Majorities of Americans support array of measures to address climate change but stop short of full break with fossil fuels
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.
In the first year of Joe Biden’s presidential term, climate, energy and environmental policy have been the subject of renewed federal attention. In recent months, the United States has rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency has moved to sharply restrict greenhouse gas emissions, and Biden has outlined a range of policy goals, including getting the U.S. to “net-zero” by 2050.
Even as Americans identify a number of pressing national problems, majorities see an array of actors, from government to business, as doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change and are broadly supportive of a range of policy approaches that would help address climate change, including moving toward renewable energy sources, developing infrastructure for electric vehicles, and increasing taxes and restrictions on carbon emissions.
Still, most Americans favor using a mix of energy sources to meet the country’s needs – including renewables as well as oil, coal and natural gas. There is limited support for phasing out the use of fossil fuels altogether. And the public is closely divided over the idea of phasing out the production of gas-powered vehicles by 2035.
Partisan gaps in views of climate change remain vast – from the salience of the issue to the role for government addressing it. And divisions over renewable energy and stricter environmental regulations are wider today than they were under Donald Trump’s administration, due to increased opposition among Republicans.
But meaningful generational differences over the need for climate action, and engagement with the issue, stand alongside these partisan divisions. Younger activists are often at the forefront of the climate debate, with voices such as those of Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise Movement – a youth-led political organization urging increased attention to climate change – among the most visible in global conversations advocating climate action.
Younger Americans – Millennials and adults in Generation Z – stand out in a new Pew Research Center survey particularly for their high levels of engagement with the issue of climate change. Compared with older adults, Gen Zers and Millennials are talking more about the need for action on climate change; among social media users, they are seeing more climate change content online; and they are doing more to get involved with the issue through activities such as volunteering and attending rallies and protests.
While many forms of political engagement – such as voting – tend to be higher among older adults, 32% of Gen Zers and 28% of Millennials have taken at least one of four actions (donating money, contacting an elected official, volunteering or attending a rally) to help address climate change in the last year, compared with smaller shares of Gen X (23%) and Baby Boomer and older adults (21%).
The survey finds that, when asked about engaging with climate change content online, those in Gen Z are particularly likely to express anxiety about the future. Among social media users, nearly seven-in-ten Gen Zers (69%) say they felt anxious about the future the most recent time they saw content about addressing climate change. A smaller majority (59%) of Millennial social media users report feeling this way the last time they saw climate change content; fewer than half of Gen X (46%) and Baby Boomer and older (41%) social media users say the same.
Anxiety about the future also is a predominant emotional reaction to climate change content among those who are most engaged with the issue on social platforms (those who follow a climate-focused account, interact with, post or share climate content themselves). Majorities of these climate-engaged social media users report feeling angry that not enough is being done when encountering climate change content online; but large shares also say they feel motivated to learn more and confident in the ability to reduce the effects of climate change.
As a group, larger shares of younger adults identify with, or lean toward, the Democratic Party than the GOP. But generational differences in climate change attitudes and behaviors are not simply a reflection of the Democratic orientation of younger adults. In fact, among Republicans, generational differences in views are often quite pronounced. For example, 49% of Gen Z and 48% of Millennial Republicans (including Republican leaners) say action to reduce the effects of climate change needs to be prioritized today, even if that means fewer resources to deal with other important problems; significantly fewer Gen X (37%) and Baby Boomer and older (26%) Republicans say the same.
Attitudinal differences by generation among Democrats are less common, as large shares prioritize climate action and back policies to help reduce climate impacts. Still, younger Democrats are more likely than older Democrats to be talking about the need for action on climate change and to have been personally encouraged to become more involved. And on the policy front, Gen Z and Millennial Democrats express more openness to breaking with fossil fuels entirely than Gen X and Baby Boomer and older Democrats.
The new national survey by Pew Research Center, conducted April 20 to 29 among 13,749 U.S. adults, including 912 Gen Z adults, finds a majority of Americans (64%) say efforts to reduce the effects of climate change need to be prioritized today to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations, even if it means fewer resources for addressing other important problems; far fewer (34%) say climate change should be a lower priority, given other important problems facing Americans today.
In line with the public’s view that climate change should be addressed today, majorities believe a range of public and private actors are not doing enough to help reduce climate impacts. More than six-in-ten Americans say large businesses and corporations (69%) and the energy industry (62%) are doing too little to address climate change. Such critiques extend beyond industry: Two-thirds say ordinary Americans are doing too little to help reduce the effects of climate change. Consistent with past Center surveys, majorities also say the federal government is doing too little across a range of environmental concerns – such as protecting air and water quality – and 59% see it as doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.
Despite ongoing support for prioritizing alternative energy, nearly two-thirds of U.S. public opposes phasing out fossil fuels; closely divided over phasing out gas-powered cars
There are limits to how far the public is willing to go on climate and energy policy, especially when it comes to breaking with fossil fuels, a potential shift that gained increased attention during the global drop in carbon emissions in 2020 that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most Americans (71%) continue to say the U.S. should prioritize development of alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, over expanding production of oil, coal and natural gas. And there is strong policy support for tougher restrictions on power plant carbon emissions, as well as for higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks.
