The average Pennsylvanian believes climate change is happening but isn’t likely to discuss it. Why is that? If most people agree on something, why don’t they want to talk about it?
New research by Dr. Gregg Sparkman of Boston College and colleagues published last week in Nature Communications suggests it may be because of pluralistic ignorance — a shared misperception of how others think or behave. The study surveyed over 6,000 Americans. Participants were asked to estimate the percent of Americans who were at least somewhat concerned about climate change, in addition to their estimates for the percent of Americans that support certain climate policies, like requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax, requiring electric utilities to produce 100% of their electricity from renewables by 2035, generating renewable energy on public land, and a Green New Deal.
Nearly all survey participants massively underestimated the actual number of Americans who are concerned about climate change. They also underestimated the true percentage of Americans who are supportive of the climate mitigation policies. According to the study, “Americans in every state and of all major demographics are 20% or more off in their estimates of support for all climate policies,” effectively perceiving a minority when, in fact, a majority of Americans support policies to address climate change.
These results have serious implications for climate action. If people don’t know that their opinions are shared among others, they are less likely to act. Dr. Cindy Frantz, Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, writing in the same issue of Nature Communications, provides a useful metaphor to describe how this misperception can impact action: “Imagine you are in a meeting with nine strangers, and you are quite hot. A window could be opened to let in cool air from outside. You look around the room and it seems that only 3 other people look like they might be warm. The rest seem to be quite comfortable. Would you suggest opening the window? You might, but you might not.”
People want to fit in. If they don’t hear their friends, neighbors, co-workers, or representatives talking about climate change, the feeling of having an unpopular opinion may be enough to discourage discussion. This is especially important in the case of lawmakers, who want to propose and support policies that appeal to the people they represent. While belief in climate change is often made out to be a partisan issue, this is clearly not the case if 72% of people nationally think climate change is happening. In Pennsylvania, that number ranges from 54 to 81 percent depending on county.
This means that it’s more important than ever to talk about climate change and communicate the fact that most people are on the same page about taking action. Some policies are especially popular: for example, at least 65% of people — and more in many counties — throughout Pennsylvania support funding research into renewables and regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The research suggests starting conversations here, with relatively uncontroversial positions, can create common ground and open the door for other essential conversations.