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Beliefs about Climate Beliefs: The Importance of Second-Order Opinions for Climate Politics

  • Matto Mildenberger and Dustin Tingley

When political action entails individual costs but group-contingent benefits, political participation may depend on an individual’s perceptions of others’ beliefs; yet detailed empirical attention to these second-order beliefs – beliefs about the beliefs of others – remains rare. We offer the first comprehensive examination of the distribution and content of second-order climate beliefs in the United States and China, drawing from six new opinion surveys of mass publics, political elites and intellectual elites. We demonstrate that all classes of political actors have second-order beliefs characterized by egocentric bias and global underestimation of pro-climate positions. We then demonstrate experimentally that individual support for pro-climate policies increases after respondents update their second-order beliefs. We conclude that scholars should focus more closely on second-order beliefs as a key factor shaping climate policy inaction and that scholars can use the climate case to extend their understanding of second-order beliefs more broadly.

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Thanks to Sander van der Linden, Erin Hennes, Joshua Kertzer, Devin Judge-Lord, John Patty, Betsy Sinclair, Mark Buntaine, Michael Stone, Michael Masterson, Jonathan Renshon, Endre Tvinnereim and audience members at Washington University, the University of California Santa Barbara, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University for comments on earlier drafts of this article. We thank the TRIPS team at William and Mary for access to their data. We thank Leah Stokes and Alexander Hertel Fernandez for access to and collaboration in collecting data on legislative staffer beliefs. Research supported by Harvard University Center for the Environment and the Dirksen Congressional Research Center. Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at: and online appendices are available at

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