But the public is cool to the idea of phasing out fossil fuels from the country’s energy supply altogether and closely divided over transitioning away from gas-powered cars.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) say the U.S. should use a mix of energy sources going forward – including oil, coal and natural gas, along with renewables; far fewer (33%) support phasing out fossil fuels entirely. By 51% to 47%, a slightly larger share of Americans oppose than favor phasing out the production of new gasoline cars and trucks by 2035 – a proposal that has been put forward by governors in 12 states, including California and New York. Phasing out gas-powered vehicles is one of several measures the International Energy Association says will be needed to reach net-zero emissions globally.
The views of Gen Zers and Millennials are distinct from those of older adults over the use of fossil fuels. Majorities of Gen Zers (56%) and Millennials (57%) favor phasing out new gasoline cars and trucks by the year 2035; by contrast, majorities of Gen X (53%) and Baby Boomer and older adults (59%) oppose this idea. And while adults across generations are inclined to use a mix of sources to meet the country’s energy needs, support for phasing out the use of oil, coal and natural gas is significantly higher among Gen Zers and Millennials (43% and 42%, respectively) than among Gen X (32%) and Baby Boomer and older adults (25%).
Broad support among U.S. adults for key elements in Biden’s infrastructure plan; half say it would help the U.S. economy
The Biden administration signaled a focus on climate change since taking office, calling it a profound crisis. The new Center survey finds majorities of Americans support a number of proposals to address climate change, including three specific elements in Biden’s infrastructure plan.
More than seven-in-ten Americans (74%) support a proposal to require power companies to increase their reliance on renewable energy sources in order to reduce carbon emissions. A smaller majority (62%) backs federal spending to build a network of electric vehicle charging stations across the country in order to increase the use of electric cars and trucks. And a similar share (63%) supports raising corporate taxes to pay for more energy efficient buildings and improved roads, a key funding mechanism in Biden’s infrastructure proposal.
On the question of the economic benefits – or costs – of Biden’s infrastructure plan, 50% of U.S. adults think the plan to rebuild the country’s infrastructure in ways that are aimed at reducing the effects of climate change will help the economy, while fewer (30%) think it will hurt the economy; 18% say it will make no difference.
As expected, there are sharp partisan divisions over these proposals and their likely economic impact: 78% of Democrats think the Biden administration plan will help the U.S. economy, while a majority of Republicans (59%) say the opposite and expect it to hurt the economy.
The roughly three-in-ten Americans most concerned about climate change differ widely from other Americans in their beliefs, priorities for climate policy
The survey provides a detailed look at the 31% of Americans for whom climate change is a top personal concern. This group is distinct in their views on climate from the 30% of Americans who say that climate change is not important to them personally, as well as from the 39% who call it one of several issues – but not a top issue – they care about.
For example, those with a strong personal concern about climate are much more likely than other groups to say human activity contributes “a great deal” to climate change, to believe climate scientists understand the phenomenon “very well” and to say climate scientists have too little influence on policy.
This group also stands out for their priorities in thinking about climate policy. Those most concerned about climate change are particularly likely to say protecting the quality of the environment for future generations (89%), getting the U.S. to net-zero carbon emissions as quickly as possible (67%) and making sure proposals help lower-income communities (65%) are very important considerations to them in climate policy proposals.
Other key findings from the survey include:
- A narrow majority in U.S. say climate scientists have too little influence on climate policy debates. Overall, 54% of Americans say that climate scientists have too little influence on related policy decisions, 22% say they have about the right amount and another 22% say they have too much influence. Democrats (77%) are far more likely than Republicans (27%) to say that climate scientists have too little influence on climate policy debates.
- Majorities of Black (68%) and Hispanic (55%) adults prioritize help for lower-income communities when considering climate policy proposals. A smaller share of White adults (38%) say helping lower-income areas is a very important consideration to them in climate proposals. Middle- and upper-income Black adults are about as likely as lower-income Black adults (70% and 66%, respectively) to say this is very important to them. Similarly, there are no differences on this question between middle/upper-income Hispanic adults and those with lower incomes (54% vs. 57%, respectively).
- Half of Americans say they have experienced extreme weather over the past year. Three-quarters of U.S. adults support a proposal to change building standards so that new construction will better withstand extreme weather; 23% say this is a bad idea because it could increase costs and cause delays in important projects. Those who say they have experienced extreme weather events are more likely than those who have not to consider it a good idea to change building codes, though majorities of both express this view.
- Republicans’ views on energy issues have shifted compared with a year ago, leading to wider political divides between the parties. Republican support for expanding wind and solar power, while still a majority, has decreased 13 and 11 percentage points, respectively, compared with a year ago when Trump was in office. The shares of Republicans and Republican leaners who support expanding hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas (up 10 points), offshore oil and gas drilling (up 6 points) and coal mining (up 6 points) have risen over the same period. Even so, younger Republicans remain less likely than their older counterparts to support expanding fossil fuel sources, consistent with past Center surveys.