Younger Republicans Are Slightly More Liberal on Climate Change

Millennials in the GOP want more government action on environmental issues than the older generation.

A man in business clothes carrying a laptop and a backpack uses a smartphone to take a picture of a rainbow.
A rainbow appears near a Trump rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, in August 2016. (Carlos Allegri / Reuters)

The newest version of the Pew Research Center’s annual environmental poll covers a lot of familiar ground.

It finds that most Americans believe the government should be doing more to protect air and water quality, and the climate. But when it comes to deciding how to accomplish those goals, Democrats and Republicans are divided—except on the topic of building more wind and solar energy, which just about everyone loves.

But in addition to confirming that these long-held positions haven’t changed, the poll offers two new noteworthy insights.

First, it asks Americans how they feel about solar geo-engineering, which entails spraying a chemical into the high atmosphere that will reflect some of the sun’s heat back into space. This is an attempt to mimic the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption, when natural emissions of the same chemical block the sun’s rays. Economists and climate scientists say solar geo-engineering is the most feasible method available to actively cool the warming planet.

And Americans are skeptical of it, Pew found. About 70 percent of Americans told the firm that solar geo-engineering would either do “more harm than good” or have no effect on the environment. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to see promise in geo-engineering, the poll also found.

It was the first time the research agency had asked the question, but the results mirror a 2011 poll from the Brookings Institution. In that survey, about 70 percent of Americans said they agreed with the statement that fighting global warming by “adding materials to the atmosphere will cause more harm than good for the environment.”

The second bit of intriguing news comes from the poll’s dive into generational attitudes in the Republican party. Millennial Republicans are more likely to endorse centrist environmental positions than their Boomer or Gen X co-partisans, the study found.

More than a third of Millennial Republicans agree that the “Earth is warming mostly due to human activity,” as compared to 18 percent of Boomers and older generations. Almost 60 percent of young Republicans say that climate change is having “at least some effect on the United States,” and 45 percent see it active in their community. Nearly half of millennial Republicans say the government is doing too little to “reduce effects of climate change,” as compared to 27 percent of Boomer Republicans, the study found. (In comparison, 89 percent of Democrats say the government should do more.)

Republican Millennials Are More Likely to Endorse Environmental Positions Than Their Older Peers

This graph shows the percentage of U.S. adults in each group who agree with the given statements. (Pew Research Center)

This might seem like a promising sign for the environmentally concerned. It comes soon after a coalition of College Republican clubs endorsed a tax on carbon pollution. And it fits with a number of other polls that find young Republicans are more environmentally inclined than their predecessors.

But “it’s not clear that just because millennials are a little more liberal than other generations, that they’re going to stay that way,” said Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School. “It always looks like the upcoming generation is becoming more liberal—but if that’s the case, they must be getting more conservative as they get older.”

“I think that anyone who’s banking on Millennials being more liberal in their 40s or 50s might discover this is not exactly what pans out,” he told me. “What does Trump say? We’ll have to wait and see.

And even if these shifts do hold—especially in the Republican party—it isn’t clear they would mean anything politically, he said. Climate change and the environment are low-priority issues for most voters, compared to the economy and national security. Americans don’t necessarily choose to vote for a party because of its environmental policy.

Or as Kahan put it: “A congressperson knows that if they don’t do what people want on an issue like this, then they’re not necessarily going to get punished.”