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Climate Change Rises as a Public Priority. But It’s More Partisan Than Ever.

Protecting the environment and tackling climate change have climbed up the list of Americans’ political priorities this year as economic concerns have faded, according to a new report from Pew Research Center.

Percentage of Americans who say the issue should be a ‘top priority’ for the president and Congress

Economic growth

Environmental

protections

Climate

change

Global warming*

Percentage of Americans who say the issue should be a ‘top priority’ for the president and Congress

Economic growth

Environmental

protection

Climate

change

Global warming*

Percentage of Americans who say the issue should be a ‘top priority’ for the president and Congress

Environmental

protections

Climate

change

Global warming*

Percentage of Americans who say the issue should be a ‘top priority’ for the president and Congress

Environmental

protections

Climate

change

Global warming*

*The survey methodology changed in 2015 from asking about “global warming” to asking about “climate change.” Pew surveys the public on more than a dozen topics; this chart reflects selected priorities.·Source: Pew Research Center

For the first time in the survey’s two-decade history, a majority of Americans said dealing with climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress. That’s a 14 percentage point rise from four years ago.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans ranked protecting the environment as a leading policy priority, which is almost as many as said economic growth should remain a primary focus.

But the surge in climate and environmental concern masks a deep partisan divide:

Percentage of Americans in each party who say climate change is a top political priority

Partisan

Gap

All adults

Climate

change

Global

warming*

Republicans

Percentage of Americans in each party who say climate change is a top policy priority

Partisan

Gap

All adults

Climate

change

Global warming*

Republicans

Percentage of Americans in each party who say climate change is a top policy priority

Partisan

Gap

All adults

Climate

change

Global warming*

Republicans

Percentage of Americans in each party who say climate change is a top political priority

Partisan

Gap

All adults

Climate

change

Global

warming*

Republicans

*The survey methodology changed in 2015 from asking about “global warming” to asking about “climate change. Independents who say they lean toward a given party are categorized under that party.·Source: Pew Research Center

Addressing climate change has become more urgent for Democrats in recent years, with 78 percent calling it a top policy priority in 2020. But Republicans have, by and large, remained unmoved.

The partisan gap over climate change was the widest to date in 2020 and the most yawning among 18 issues covered by the survey. Protecting the environment, including air and water quality, was the second most divisive issue.

Percentage of Americans in each party who say the issue is a top priority in 2020

Republicans

Climate change

Environmental protections

Larger

gap

Immigration

Health care costs

Budget deficit

Infrastructure

Global trade

Social Security

Smaller

gap

Drug addiction

Percentage of Americans in each party who say the issue is a top policy priority in 2020

Republicans

Climate change

Environment

Larger

gap

Immigration

Health care costs

Budget deficit

Infrastructure

Global trade

Social Security

Smaller

gap

Drug addiction

Percentage of Americans in each party who say the issue is a top policy priority in 2020

Republicans

Climate change

Environment

Larger

gap

Immigration

Health care costs

Budget deficit

Infrastructure

Global trade

Social Security

Smaller

gap

Drug addiction

Percentage of Americans in each party who say the issue is a top policy priority in 2020

Republicans

Climate change

Environment

Larger

gap

Immigration

Health care costs

Budget deficit

Infrastructure

Global trade

Social Security

Smaller

gap

Drug addiction

Independents who say they lean toward a given party are categorized under that party.·Source: Pew Research Center

“Intense partisan polarization over these two issues in particular” has been growing for decades, said Riley Dunlap, a professor emeritus at Oklahoma State University who studies trends in public opinion on environmental topics. Political messaging from party leaders and the media has been a major driver of the divide, he said.

“Voters take cues on their policy preferences and overall positions,” Dr. Dunlap said. “President Trump has, in the past, called climate change a hoax and all that. You get a similar message from many members of Congress on the Republican side. And most importantly, it’s the message you get from the conservative media.”

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has made combating climate change a more central focus in recent years. All eight presidential hopefuls still vying for the party’s 2020 nomination support drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, and most have issued detailed climate action plans.

Multiple candidates called the issue an “existential threat” during the latest Democratic debate on Wednesday.

Seeking to provide a counter-narrative, House Republicans introduced their own climate agenda last week, which included a plan to plant one trillion trees by 2050. But the effort stopped well short of the kind of ambitious action most scientists say is needed to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

Still, the agenda is a likely nod to the rising influence of younger voters.

A separate Pew report published last year dug deeper into Americans’ views on climate and energy, and found generational and gender divides among Republicans.

Percentage of Americans who say the federal government is not doing enough to reduce the effects of climate change

All adults

Republicans

Generational and gender differences among Republicans:

Age 38 or younger

39 to 54 years old

55 or older

Republican

average

Percentage of Americans who say the federal government is not doing enough to reduce the effects of climate change

All adults

Republicans

Generational and gender differences among Republicans:

Age 38 or younger

39 to 54 years old

55 or older

Republican

average

Percentage of Americans who say the federal government is not doing enough to reduce the effects of climate change

All adults

Republicans

Generational and gender differences among Republicans:

Age 38 or younger

39 to 54 years old

55 or older

Republican

average

Percentage of Americans who say the federal government is not doing enough to reduce the effects of climate change

All adults

Republicans

Age and gender differences among Republicans:

38 or younger

39 to 54 years old

55 or older

Rep.

average

Republicans and Republican-leaning independents under 40 were much more likely to say the government isn’t doing enough to address global warming or protect the environment, compared with their older counterparts. So were those identifying as female.

In that survey, a majority of Americans in both parties, 62 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats, said the United States should prioritize alternative energy development — such as wind, solar and hydrogen power — over fossil fuels.

But Dr. Dunlap urged caution on such policy-specific questions. “Strong partisan identities are more powerful than ever and they lead people to vote for candidates who will go to Congress or to state legislatures and vote against all of this stuff,” he said. “The bottom line is, how do people vote?”