Climate action is more popular than we think
It can be hard to guess what others are thinking. Especially when it comes to climate change.
People imagine that a minority of Americans want action, when it’s actually an overwhelming majority, according to a study recently published in the journal Nature Communications. When asked to estimate public support for measures such as a carbon tax or a Green New Deal, most respondents put the number between 37 and 43 percent. In fact, polling suggests that the real number is almost double that, ranging from 66 to 80 percent.
Across all demographics, people underestimated support for these policies. Democrats guessed slightly higher percentages than Republicans, but were still way off. “Nobody had accurate estimates, on average,” said Gregg Sparkman, a co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at Boston College. “We were shocked at just how ubiquitous this picture was.”
The research 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 might 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 thorough look yet at the very meta question of what Americans think other people think about climate action. Sparkman and researchers at Princeton and Indiana University Bloomington surveyed more than 6,000 Americans last spring, asking them to estimate the percentage of people that would support the following policies: instituting a carbon tax that would return revenue to Americans, mandating 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, putting renewable projects on public lands, and adopting a Green New Deal. All the estimates barely topped a third. In fact, at least two-thirds of Americans support all of these policies, according to polling from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and some policies, like renewables on public lands, have the support of four-fifths of the country.
But what happens if people aren’t aware of this support? 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.” “People conform to their perception of social norms, even when those perceptions are wrong,” Sparkman said.
This dynamic could not only inhibit organizing, but also dampen politicians’ will to act. If elected officials believe climate policies are broadly unpopular, they may be 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. One study found that congressional staffers underestimated the popularity of putting restrictions on carbon emissions in their local district.