Climate Dispatch: Do you suffer from ‘false social reality’ when it comes to climate change? |

Climate Dispatch: Do you suffer from ‘false social reality’ when it comes to climate change?

Deirdre Henderson
Citizen's climate lobby logo

It turns out that most of us in the United States are concerned about climate change and support policies to address it. But we almost universally underestimate the extent of climate concern among other Americans. That’s the conclusion of a recent survey-based study published in Nature Communications and authored by Boston College psychologist Gregg Sparkman and colleagues.  

This distorted belief was so widespread across every demographic of the 6,000 American adults in the nationally representative survey, that the authors call these misperceptions a “false social reality.” This phenomenon persisted when the researchers asked participants to estimate the percentage of Americans who were at least somewhat concerned about climate change, and when they asked about participants’ perceived support for each of four strong climate solution policies: a carbon tax, a national mandate for a shift to 100% renewable energy sources for electricity, the siting of solar and wind energy projects on public lands, and a Green New Deal. Between 80 to 90% of those polled underestimated the U.S. population’s concern about climate change and support for major climate solution policies. 

So what’s the consequence of the false social reality? It can lead to self-silencing on climate change and to decisions not to act on addressing climate change. This seems to be borne out by the peer-reviewed survey research done by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which publishes “Opinion Maps” of what Americans believe about global warming, its risks, climate policy options, and their own behaviors. 

According to the Yale researchers: 72% of Americans  believe global warming is happening; 57% believe it is being caused mostly by human activities; 65% are worried about global warming and 71% believe it will harm future generations. Between 64 and 77% support a variety of climate change solutions such as funding renewable energy research, regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, putting a carbon tax on fossil fuel companies, giving tax rebates for EVs and installing solar panels. And yet, only 35% of Americans say they discuss global warming “at least occasionally,” and the remainder “rarely” or “never” do. 

Professor Sparkman explains that, “We know that people conform to norms, or perceptions of others, even when those perceptions aren’t true … And we don’t necessarily know what behaviors other people engage in that are actually common. So we only have our perception of them. And then there’s a just massive research literature showing that others’ behaviors and beliefs influence and shape our own—and that people generally conform to others.” So in the context of climate change, Sparkman posits, this means that when we think most Americans don’t support climate policy, we start to have doubts about our own opinions or we just don’t talk about them. This inhibits the collective action we need to take to promote climate solutions at all levels of government. 

At the recent Earth Day celebration at Palisades Tahoe, our North Tahoe Citizens’ Climate Lobby chapter informally tested the “false social reality” idea. Using YPCCC’s “Six Americas” categories of people’s opinions about climate change — Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged,  Doubtful, or Dismissive — we asked people, “Where do you stand on climate change?” Then we asked them to drop an M&M  into one of six jars each labeled with one of  the six categories.  

 Most people chose the “Alarmed” or “Concerned” jars. (It was an Earth Day festival.) Then we asked them what category they thought most Americans actually chose. Almost invariably, they said, “Disengaged” or “Doubtful” or “Dismissive.” In fact, 58% of Americans in Yale’s Six Americas survey are either “Alarmed” or “Concerned.” There it was. False social reality. Right here in Truckee. 

So, what’s the takeaway for the majority of us who think climate change is a serious threat to our community and our chances of leaving a livable world to our children and grandchildren? Well first, know that most Americans share your view so you don’t have to be afraid to talk about it. Then, think about how much more possible this knowledge makes working with other like-minded folks to get effective climate policies adopted at all levels of government. Then realize that you have a really good reason to hope that positive change is possible, and we can save the planet for future generations.   

And if you’d like to activate your power as a skilled, optimistic, respectful, nonpartisan citizen advocate for climate solutions, please consider joining over 200,000 of us at 

Deirdre Henderson is a mother, grandmother and lawyer and the Group Leader of the North Tahoe Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. She enjoys being active outdoors and talking to people about climate action. 

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