A multibillion-dollar slate of moderate climate-mitigation measures in the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act has been met so far with general public approval. But a broader reaction to the historic federal action underlies the discourse: What took you so long?
A survey-based study published on Tuesday suggests that a shared delusion among nearly all Americans could contribute to the long delay in significant federal climate policy. Despite polls showing widespread concern about climate change and majority support for policies to mitigate it, the new study shows that Americans almost universally underestimate the extent of climate concern among their compatriots. They also underestimate the extent of public support—at the state and national level alike—for policy measures to address the climate emergency.
Distorted beliefs about support for climate policy, and about concerns over climate change in general, are so commonly held among the more than 6,000 American adults in the researchers’ nationally representative sample that the study’s authors call these misperceptions a “false social reality.” Recent polls from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication show that 66 to 80 percent of people in the U.S. support major climate mitigation policies. But participants in the new study estimated that only between 37 and 43 percent do so. A range of 80 to 90 percent of those polled by the researchers underestimated the U.S. population’s climate concern and support for major climate mitigation policies.
The misperception trend held when participants were asked to estimate the percentage of Americans who were at least somewhat concerned about climate change. And it did so in responses to questions of perceived support for each of four relatively aggressive policies: a carbon tax, a mandate for a national shift to 100 percent renewable energy sources for electricity, the siting of solar and wind energy projects on public lands, and a Green New Deal.
The consequences of this misperception are significant, says Boston College psychologist Gregg Sparkman, lead author of the new study, which was published in Nature Communications. Such a false impression can lead to a cycle of collective self-silencing on the topic of climate change and to decisions not to take any action to call for climate mitigation policies. Scientific American spoke with Sparkman to learn more about this large-scale misperception and about how the policy landscape might shift in light of the new federal climate measures now in place under the Inflation Reduction Act.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What is the central finding that we should take from this research?
Climate policy and concern about climate change are much more prevalent than you think in the U.S. And virtually everyone in the country seems to greatly underestimate how popular climate policy is and to underestimate how concerned their fellow Americans are about climate change.
We didn’t know just how much people misperceived the will of the people in the U.S. We knew that Americans underestimated how much their fellow Americans believed in climate change [as a reality]. But this kind of extreme shortfall in understanding how popular fairly transformative climate policies are—this is news. There’s something almost chilling about how consistent it is that every demographic group we looked at all had the same wrong impression about what this country feels about climate policy.
Why did you choose to focus on the perception of support for climate policy?
From prior research, we felt confident that people probably would misperceive climate policy support. Based on existing polls, we knew just how popular these policies were. And we felt compelled to do research in this domain, given the existential threat that climate change plays. We felt like this was probably going to be a decent-size effect, but it is a bit bigger than we expected. We didn’t know that everyone would be off by such a margin that perception [of climate policy support] would be the opposite of what it really is. And we thought that might be an important part of the explanation of why we were not making the progress we needed to make as a nation. If you live in a democratic country, then perceptions of public opinion seem like a pretty important thing.
What evidence led you to describe the misperception of support for climate policy as a “false social reality” in the published study?
Past research on shared misperceptions of others has used the phrase “pluralistic ignorance” to refer to a plurality of people being wrong about some social perception. Two things led us to choose stronger language here. One was that the magnitude of misperception was such that people completely invert majority to minority, from supermajority to just 30 or 40 percent. The underestimation is that large as to invert reality, in that sense. And then the other was that it was just so ubiquitous. This is a representative sample of more than 6,000 people in the U.S. And every demographic category we could think of was wrong by such a margin as to shift this from a majority of people to being misperceived as only a minority. So the universality of it and the magnitude, combined, made it just seem like we’re all in this wrong perception together that’s massive in scale. And we also saw it across every policy we investigated. It’s robust, it has high magnitude, it’s ubiquitous—and it’s pretty flatly wrong. So “false social reality” felt like a good turn of phrase for that.
Did any of the gaps in misperception of climate-policy support stand out to you?
One of the policies we investigated that is very popular is siting renewable energy on public lands. About 80 percent of Americans support such a policy, but they think it’s only 43 percent. That kind of a policy is very important in terms of where we go next as a nation, because to reach our climate goals, we’re going to have to have a massive rollout of wind and solar across the country. So siting renewables, doing so quickly and doing so at an unprecedented volume is a major question. If 80 percent of people are generally at least onboard, but we think it's only 43 percent, that could stymie things—especially if people developing the plan think that it’s unpopular.
