Study: perception versus reality about climate change distress

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Published Friday, September 2, 2022
by Roz Brown

(Texas News Service) If you protest in the streets of Texas about climate change and your neighbor doesn't, you may think they don't care about the issue. But new research shows you're likely wrong.

A new study shows the average American badly underestimates how much their fellow citizens support meaningful climate policy. Study co-author Gregg Sparkman, an assistant professor of Boston College, said between 66 percent and 80 percent of Americans support climate action, but the average person believes that number is no higher than 43 percent. The bigger problem, according to Sparkman, is that people tend to conform to what they think others believe, and don't initiate conversations.

"By not talking about it, we kind-of confirm to the people who are looking at us that people don't seem to be concerned, and then the cycle kind of continues - where I don't think others are concerned," he said. "And because no one talks about it, then you get what's called a 'spiral of silence.'"

The actions in the study are policies that could mitigate climate change, including a carbon tax, siting renewable-energy projects on public lands and the so-called "Green New Deal." The research indicates supporters of climate action outnumber opponents two-to-one, but Americans falsely perceive nearly the opposite is true.

Sparkman said people also might assume that climate policies fail to pass because they're unpopular - and that misperception can make people reluctant to organize in support of "greener" regulations. Television can be another factor in confirming bias if people don't watch programs that show people who care.

"Or if they do, they portrayed as an idiosyncratic character who's weird in their concern about the environment, and maybe they're the butt of a lot of jokes or something like that," he said. "I think these kind of portrayals might be a disservice to portraying the fact that a supermajority of Americans are actually worried about climate change."

According to Sparkman, there's some evidence that policymakers also underestimate the support for laws that could make a difference. He noted that the study found that conservatives underestimated national support for climate policies to the greatest degree - but liberals also believed that a minority of Americans support climate action.

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