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GOP has a generational split over climate change

A new Pew survey shows a generational rift between older conservatives and younger Republicans when it comes to climate change, and it also shows a large majority of the public buys the science.

Protesters outside the White House in June 2017.
Protesters outside the White House in June 2017.Read moreSusan Walsh / AP

There’s a generational divide between older and younger Republicans when it comes to climate change, but overall, most Americans agree that the science — and the problem — are real, according to a national Pew survey released Monday.

Almost two-thirds of Americans say the federal government isn’t doing enough to address climate change and want it to focus on developing renewable energy sources, according to Pew. That might not be surprising, since polls have been trending that way for years.

But digging deeper into the October survey of more than 3,627 nationally representative panelists shows an age divide between millennials and Generation Z Republicans and their Generation X and Baby Boomer counterparts.

About 52% of Republicans between ages 18 and 38 say the government is doing too little on climate. Meanwhile, 41% of their elders hold the same belief.

There’s also a gender divide, with more Republican women than men saying the government is not doing enough.

Those divisions persist on protecting water and air quality, with younger people and women within the party more supportive of regulatory efforts. The report comes at a time when the Trump administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are aggressively seeking to roll back protections put in place during the Obama administration.

Cary Funk, director of science and society research at Pew, was cautious about drawing conclusions on long-term trends, but said the findings are similar to those found last year. Pew has migrated away from telephone interviews to an internet-based survey. So it is not comparing results of survey years prior to 2018.

“We noticed this difference about a year ago,” Funk said of a generational split.

Funk noted Democrats are consistent in an overwhelming belief in climate change, that it’s caused by humans, and that the government isn’t doing enough. That belief is consistent among all ages and both genders.

It’s only within the GOP that the split occurs.

“It’s not brand-new, but it’s certainly a more recent phenomenon,” Funk said.

Funk emphasized that beliefs of younger Republicans, however, don’t align with their Democratic age cohorts.

“We don’t want to overstate the differences,” Funk said. “Millennials and Gen Z Republicans don’t look like Democrats on these issues, but they don’t look like the older generation [of Republicans] either.”

For example, Democrats tend to believe that climate policies do more good than harm for the environment. But Millennial and Gen Z Republicans are still skeptical about government. Only 40% believe climate policies do more good than harm.

The cause of climate change continues to be a partisan issue. Older Republicans in particular attribute the problem to natural, not man-made, causes.

Overall, about half of Americans say human activity contributes a “great deal” to climate change.

But more than eight in 10 Democrats attribute climate change to human activity, compared with fewer than four in 10 Republicans blaming people for the crisis.

Renewable energy sources also reflect a GOP divide, with younger people less in favor of offshore drilling for oil and natural gas than older Republicans. And, they are less likely to support hydraulic fracturing.

“You’re seeing a majority of millennials and Gen Z saying, we should prioritize renewable energy sources,” Funk said.