Glacial shift in Republican attitudes toward climate change masks significant differences between younger and older Texas GOP voters

The orthodoxy of climate change denial that ruled mainstream Republican politics is melting in some key corners of the Party, even if the change is happening at a pace previous generations had the luxury of calling “glacial.” Even as the septuagenarian figurehead of the national GOP openly mocks the most well-known, youthful climate change activist on the global stage, the signs of a pivot toward an acceptance of the basic fact of human-caused climate change is evident in the attitudes of the overwhelming majority of young voters, even Republican ones. 

However, polling data in Texas also suggest that it may be too much to expect a quick consensus on the corresponding policy response. Partisan differences remain significant -- and the acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change has not spread to older generations in the state’s dominant party. Differences in Republicans’ and Democrats’ willingness to accept the evidence of climate change emerge clearly in results from the October 2019 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. A majority of Texas voters, 66%, said that climate change is happening, with 23% saying that it is not happening, and another 12% expressing uncertainty. The vast majority of Democrats, 88%, and independents, 74%, agreed that climate change is happening. There was much less consensus on the matter among Republicans, who were evenly split between those who say that climate change is happening, 44%, and those who say it is not, 42%. More Republican voters think the jury is still out: 14% say they’re not sure about whether climate change is happening, compared to 8% of Democrats. 

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Climate change is happening88%74%44%
Climate change is not happening3%16%42%
Not sure if climate change is happening8%10%14%

Given that the rhetorical and policy responses of most GOP elected officials and opinion leaders to climate change have ranged from skepticism to indifference, the fact that a plurality of Republican voters seems to accept the fact of climate change might be surprising. The nearly even split is a result of a sharp difference in attitudes between Republicans under and over the age of 40. Among Republicans under 40, 70% say that climate change is happening; only 33% of Republicans 40 or older say it’s so. (There is no such generational disagreement among Democrats: 91% and 87% of Democrats under and over 40, respectively, say that climate change is happening.)* 

"Do you think climate change is happening, do you think climate change is not happening, or aren't you sure?" (October 2019, UT/TT Poll)
  Climate change is happening Climate change is not happening Not sure if climate change is happening
Democrats 88% 3% 8%
Independents 74% 16% 10%
Republicans 44% 42% 14%
Republicans Under 40 70% 20% 10%
Republicans Over 40 33% 52% 16%

These divergent generational patterns in attitudes among partisans illuminate a recent uptick in news about Texas GOP elected officials, core interest groups, and activists suggesting that it’s time for the GOP to move beyond denying climate science and on to...something else. January saw Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw earn news coverage for his careful admonition that, as reported in the Houston Chronicle,  “generally lowering emissions” is a worthy policy goal, though he still conveyed a seemingly requisite skepticism. “Even if we don’t know what it’s doing to the environment, let’s at least err on the side of caution,” he was quoted as telling an audience at a Texas Public Policy Foundation meeting in Austin. “But it doesn’t mean erring on the side of destroying the economy, which is what the left would have.”  Within days of this coverage, a January 26 guest op-ed column in the Austin American Statesman by former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis extolled the tale of a Republican activist talking to a group of Georgetown Republicans he found “tired of running from their own observations of obvious climate change” and “ready to hear solutions that fit with their values and dismiss the merchants of doubt.”  

Amidst these New Year’s stirrings in energy rich Texas, Donald Trump traveled to Davos to pooh pooh the urgency of climate change, urging the gathered Masters of the Universe to “reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse.” 

It’s difficult to envision the acceptance of climate change among a plurality of Republican voters and party cadres as the basis for a shift in environmental, energy, and transportation policy priorities in the midst of what is undeniably a revanchist moment in the party’s devolution to the party of Trump. Even if a core acceptance of climate change is spreading in the younger quarters of the Texas GOP, polling data suggest that the hill toward action is a steep one as long as the GOP continues to guide state and national policy. The shift in rhetoric from figures like Crenshaw remains minimalist and transactional (“From a political standpoint,” Crenshaw said at TPPF, “we cannot ignore it completely”) and laced with polarizing language that discounts mainstream urgency on climate change as threatening a “complete socialist takeover of the economy.”

