It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when climate change was a bipartisan issue. In 1988, Congress listened with interest as climate scientist James Hansen testified about the links between human activity and climate change. Bills to limit emissions found ample cosponsors. George H. W. Bush’s administration was eager to work with Democrats on energy policy. But in the mid-1990s, the Republican Party, abetted by oil, gas, and coal companies, began its downward spiral into climate denial. That brings us to today, when the gap between Republicans and Democrats on climate change appears to be growing ever wider, even as intensifying hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, and floods leave scars across the country.
Gallup’s annual survey of American attitudes about global warming, published last week, shows that Democrats are increasingly in agreement with the scientific consensus. A whopping 82 percent of Democrats said they believe that the effects of global warming have already begun. Meanwhile, only 29 percent of Republicans did, a record low. That’s a gap of 53 points; for comparison, in 2001, the gap was a mere 13 points.
Still, a closer look at the Gallup poll reveals a silver lining. Data provided to Grist by Gallup, which combined Republicans and people who lean Republican for a bigger sample, shows that Republicans ages 18 to 29 have a more moderate view of climate change and its effects than their elders. Nearly two-thirds of them believe humans are the main cause of global warming, compared to just a third of Republican baby boomers.
Young Republicans polled at the head of the pack on five questions provided to Grist. Over the last four years, 25 percent of these younger Republicans said they worried a great deal about global warming. That percentage starts shrinking the older you go: 19 percent for Republicans ages 30 to 49, 14 percent ages 50 to 64, and 11 percent ages 65 and up.
This trend has been supported by previous polling. “When you look below the hood, young and old Democrats are pretty much the same. There’s not a generational difference among Democrats,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, told Grist. “But among Republicans, we see a significant difference. Young Republicans are much more engaged, much more concerned about this issue than their parents and their grandparents.”
Still, young Republicans haven’t been immune to their party’s increasingly anti-climate attitudes. Over the last 20 years, their views have generally either stayed relatively steady or grown more polarized, according to Saad. For example, 46 percent of young Republicans in the early to late 2000s said they thought the seriousness of global warming was generally exaggerated, but today, that percentage has grown to 53 percent. Some 38 percent of young Republicans said that climate change will pose a threat to their way of life in their lifetimes between 2000 and 2008, whereas 30 percent of them say the same thing now. The only question young Republicans have shown marked improvement on: whether human activity is the main driver of global warming.
Polls like these are a temperature check of how people are feeling at a certain moment — they’re not a full-blown diagnostic rundown of the nation’s psyche. And the results can be influenced by polling methods, differences in how questions are asked, and the timing of the polls themselves. But the partisan gap on climate change has been well-documented and is reflected in surveys funded by the Yale program and other pollsters. “Partisanship just continues to widen,” Lydia Saad, a senior editor at Gallup, told Grist.
Regardless of variability in how young Republicans are thinking about climate change, the idea that millennials are grasping the consequences of climate change has already sunk in with some Republicans in Congress. At a 2019 Republican summit in Georgia, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told members of his party that without a cohesive plan, the GOP risked alienating younger members. “We should be a little nervous,” he said. “We’ve got to do something different than we’ve done today.”
Later this month, McCarthy and other members of the House GOP are expected to unveil their own plan to address climate change. How will that affect Republican views on rising temperatures? We’ll have to keep an eye on the trend lines.