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Study: Perception Versus Reality about Climate-Change Distress

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Wednesday, September 28, 2022   

The political divide over climate change seems well entrenched, but a recent study suggested the conventional wisdom is wrong.

The study, published in Nature Communications, found support for climate policies much higher than most think. While the average person believes support for climate action is around 43%, researchers found the actual level is between 66% and 80%.

Sergio Vargas, climate policy organizer for the Illinois Environmental Council, said our sense of isolation is a roadblock.

"I think the big problem that the study suggests is, it's very hard to rally these people together because they feel like they're alone in this fight," Vargas explained. "When in reality there is so much support that exists. "

The study uses the term "pluralistic ignorance" to describe the shared misperception. It calls the false idea an impediment to collective action.

Researchers found in every state and in every demographic studied, Americans underestimate support for the climate action.

Gregg Sparkman, assistant professor of psychology at Boston College and the study's co-author, said people tend to conform to what they think others believe and don't bring the issue up.

"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," Sparkman outlined. "Because no one talks about it, then you get what's called a 'spiral of silence.'"

The study looked at a carbon tax, citing renewable-energy projects on public lands and the so-called "Green New Deal." It found supporters of climate action outnumber opponents two to one, but Americans falsely perceive nearly the opposite is true.

Sparkman emphasized policymakers underestimate the support for laws which could make a difference. He noted the study found conservatives underestimated support the most, but liberals do as well. He added television can be another factor in confirming bias if people do not watch programs showing 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 are something like that," Sparkman observed. "I think these kinds of portrayals might be a disservice to portraying the fact that a supermajority of Americans are actually worried about climate change."


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