This study is fairly “meta”—looking into beliefs about beliefs about support for climate policy. Why is it important to look at these “second order” beliefs, as you term them?
We know that people conform to norms, or perceptions of others, even when those perceptions aren’t true. So individuals don’t really know what other people think. And we don’t necessarily know what behaviors other people engage in that are actually common. So we only have our perception of them. And then there’s a just massive research literature showing that others’ behaviors and beliefs influence and shape our own—and that people generally conform to others. So in the context of climate change, that probably means that when we believe, perhaps falsely, that most Americans don’t support a climate policy, then we start to have doubts in our own opinion. It undermines even our own attitudes on this topic.
And then it has a bunch of secondary effects that cascade after that. One is that when people assume something isn’t popular, they don’t talk about it. Or if you think people aren’t worried about something, you don’t talk about it. So everyone self-silences. And collectively, the outcome of that is pretty big. Because whenever we look around, and we see nobody talking, it just confirms that it seems like nobody cares. And you get what’s called a spiral of silence. For people who might want to organize around climate, misperceiving these kinds of things will give them pause because it feels like you’re up against something that’s insurmountable. So there are large, disempowering effects from underestimating just how popular these kinds of policies are. And then, of course, as policy makers have the same misperception, they’re not going to do a great job representing the will of the people.
Is the gap between the perceptions of congresspeople and their staffers and constituents a more crucial gap than the one between fellow constituents?
Perhaps, but policymakers and the public might share the same misperceptions. In a separate study that has not yet been published, we collected another representative sample of Americans and found they supported fairly active solutions to mitigate climate change. And we found that, like members of the public, a large sample of local-level policy makers also misperceived that these solutions were less popular than they really are. This work is still ongoing data, but it appears that policy makers are susceptible to the same kinds of misperceptions that Americans have about public opinion.
How might this misperception square with other factors influencing public opinion about climate policy and climate change, such as organized efforts to sow doubt and promote misinformation about the latter?
I bet they act in concert. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine synergy there. So you might have senators who have plausible deniability and are saying, “Even the people don’t want this.” You have companies who can go about their business thinking, “Well, is what we’re doing really that wholly unpopular?” So it permits all of these things and gives them the slippage they need so that democracy doesn’t necessarily prevail. That’s an implication, just to clarify. But I could easily imagine that.
How do you think of these findings in light of the recent signing of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which includes many measures aimed at mitigating climate change?
The passage of the IRA is a big deal, obviously, for climate reasons. But it’s also a big deal because it could signal to the public that climate policy is more popular than you think. Seeing it pass should help, we hope, especially if someone’s misperceptions stem from presuming Congress is representative. If Americans have no idea what the public thinks, and instead they only look to Congress to estimate loosely how the country feels about something, they’re not going to be very accurate in that estimate. So, hopefully, passage of major bills like this might be one way to kind of correct that perception. And you might get a kind of positive feedback loop, if that’s the case, because then people will be more vocal. People might want to be more willing to participate in actions or discuss climate change or organize around it. And that might kind of help embolden politicians to go for something more aggressive. So we might hope that the Inflation Reduction Act is a stepping-stone in our country's realization of how popular these policies are and movement toward their passage. That’s the optimistic take.
What shape might a campaign or effort take to correct Americans’ ignorance of our overall support for climate policy and to empower further efforts to put in place additional transformative climate policies?
Once we get a better sense of where this misperception comes from, then we can have insight into designing what would likely be an effective solution. If it’s a simple cognitive bias, then maybe just providing people with a better heuristic will do it. It could just involve telling people, “You probably used to think that some Democrats and no Republicans supported these laws. And that led you to think that only 40 percent of the country must like this. But in fact, it’s virtually all Democrats and half of Republicans—which would get you to a much better benchmark of maybe two thirds or 75 percent of people.” That’s been used in other domains: you give people a simple rule, and then they can use it, and it replaces the bad rule of thumb they had before. It could be that easy.
But if the underestimation of support is a motivated process, then it probably won’t be that easy—because even if it’s easy to use, they won't want to. But there are many fronts that we could pursue. Major media outlets should probably give more coverage to public support for climate policies because people don’t seem to get how popular they are. The biggest thing that media could do would be to be sure that they aren’t overrepresenting the opposition. I think another role could be all the way down to individual in their own lives. We can be a little more vocal with people. We can make the invisible visible, show that we care about things, whether that involves wearing pins or other activities to make it more obvious that we do care and are worried about climate change, and we want policies to address it.