Democrats who favor strong action on climate change are deeply dissatisfied with what they see as the slow pace of progress under President Joe Biden, according to a Pew Research Center report released Thursday.
The survey of more than 10,000 adults conducted in early May showed a deep partisan divide over Biden’s climate policies—much in line with the split between Democrats and Republicans that has shown up in public opinion polling for more than a decade. But a trend that is potentially ominous for the White House emerged in the views of the Democratic base.
Among Democrats who back the overall direction of Biden’s climate policies, 61 percent said the administration could be doing a lot more. Democrats don’t seem sympathetic to arguments that Biden’s hands are tied, for example, by an uncooperative Congress or the conservative courts; only 37 percent of Democrats who favor strong action to counter climate change said they think the administration is doing about as much as can be expected.
“You get the sense from the data that there is frustration or disappointment that more has not been done,” said Cary Funk, director of science and society research for Pew.
That frustration was especially high among younger Democrats; 73 percent of those aged 18 to 29 said the Biden administration could be doing more on climate change.
While younger and older Democrats alike see the need for climate action, there is also a generation gap among Republicans, according to Pew. Among Republicans aged 18 to 29, 47 percent say the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change, compared with just 18 percent of Republicans 65 and older.
Bipartisan Support for Wind and Solar Energy
Pew, a non-partisan research center that has been polling on climate since 1994, found that the percentage of Americans who say stricter environmental laws are worth the cost has eroded slightly in the past three years—to 53 percent from 65 percent in September 2019. That drop was mostly due to a fall in support for stricter environmental laws among Republicans, from 43 percent in 2019 to just 24 percent today.
But despite the partisan chasm in opinion over how Biden was handling climate (82 percent of Republicans believe he is heading in the wrong direction; 79 percent of Democrats think he is heading in the right direction), there was more consensus when those polled were asked about specific climate policies.
For example, 72 percent of Americans—including nearly half of Republicans—said they favor requiring power companies to use more energy from renewable sources, like wind and solar. Similarly, 68 percent of Americans—including 46 percent of Republicans—would back taxing corporations based on the amount of carbon emissions they produce. That means some Republicans who think Biden is heading in the wrong direction on climate said they would favor climate policies that are more robust than anything the president has proposed so far.
“It’s very interesting to see that even though there are these wide divides on so many issues related to climate and environment, you can still see a lot of agreement around some of the specific policy proposals,” Funk said.
Two policy proposals stand out as backed by sizable majorities of Republicans and Democrats alike: 90 percent of Americans favor planting about a trillion trees to absorb carbon emissions to help reduce the effects of climate change, and 79 percent favor providing a tax credit to encourage businesses to develop technology to capture and store carbon emissions. Broad support for such measures had registered with politicians long before the new Pew poll. President Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2020 backing the World Economic Forum’s Trillion Trees Initiative, an international effort. And last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by Biden included $12 billion in direct support for carbon capture projects.
Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy for the American Lung Association, said he understands the restiveness among supporters of Biden’s stated plan to put the nation on track to zero emissions by 2050—something that would take far more action than the measures included in last year’s infrastructure bill.
“The public is frustrated that we’re seeing the impacts of climate change every day in our lives,” Billings said. “World treasures like the Giant Sequoias are being threatened by wildfire in ways they haven’t been threatened in two or three thousand years. We see wildfire events, air pollution events. The public are recognizing that climate change is an existential threat.”
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Indeed, the Pew survey showed that 71 percent of Americans say their local communities have experienced at least one of five forms of “extreme weather” in the past year, although Pew didn’t use that term in its question, since it could be viewed by some as politically charged, said Funk. More than 40 percent said they had experienced floods, intense storms or long periods of unusually hot weather, while 31 percent experienced droughts or water shortages and 21 percent endured major wildfires. Rising sea levels that erode shorelines were reported by 16 percent of those polled by Pew.
But despite the climate impacts felt on the ground, Billings said he doesn’t see a sense of urgency at Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency on matters like strengthening ozone pollution standards, which would help to address climate change by putting constraints on fossil fuel emissions. That is one of a number of policies Billings detailed in a recent Twitter thread that the administration could be taking now without running afoul of the limitations put on the EPA by the Supreme Court last month.
Billings said the administration has taken steps on many of those policies, but not enough final actions. “Sadly, the pace is too slow and the number of rules finalized is inadequate,” he said. “They’ve got to up the pace. Eighteen months and the record of accomplishment is lacking.”
The new Pew survey indicates that sentiment is prevalent in the Democratic base, a sign Biden can only view as worrisome ahead of an election where the party risks losing Congress. That, in turn, would make climate action all the more difficult, given the partisan divide the research shows.