Texas Republicans who accept climate change are less concerned than Texans overall. Among Texans who say that climate change is happening, a majority say that they are either very worried (38%) or somewhat worried (34%) about it. Among Republicans who acknowledge that climate change is happening, a slight majority, 52%, say that they are either not very worried (30%) or not at all worried (23%). 

"How worried are you about climate change?" (October 2019, UT/TT Poll, among repondents who believe climate change is happening)
  Very Worried Somewhat Worried Not Very Worried Not at all Worried
Democrats 58% 31% 8% 3%
Independents 20% 48% 25% 8%
Republicans 16% 32% 30% 23%
Republicans Under 40 24% 37% 23% 15%
Republicans Over 40 10% 28% 34% 28%

The lower level of concern among Republican voters coincides with reluctance to use government as an instrument of policy (at least in the abstract) to combat climate change and its effects. Among Republicans, the plurality, 37%, say that the U.S. government should be doing "nothing" to combat climate change; Overall, only 18% say it should be doing “a lot” or “a great deal” to combat climate change. Among all Texas voters, 30% say that the government should be doing “a great deal” about climate change, 17% “a lot,”and 31% either "a little" (10%) or "nothing" at all (21%). Among Democrats, a majority, 54%, say the government should be doing "a great deal."

Amidst a general lack of worry and reluctance to support government action to combat climate change among Republicans writ large, there is both more worry and more support for government action in the party’s younger quarters. 

Among younger Republicans who say that climate change is happening, 61% say that they are either very (24%) or somewhat (37%) worried. Asked how much the U.S. government should be doing about climate change, a plurality of under-40 Republicans said that they wanted the government to do “a great deal” (27%), with another 11% saying that they want the government to do “a lot”, and 24% wanting the government to do “a moderate amount” to combat climate change. And only 32% of Republicans under 40 said “a little” (14%) or “nothing” (18%), compared to 65% of older Republicans. Only 10% of older Republicans said the government should do “a lot” (5%) or “a great deal” (5%). 

How much do you think the U.S. government should be doing about climate change? (October 2019 UT/TT Poll)
  A great deal A lot A moderate amount A little Nothing Don't know/No opinion
Democrats 54% 25% 9% 3% 5% 3%
Independents 15% 26% 21% 4% 19% 15%
Republicans 11% 7% 20% 18% 37% 7%
Republicans Under 40 27% 11% 24% 14% 18% 7%
Republicans Over 40 5% 5% 18% 20% 45% 7%

So there are limits to the consequences of the belated recognition of the realities of climate change among selected Republican elected officials and would-be opinion leaders. The attitudes of younger Republican voters toward climate change stand in stark contrast to their partisan elders when it comes to the basic recognition of the facts on the ground, in the air, and in the (rising) waters. But young Republicans differ much less from their elders when it comes to the potential government response to a problem that has festered while their elders have resisted action where they could and, more recently, reversed measures meant to alleviate the acceleration of climate change or, at least, to respond to its consequences. Testing the political waters by acknowledging climate change, while at the same time dismissing large scale solutions as socialism or doomsaying, won’t keep the real water from continuing to rise around us all.

* The total sample size for the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll is 1200 registered voters in Texas, producing a margin of sampling error of +/- 2.89%. The sample size for Democrats in the tables produced is 500, producing a margin of error of +/- 4.38%. The sample size for Independents is 123, producing a margin of sampling error of +/- 8.84%. The sample size for Republicans is 533, producing a margin of sampling error of +/- 4.24%. The sample size of Republicans under the age of 40 is 158, producing a margin of sampling error of +/- 7.8%. The sample size of Republicans over the age of 40 is 375, producing a margin of sampling error of +/- 5.06%.