The Lacking Visibility of Majority Support is Suppressing Climate Action
We surveyed Americans to understand how our misperceptions of public support are a barrier to climate actions.
Social behavior is contagious. We’re wired to follow the norms that we observe around us. There are evolutionary benefits to this herd mentality. But it can be used against us, too. And that’s exactly what has happened as a result of polluters’ decades-long disinformation campaign.
A new survey by Families For A Future and Helm finds that Americans underestimate the concern and support of the majority on climate change, and that this is a significant barrier to people taking action and pushing for solutions.
A supermajority of Americans (70% or more) are worried about climate change, and support the transition to 100% clean energy. However, many of these Americans perceive support to be much lower. The mistaken belief that one’s personal attitudes are different from the majority’s attitudes is known as pluralistic ignorance. In the case of climate issues, pluralistic ignorance is so extreme that researchers have called it a “false social reality.” Pluralistic ignorance makes it harder to take action because we want to go along with others, and we think most people don’t care as much as we do. But they actually do!
In June of 2022, we surveyed 5,000 Americans to measure pluralistic ignorance, understand who it was most impacting, and gauge how much of a barrier it is to Americans’ becoming more active to stop pollution and advance clean energy.
We found that pluralistic ignorance — and lack of visible social proof more broadly — are the largest barriers to increasing participation in climate action for those who are Alarmed about climate change.
Pluralistic Ignorance exists across all Americans and Political parties
Americans underestimate the extent to which their peers are worried about climate change, and think climate change is important. Across all demographics and political parties, more people are worried and think climate change is important than believe the average American is worried and think climate change is important.
Nationally, large majorities are worried and say this issue is important. 83% say global warming is at least somewhat important to them, with 57% saying it is extremely or very important. 77% said they are at least somewhat worried, with 37% saying they are extremely or very worried.
While 57% of Americans say global warming is very important to them, only 39% think it is very important to the average American. In all parties, a majority of people incorrectly do not believe global warming is important to the average American. Perception of majority issue importance is lowest in independents (30%) and highest in Democrats (46%).
Similarly, more Americans across parties are very worried than believe the average American is very worried. Democrats have the largest gap (26% more), and Republicans have the smallest (11% more).
Parents of young children tend to have perceptions that are more reflective of majority issue importance
A majority of parents of children aged 17 and younger accurately think that global warming is important to the average American. 50%, 53%, and 51% of parents of children ages 0-4, 5-10, and 11-17 respectively believe global warming is very important to the average American. Those without children have higher levels of pluralistic ignorance overall, with 25% more saying global warming is very important to them than believe it is very important to the average American, compared to 14%-11% more in parents of children 17 and younger.
Similar to parents of children under 18, Alarmed Americans accurately perceive that global warming is important to the average American, with 59% saying so. But unlike parents of young children, pluralistic ignorance is most common among the Alarmed, with 41% more of the Alarmed saying global warming is very important to them than believing it is very important to the average American. That discrepancy widens to 52% among Alarmed with do not have children under 18, and narrows to 27% among Alarmed who do have children under 18.
These parents’ more accurate perception of climate issue importance appears somewhat distinct from the differences observed across age groups. Across age groups, those with children under 18 have higher levels of accurate perception of majority issue importance, and narrower discrepancy between those who say global warming is very important and believe it is very important to the average American, compared to those without children under 18.
A supermajority of Americans want to do more. The lack of visibility of climate actions and majority support is a significant barrier to action — especially for the Alarmed.
55% of Americans say they are currently doing something to address climate change and pollution. But a whopping 67% want to do more.
Majorities across all parties say they want to do more, including 73% of Democrats, 69% of independents, and 58% of Republicans.
Pluralistic ignorance and lack of social proof are two of the biggest barriers to action nationally, and most significant for those who are already Alarmed.
Among all Americans, “I don’t think others are as concerned as I am” was the 3rd most frequently cited reason for why people aren’t doing more.
The most commonly cited reason is “I don’t know how to help.” This too points to the importance of social proof and visible action. If we don’t see others acting, it’s harder to know what to do ourselves.
Pluralistic ignorance is an especially significant barrier for the Alarmed, and the biggest barrier for Alarmed Republicans. Looking only at the Alarmed within each party, “I don’t think others are as concerned about climate as I am” increases in significance more than any other barrier, by 4% among Alarmed Democrats, 10% among Alarmed independents, and 14% for Alarmed Republicans. While institutional trust is a the 2nd most prominent barrier for Republicans overall, (with 23% saying so) it is much less significant for Alarmed Republicans, with only 11% saying so — tied for 2nd lowest! Additionally, 6% more Alarmed Republicans cite “I have not found an organization to support” as a barrier, and 5% fewer Alarmed Independents cite “I don’t have the time” as a barrier.
What you can do: Act and speak to be seen and heard. Confidently!
Americans’ “false social reality” didn’t come out of nowhere. Fossil fuel polluters spent decades trying to downplay the problem, confuse us on the causes and solutions, and even make us feel guilty about the pollution that they were creating. And they are still doing it. These efforts have had a chilling effect on the level of conversation, action, and accountability directed toward polluters for the damage they are responsible for.
This is why Dr. Katharine Hayho says talking about it is “The most important thing you can do to fight climate change.” The more people who hear others talking about it and see others talking action, the more who will talk about it and take action themselves. This in turn make it harder for elected officials to go against the majority through inaction or outright obstruction.
While pluralistic ignorance remains a significant barrier to action, as more and more people are realizing that we are in the majority, we are overcoming polluters’ longstanding efforts to silence us. Each of us can be part of undoing false perceptions by engaging those around us. You don’t need to be a scientist or an expert. You just need to start a conversation that others will be happy to have — because we are the majority after all!
Poll Methodology: The poll was conducted by Helm using a national sample of 5000 adults interviewed online from June 17-18, 2022. The sample was weighted by age and gender based on the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. The margin of sampling error is +/- 1.8% (for the full sample weighted estimates).