Toward a climate change consensus?

Daniel A. Cox, Eleanor O'Neil October 9, 2019

When it comes to climate change, Democrats and Republicans do not agree on much.

Democrats have become increasingly concerned about climate change in recent years, ranking it as one of their top voting issues. In contrast, the issue is a much lower priority for Republicans — less than half expect to see the effects of climate change in their lifetime.

Despite how polarized opinion has become on the issue, there are signs that the degree of partisan discord may be diminishing. The September 2019 American Perspectives Survey, a nationally representative survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, finds that on no issue do more Republicans disagree with their party than on the issue of climate change and the environment. True, only 16 percent of Republicans cite that as the issue on which they most differ with the Republican Party, but it was named more frequently than any other issue including health care, trade, foreign policy, and immigration. What’s more, roughly one in four Republican-leaning independents say that climate change and the environment is the issue on which they most disagree with the GOP.

These results are consistent with another survey conducted in 2016 by Pew Research Center. In the Pew survey, far fewer Republicans agreed with their own party on the issue of climate change (59 percent) than agreed with their party on other issues. For instance, roughly 8 in 10 Republicans reported that they agreed with the Republican Party on illegal immigration (82 percent), gun policy (80 percent), and health care (79 percent). The intensity of agreement was also far lower on the issue of climate change. Only 26 percent of Republicans reported that they strongly agreed with the GOP’s position on climate change, lower than any other issue included in the survey. However, disagreeing with their own party did not equate to supporting the other party’s position — only 9 percent of Republicans said they agreed with the Democratic Party’s policies on climate change, while 29 percent said they didn’t agree with either party.

It may be that national polling on climate change masks areas of agreement, and fissures within the GOP. A recent Pew Research Center poll found large majorities of Democrats and Republicans support increased investment in solar and wind energy production. A March 2019 Gallup survey also found majorities in both parties support putting more emphasis on green energy sources, even if they disagree about proposals to reduce fossil fuels. Other surveys by Pew Research Center and Yale/George Mason have found generational differences among Republicans on climate change and energy questions, indicating that Millennials may be less politically divided on these questions than older generations. 

Despite the level of scientific consensus on the existence of climate change, and the increasing public support for government intervention, partisan disagreement over climate change remains considerable. But these new survey results suggest that — at least on this issue — political polarization might not be quite as intractable as some research suggests.

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