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Perception Gaps

What are perception gaps and why do they matter?

14 March 2024

People often don’t appreciate the scale of public support for climate action.

If you had to guess, what percentage of voters in Conservative constituencies would support a wind farm being built in their local area – even if it was right outside their window?

According to research by Public First for the Conservative Environment Network, 45% would ‘actively support’ or ‘not mind’ a wind farm that was visible from their window. If you’re surprised by that answer, then you’re not alone: Climate Barometer polling shows that people often don’t appreciate the scale of public support for climate action.

And the problem isn’t confined to the UK. A new global study shows that around the world, people “systematically underestimate the willingness of their fellow citizens to act”.

These discrepancies matter. If we don’t believe there’s a mandate for green policies, inertia slows the pace of the green transition. ‘Perception gaps’ like these have consequences.

What are perception gaps and why do they matter?

Perception gaps can emerge both as overestimations and underestimations. When people overestimate the extent of support for something, they may wrongly believe most other people share their own viewpoint, when really they don’t. But people might also underestimate the level of support for a viewpoint, or policy, and this can lead to serious problems.

A sense of fatalism can fester if people don’t think others care. Misplaced concerns about falling ‘outside the norm’ when taking action on climate issues (‘why bother if I’m in the minority?’) can take hold. And crucially, policy ambition can be watered down because politicians incorrectly ‘read’ voter sentiment.

Listening to the quiet majority 

There is consistent public support for local renewable projects. The public are positive towards the prospect of new solar parks and onshore wind farms being built in their area, with greater than 70% support for both.

However, MPs massively underestimate public support for local renewables, believing that only 20% are in favour of local onshore wind. What explains this disconnect?

The outsized influence of the commentary in (some) right-leaning media outlets certainly plays a role. A minority of motivated opponents with large media platforms and strong political networks can have a big influence on what seems ‘normal’ to MPs. They have the ears of politicians, even if they don’t represent majority views, and in 2023, a record number of anti-green editorials were published.

Wherever local infrastructure (energy or otherwise) is located, there are likely to be questions, concerns and objections. Sometimes, national campaigns whip up local sentiment into harder opposition on climate issues. But in most cases, the ‘quiet majority’ support local renewables, so long as their views are taken into account. Listening to this quiet majority is a critical component of the transition ahead.

Net zero weirdos?

Senior Conservative MP Lee Anderson argued recently that only “odd weirdos” care about net zero. The Ashfield MP claimed that “net zero never comes up” with voters on the doorstep, and that not many of his constituents “lie awake at night worrying about net zero”, and are instead worried about fuel bills.

Caring about net zero isn’t a niche concern, but – as with local renewables – both the public and MPs (from across the political spectrum) underestimate the level of public support.

Social science can explain some of what is going on here. The ‘weirdo’ narrative draws on the tendency of humans to see the world in terms of insiders and outsiders (‘us’ and ‘them’), marginalising and downplaying the ‘outsider’ view, which can in turn create a false social reality where Britons believe that people are more divided on net zero than is actually the case. And this matters, because when people do perceive that support for climate action is widespread, their personal support is more likely to be higher as well.

There’s some evidence that climate campaigners are the most likely group to underestimate net zero support. When shown a series of statements against action on net zero, the group most likely to select the message that ‘Net Zero is politically unfeasible because the public doesn’t support it’ were Progressive Activists.

So while perception gaps are a problem, closing them creates a virtuous circle. Continuing to emphasise that the majority of the public is behind net zero – not just ‘odd weirdos’ – remains a crucial message for campaigners as well as MPs and the wider public.

The latest from the Perception Gaps timeline:

From the Climate Community 22nd February 2024

Video: People want climate action so why don’t politicians get it?

Climate Barometer’s Adam Corner created a short video talking about perception gaps, in collaboration with ‘Need to Know UK and VideoRev. 

Opinion Insight 12th February 2024

Global study shows climate perception gaps are prevalent around the world

A new survey of nearly 130,000 people across 125 countries has found that there is widespread support for climate action around the world. But, people often don’t realise how much support there is.

The open access article, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, presents new, large-scale evidence of a global mandate for climate action, while shining a light on the pervasiveness of climate ‘perception gaps’. The headline findings across the global dataset show that:

  • 89% demand intensified political action.
  • 86% endorse the pro-climate ‘social norm’ that people in their country should try to fight global warming. 
  • Strikingly, 69% of the global population expresses a willingness to contribute 1% of their personal income. 

However, this ‘actual’ support for climate action was at a mismatch with what people ‘perceived’ the levels of support to be. Around the world, people “systematically underestimate the willingness of their fellow citizens to act”.

And these discrepancies matter. If we don’t believe there’s a mandate for green policies, inertia slows the pace of the green transition. ‘Perception gaps’ like these have consequences.

  • Source: Nature
  • Authors: Peter Andre, Teodora Boneva, Felix Chopra & Armin Falk
  • Date: 9th February 2024
Climate Barometer Tracker 30th November 2023

Tracker data: MP and public views on energy sources

Climate Barometer Tracker data over three waves shows clear patterns and differences in MP and public opinion about different forms of energy sources. MPs and the public share roughly the same opinion of solar power and coal, the former seeing consistently high support and the latter seeing consistently low support. And while MPs tend to overestimate public backlash to onshore wind, we see here that the public are actually more supportive of onshore wind than MPs.

There are a few areas in which public support is lower than that of MPs: nuclear energy, oil, gas, and hydroelectric dams. Support for blue and green hydrogen is also considerably lower, but likely due to low public knowledge about these sources of energy.


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