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US public opinion supports action on climate change — and has for years

3 enduring features of US public opinion on global warming and clean energy.

Fire Drill Fridays Climate Protest
Actor and activist Jane Fonda marches during the “Fire Drill Fridays” climate change protest and rally on Capitol Hill on January 10, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images

The Pew Research Center is out with its latest polling of public opinion on climate change and clean energy. There’s nothing particularly surprising in it for those who have been tracking this kind of thing, but that in itself is a story: American opinion on these issues is fairly stable, and there are several persistent patterns.

Let’s look at the top three more or less enduring characteristics of US public opinion on matters climate- and climate policy-related. Then we’ll think a bit about their implications.

1) Climate opinion is extremely polarized ... but conservative Republicans are outliers

On virtually every question, there is a wide gap in partisan opinion, as there has been for decades.

Political affiliation is a stronger influence than geography, age, or any other factor. It even shapes the lens through which personal experiences are viewed — witness this question about climate effects on local communities:

Pew Research Center

Partisanship also shapes people’s responses to virtually every policy goal, with Democrats consistently saying that the government needs to do more:

Pew Research Center

In itself, this isn’t particularly surprising. Everything is polarized these days. But when the partisan categories are broken down further, an interesting intra-Republican tension becomes visible.

About a third of Republicans and Republican leaners describe their views as moderate or liberal (I’ll call them “moderate Republicans” for short). According to Pew, they “are much more likely than conservative Republicans to see local impacts of climate change, support policies to address it, and say the federal government is doing too little in areas of environmental protection.”

In particular, Pew notes, younger Republicans and Republican women are more supportive of government efforts to limit pollution than older, maler conservative Republicans.

Look at the breakdown at the bottom of this chart:

Pew Research Center

Conservative Republicans are far more likely to deny the facts of anthropogenic climate change than moderate Republicans or anyone else in the electorate.

The same is true on most policy questions, including the very basic question of whether to stick with fossil fuels or transition to alternatives:

Pew Research Center

In every group, a majority supports the development of alternative energy, but only for conservative Republicans is it close.

On a range of policies to address climate change, moderate Republicans are closer to moderate Democrats than they are to their conservative brethren:

Pew Research Center

Even on the straightforward question of whether government should regulate the economy to encourage a clean energy transition, a majority of moderate Republicans support:

Pew Research Center

With climate policy as with many issues, the polarization of public opinion is less between Republicans and Democrats than between conservative (mostly older and male) Republicans and everyone else.

2) A majority of Americans are concerned about climate change and want to address it

As the new Pew results reveal yet again, if you add moderate Republicans to Democrats, you get solid majorities for climate action.

Every climate policy offered has majority support:

Pew Research Center

In fact, a majority of Republicans support every climate policy:

Pew Research Center

Even larger majorities of Republican women support every climate policy:

Pew Research Center

Whether it is concern over climate change, support for government action to address it, or support for specific policies, most Americans are lined up in favor.

3) Everybody loves renewable energy

There are a few items that diverge from the larger trend of polarization. Everyone, apparently, supports planting a bunch of trees. (Perhaps Republicans are onto something.) And lots of people support tax credits for carbon capture.

But the area of consensus I want to highlight, a consensus that has held true for as long as I’ve been following the polls, is this: Everybody loves renewable energy.

Look at the graph below. The parties disagree strongly on the wisdom of expanding fossil fuels and nuclear power, but virtually everyone agrees that solar and wind should be supported.

Pew Research Center

If we look closer, we see that here, again, moderate Republicans are much closer to Democrats than to conservative Republicans. But even conservative Republicans — 80 percent of them! — support solar power. Nothing in US politics polls that well.

Pew Research Center

And here’s the coup de grâce for the boomers of the Republican coalition. The younger the Republican, the more like they are to support government regulation and renewable energy and to oppose fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Pew Research Center

Note that the split between youth and boomer is particularly wide on oil and gas drilling.

Older Republicans are being left behind on this issue by their younger cohort. Young people are excited about the transition to clean energy and won’t long stick with a party that is being used as a rear-guard effort by oil and gas interests to slow that transition.

Political implications and unanswered questions

There is a durable political majority in the US in favor of limiting pollution and transitioning to clean energy sources. There has been for decades. The reason that majority hasn’t translated into action in recent years is simple: polarization. There are only two major parties in the US, and one of them has been captured by ethnonationalist extremists beholden to corporate fossil fuel interests. The GOP is institutionally aligned with carbon-intensive industries and is operating government on their behalf.

While many Republican voters may be amenable to pollution regulations or renewable energy policies in theory (or in a poll), those sentiments are not intense enough to overcome the much stronger influence of partisanship. Very few Republicans or Republican leaners would switch their vote over clean air or climate. The parties are sorted along multiple lines now — they have become “mega-identities” — and no single issue is enough to break through.

Because the extreme right holds sway over one of two major parties and the structures of American governance give near-total veto power to the conservative coalition, it is virtually impossible to pass substantial climate policy anywhere in the US except for jurisdictions where Democrats have total control. Those are the only places where majority support can be translated into policy.

That is where climate policy has been frozen for well over a decade, and that is where it remains frozen today.

If there is one thing I would critique about Pew’s polling, it’s that the policy questions are becoming somewhat dated. It makes sense to ask the same questions repeatedly, which allows for tracking changes over time, but the policy discussion has changed considerably in recent years. There is a new kind of climate policy on offer from the left, which I have summarized as standards, investments, and justice — an equity-focused, New Deal-style push for large public investments in green infrastructure and jobs, alongside rapid clean electrification of power, cars, and buildings.

I would like to see Pew, one of the oldest and most respected polling outfits, survey that kind of policy alongside other climate policy options. Polling from places like Data for Progress indicates that it would be broadly popular.

green solutions are popular Data For Progress

Nonetheless, numerous green policies have enjoyed broad majority support for a long time, and that majority support has not translated into commensurate action.

No matter how popular the policy, translating the will of the people into legislation will remain prohibitively difficult as long as American democracy remains broken.

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