficult to guess what others are thinking. Especially when it comes to climate change.

People imagine that a minority of Americans want action when in fact it is an overwhelming majority, according to a study recently published in the journal nature communications. When asked to estimate public support for measures like a carbon tax or a Green New Deal, most respondents put the number between 37 and 43 percent. In fact, surveys suggest the real number is nearly double, ranging from 66 to 80 percent.

Across all demographics, people underestimated support for these policies. Democrats guessed slightly higher percentages than Republicans, but they were still far away. “No one had accurate estimates, on average,” said Gregg Sparkman, a co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at Boston College. “We were surprised by how ubiquitous this image was.”

The investigation was published just two weeks after President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, the country’s most ambitious climate legislation to date. Some experts say it could be a turning point. Such sweeping legislation could signal to people that climate policies are popular enough to pass, paving the way for more policies that would help the United States reduce emissions.

The new study provides the most comprehensive look yet at the meta-question of what Americans think. other people think on climate action. Sparkman and researchers from Princeton and Indiana University Bloomington surveyed more than 6,000 Americans last spring and asked them to estimate the percentage of people who would support the following policies: instituting a carbon tax that would return income to Americans, requiring 100% renewable energy by 2035, putting renewable projects on public lands and adopting a Green New Deal. All estimates barely exceeded a third. In fact, at least two-thirds of Americans support all of these policies, according to a survey by the Yale Climate Change Communication Program, and some policies, such as renewable energy on public lands, have four-fifths support. from the country.

But what if people are not aware of this support? They may think their opinions are unpopular, which makes them less likely to express those thoughts to their friends and family, which can lead to something called a “spiral of silence.” “People conform to their perception of social norms, even when those perceptions are wrong,” Sparkman said.

This dynamic could not only inhibit organization, but also weaken politicians’ will to act. If elected officials believe that climate policies are generally unpopular, they are less likely to vote for such measures. Preliminary research suggests that policymakers are susceptible to the same misperceptions that the public has about popular opinion, Sparkman said. A study found that congressional staffers underestimated the popularity of imposing carbon emissions restrictions on their local district.

Activists protest at a “Fight for Our Future” rally in Washington, DC, on April 23, 2022.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network

Closing this misperception gap would be easier if you knew what exactly is causing it. One theory is that mental shortcuts are leading people astray. “It’s really hard to imagine millions of people at once and what they think, but we have to narrow it down somehow,” Sparkman said. He suggested that people may be relying on the best examples to build an image of the country, thinking of a vocal minority who deny climate change and assigning too much weight to them. Or they could imagine that basically no Republicans would support these policies, eliminating nearly half the country. In reality, virtually all Democrats, most independents, and about half of Republicans want action.

Then there is the issue of media coverage presenting a biased picture. Until recently, American newspapers gave opponents of climate action great influence, according to a study that analyzed mainstream media articles from 1985 to 2013. And it doesn’t help that public opinion perceptions are sometimes delayed one or Two decades. the people can anchor your estimates in the pastregardless of recent changes.

Making support for climate action more visible could help people understand how popular it really is. Sparkman’s research suggests that people who lived in states with more climate change protests had a more accurate perception of how Americans felt about policies to address the crisis, even controlling for party affiliation.

Even a mental image of a crowd clamoring for action could produce similar results. Informing people that a policy has widespread support is an effective messaging tactic to mobilize the public, said Danielle Deiseroth, a climate strategist and polling analyst at the Data for Progress think tank. She reinforces the feeling that politics is popular and gives people social “permission” to support it themselves.

Deiseroth hopes the Inflation Reduction Act, projected to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, could be another positive sign. “We have already taken the big step of approving a national investment in climate change,” he said. “That’s one step to show that this is popular enough to pass the Senate, and after many years, we finally passed a bill.”

When the government takes action on an issue, it can sometimes quickly change perceptions of social norms, Sparkman said. Many people assume that beliefs drive action, but it’s often the other way around. A study from last year found that people in the UK judged the risk of COVID-19 based on how drastic the political response was: when the government imposed strict lockdowns, people began to believe that the threat was more serious.

The Inflation Reduction Act could contribute to a “thunder of signals that, ‘Yes, as a country, we care,’” Sparkman said. “It’s about time we dispel this myth that Americans don’t care about climate change.”


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