Previous research has demonstrated that the wealthy harm the environment to a much greater extent than those with lesser means. According to recent estimates, the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population emit 50% more CO2 than the bottom half of the income distribution. The reason for this inequality is clear: affluence boosts consumption, which in turn increases the ecological footprint. Although the phenomenon seems intuitive, little is known as to whether the layperson notices it. The current study assesses the extent to which individuals recognize or fail to notice such massive ecological footprint inequality and why misperceptions may arise. Across four preregistered studies (N = 1,188) conducted in a highly unequal socio-economic environment (Brazil), we show that people often fail to accurately perceive the meaningful ecological footprint inequality that surrounds them. These misperceptions are explained by people’s (a) failure to properly incorporate the impact of income-based differences in consumption in their ecological footprint assessments and (b) tendency to associate wealth with superior environmental education, greater resources to act sustainably, and better local infrastructure (e.g., cleaner paved streets and proper waste collection). Emphasizing the lack of infrastructure in deprived neighborhoods further exacerbates the misperceptions, whereas highlighting key differences in consumption habits across the socio-economic spectrum increases accuracy. This research, thus, identifies the factors that magnify existing misperceptions in ecological footprint inequality and provides avenues for policymakers to reduce such mistakes.

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