Climate MattersAugust 23, 2022

Climate Concern: More common than we think

CM: National Climate Concern (GIF)

KEY CONCEPTS

  • Most Americans are concerned about climate change and support a range of climate policies.

  • But new research shows that, although 65% of Americans are concerned about climate change, they incorrectly think that only 43% of Americans are concerned. 

  • Similar underestimates were nearly universal across all 50 states and a range of demographics, and also apply to our perceptions of others’ support for climate policies.  

  • These misperceptions matter because they can affect whether or not we talk about climate change, or take action on the issue.

Climate concern is more common than we think

Most Americans (65%) are concerned about climate change. And that’s not new. At least half of Americans have reported feeling concerned about climate change for well over a decade, according to surveys from Yale and George Mason University.

Despite concern about climate change being widespread and longstanding, Americans also tend to perceive that others are less concerned than they actually are. A new study finds that on average, Americans believe that just 43%—less than half—of the country is concerned about climate change.

CM: National Climate Concern
National Climate Concern

The size of the national underestimate, 22 percentage points, means that although climate-concerned Americans are in the majority, they are perceived to be a minority. 

(Mis)perceptions matter

These misperceptions matter because they can affect whether or not we talk about climate change, or take action on the issue. 

In fact, according to Yale/George Mason surveys, two in three Americans (67%) say they “rarely” or “never” discuss global warming with family and friends. That’s roughly the same proportion of Americans who report feeling concerned—yet self-silence in order to conform to (mis)perceived norms. 

At a time when the global scientific community has concluded unequivocally that human influence has warmed the planet; that well over 3 billion people around the globe are highly vulnerable to the impacts of warming; and that continued warming would put humans and ecosystems at increasing risk—we need more people talking about climate change, not fewer.

But widespread misperception of others’ beliefs could be getting in the way of us talking and acting on climate.

Climate concern in all 50 states is also higher than we think

Americans aren’t only wrong about the prevalence of climate concern at the national level. The same study found a similar effect at the state level, too. People in all 50 states underestimate how common climate concern is across their own state. 

CM: Local Climate Concern, Mississippi
Local Climate Concern, Mississippi

With the exception of Alaska and Vermont, statewide underestimates were at least 10 percentage points and ranged up to nearly 29 percentage points in Mississippi—where 61% of residents are concerned about climate change, yet they perceive statewide concern to be only 33%. Several other states were close behind with underestimates of 28 percentage points (Alabama, New York, South Dakota, and Texas).

Our misperception of climate concern is nearly universal across all 50 states and across a range of demographic variables. And that presents a major hurdle for collective action on climate change. 

Support for climate policies is also higher than we think

The same study also found that 80-90% of Americans underestimate public support for a range of transformative climate policies.

Polls show that a supermajority of Americans (66-80%) support a range of climate policies. But we perceive that just 37-43% of our fellow Americans support these policies. This misperception is large enough to invert our perception of real levels of policy support. In other words, even though those in favor of climate policies outnumber opponents by two to one, we perceive the opposite to be the case.

As with climate concern, our misperception of policy support is nearly universal across a range of geographies and demographic variables. In fact, people across a range of demographic categories (including income, age, gender, race, education, and political orientation) were all at least 20% off when estimating others’ climate concern or policy support. 

Aligning perception with reality

Many factors could contribute to our misperceptions about others’ climate concern and policy support, and this will continue to be an active area of research.

Publicizing the actual majority levels of climate concern and policy support, as reflected in Yale/George Mason survey data, could be one way to re-align our perceptions with reality.

Research also suggests that communicating about the human causes of climate change can improve public awareness and engagement on climate change. 

Talking about climate change more often with others—even if we assume they’re not concerned—could also bring our perception of social norms more in line with the reality that most Americans are concerned about climate change and supportive of policies that address the issue. 

POTENTIAL LOCAL STORY ANGLES

What are climate change beliefs in your local area?
The Yale Climate Opinion Maps show how Americans’ climate change beliefs, risk perceptions, and policy support vary at the state, congressional district, metro area, and county levels. You can also use YPCCC’s interactive tool to generate climate opinion factsheets at state, county, and congressional district levels, in English and Spanish. 

What are some approaches to start climate conversations with others?
Check out Katharine Hayhoe’s 2019 TED talk, “The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it” for some inspiration. The Nature Conservancy’s Can We Talk Climate? feature offers tips and an e-book on starting connected climate conversations. A recent article from Yale Climate Connections offers strategies to start low-conflict climate conversations.

Are misperceptions shaping local climate and energy policy?
By interviewing local lawmakers and residents, this data can be used to examine the popularity of climate and clean energy legislation in a state or city.

LOCAL EXPERTS 

Press offices of local universities, the SciLine service, or 500 Women Scientists may be able to connect you with local scientists who have expertise on environmental psychology, public opinion, and climate change. The American Association of State Climatologists is a professional scientific organization composed of all state climatologists

NATIONAL EXPERTS 

Gregg Sparkman, PhD
Assistant Professor
Boston College
Contact: gregg.sparkman@bc.edu
Related expertise: psychology, social change, social norms

Edward Maibach, PhD
Director, Center for Climate Change Communication
George Mason University
Contact: emaibach@gmu.edu
Related expertise: public understanding of climate change

Anthony Leiserowitz, PhD
Senior Research Scientist
Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication
Contact: anthony.leiserowitz@yale.edu
Related expertise: public climate change beliefs, attitudes, and policy preferences