Majorities of Americans say the federal government, businesses and other actors are doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change and express support for a variety of policy approaches aimed at addressing the issue. At the same time, the public has limited appetite for some of the more dramatic proposed changes to energy consumption, such as phasing out the use of fossil fuels entirely or ending the production of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
The survey, conducted April 20-29 among 13,749 U.S. adults, includes a sample of more than 900 Gen Z adults (those born after 1996), allowing for an in-depth look at the views of the youngest American adults. It finds that members of Generation Z, as well as Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996), are more open than older Americans to some of the farther-reaching policy proposals related to climate change.
Below are some key findings from the new survey.
Pew Research Center conducted this study to understand how Americans view climate, energy and environmental issues. We surveyed 13,749 U.S. adults from April 20 to 29, 2021.
The survey was conducted on Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP) and included an oversample of adults ages 18 to 24 from the Ipsos Knowledge Panel. A total of 912 Generation Z adults, born after 1996, were included in the sample.
Respondents on both panels are recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.
Younger generations are also more likely to engage with climate change on social media: 45% of Gen Z and 40% of Millennial social media users say they’ve engaged with climate-related content in some way, such as by interacting with or sharing a post about the need for climate action or following an account focused on the cause. About half as many social media users who are Baby Boomers or members of older generations report doing the same.
Younger generations are more likely than older Americans to favor proposals to shift U.S. energy reliance away from fossil fuels or even eliminate fossil fuels entirely. Overall, a majority of Americans (71%) say the U.S. should prioritize development of alternative energy sources over expanding production of fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and natural gas. But Americans are closely divided over the idea of phasing out the production of new gasoline-powered cars and trucks by the year 2035, and 64% want to use a mix of sources – including oil, coal and natural gas – to meet the country’s energy needs, rather than phasing out fossil fuels entirely.
Attitudes on these questions differ substantially by generation. A majority of Gen Zers (56%) and Millennials (57%) support a move to phase out gasoline-powered vehicles, compared with smaller shares in older generations. Younger generations are also significantly more likely than older ones to support phasing out the use of oil, coal and natural gas entirely, though about half or more across all generations favor using a mix of fossil fuel and renewable energy sources going forward.
Phasing out gas-powered vehicles and fully phasing out the use of oil, coal and natural gas are among the measures that a new report from the International Energy Association suggests will be needed to reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions globally by 2050.
Generational divides appear in other policy areas, too. Roughly two-thirds of Gen Z adults (66%) and Millennials (64%) oppose increasing offshore oil and gas drilling, compared with 46% of Baby Boomer and older adults. There are similar generational differences over increasing the use of hydraulic fracturing.
Generational differences over climate change appear in both parties, but especially among Republicans – and particularly over the role of fossil fuels. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, younger adults are much less inclined than their older counterparts to support the increased use of fossil fuel energy sources. For example, Gen Z Republicans are 30 percentage points less likely than Baby Boomer and older Republicans (44% vs. 74%) to favor more hydraulic fracturing, the primary extraction technique for natural gas. There are similar generational divides among Republicans over expanding offshore oil and gas drilling, as well as coal mining.
While majorities of Republicans across generations support relying on a mix of renewable and fossil fuel energy sources into the future, Gen Z Republicans are about three times as likely as Baby Boomer and older Republicans to favor phasing out fossil fuel use entirely (20% vs. 6%). And roughly a third of Gen Z Republicans (34%) support phasing out gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035, compared with 14% of Republicans in the Baby Boomer and older generations.
Generational divides in the GOP are more muted on other proposals. Nearly nine-in-ten Republicans (88%) support a proposal to absorb carbon emissions by planting large numbers of trees, and 73% favor a corporate tax credit for carbon-capture technology. About half of Republicans favor taxing corporate carbon emissions (50%) or tougher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks (49%). On these questions, generational divisions are modest or nonexistent, with ideological differences among Republicans standing out more.
Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, there are comparatively few differences by generation. Younger Democrats are more likely than older Democrats to support breaking with all fossil fuels and to favor phasing out gasoline-powered cars and trucks by 2035. But large shares across generations consider climate change a top priority and support a range of policies to address it. For example, roughly nine-in-ten Democrats (92%) support requiring power companies to use more energy from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power – a component of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan.
Americans differ by race and ethnicity in how they evaluate climate proposals. When the public evaluates proposals to address climate change, they have a number of considerations in mind. The top considerations cited by Americans are protecting the quality of the environment for future generations (64% call this very important to them) followed by making sure these proposals lead to increasing job and economic growth (60%). Overall, 45% of U.S. adults say making sure proposals help lower-income communities is very important to them, and another 36% call this somewhat important.
These views differ by race and ethnicity. About seven-in-ten Black adults (68%) and more than half of Hispanic adults (55%) identify help for lower-income communities as a top consideration. A smaller share of White adults (38%) say the same.
Black and Hispanic Americans are also more likely than White adults to say their own communities are experiencing environmental problems. This finding aligns with reports of disproportionate environmental hazards in large Black, Hispanic and Asian American communities. For example, 41% of Black and 37% of Hispanic adults say the amount of garbage, waste and landfills in their community is a big problem, compared with 24% of White adults. Black and Hispanic adults are also more likely than White adults to report that their community has big problems with air and water pollution, drinking water safety and a lack of green space and parks.
Americans who are more concerned about climate change stand out in their views of some aspects of the debate. For example, among the 31% of adults who consider climate change a top personal concern, eight-in-ten say human activity contributes a great deal to climate change. Most in this group also think climate scientists should have a greater role in policy decisions about the issue, while 60% support phasing out fossil fuel use entirely. Americans who are less concerned about climate change are considerably less likely to hold these views.
People who are engaged with the climate issue on social media – more of whom are in younger generations – are also more likely to report emotional reactions to what they see online. Among those who have recently interacted with or shared posts about the need for action on climate change, or who follow an account focused on the cause, 77% say they have felt anxiety about the future in response to climate-related content online, while 67% say they have felt anger that more is not being done to address the issue. Many in this group say they also felt motivated to learn more about climate change (75%), but a smaller majority (60%) say such content left them feeling confident about the ability to address climate change.
A narrow majority of Americans think climate scientists have too little influence on policy decisions, but the public has mixed views over the level of expertise these scientists bring. Overall, 54% of Americans say climate scientists have too little influence on policy decisions related to climate change. The remainder are evenly divided, with 22% saying these scientists have about the right amount of influence and another 22% saying they have too much influence.
The public has mixed views about the depth of expertise that climate scientists have on key questions related to climate change. Nearly four-in-ten adults (37%) say climate scientists understand “very well” whether climate change is occurring, while another 35% say they understand this “fairly well” and 27% offer a negative assessment of the scientists’ understanding. Only 28% of U.S. adults give climate scientists high marks for their understanding of what causes climate change, and only 18% say climate scientists understand “very well” the best ways to address it.
There are wide – and growing – differences between Democrats and Republicans in these judgments. Since 2016, the last time Pew Research Center asked, Democrats have become more likely to rate climate scientists positively in their understanding of whether climate change is occurring and why, while Republicans have become less likely to give these scientists positive marks on these questions. For example, 57% of Democrats now say climate scientists understand “very well” whether climate change is occurring, compared with just 14% of Republicans. That 43-point gap is up from a 25-point difference in 2016.
Previous Pew Research Center surveys have found growing partisan differences when it comes to trust in scientists more generally and – since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak – in medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public. The Center has also recently found a substantial decline in the share of Republicans who say science has had a mostly positive effect on society, from 70% in 2019 to 57% this year.