Is there a partisan divide on climate? Not among young people

The divide politicians should be paying attention to is not between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between young people and old Republicans.

June 13, 2023 12:04 am

Young people at a climate rally in Richmond in September 2019. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

Judging from the political rhetoric, you’d be justified in thinking that only Democrats feel the urgency of the climate crisis, while Republicans are united in dismissing it. Polling shows Democrats are better aligned with popular sentiment: the great majority of Americans support more climate action. But Republican leaders assume that even if their position is a losing one  with the general population, at least they represent their party membership. 

It turns out they are ignoring critical details. The divide they should be paying attention to is not between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between young people and old Republicans.

Recent polling from the Pew Research Center found that although 64% of Republicans over 65 oppose the U.S. taking steps to become carbon neutral, 67% of Republicans under 30 support doing so. Given that Millennials and members of Gen Z (those born after 1997) are less likely to identify as Republicans in the first place, you’d think the party leadership would pay close attention to the issues young Republicans care about, in hopes of growing their brand.

Instead, the party’s position on climate is driven by the opinions of the older, mostly white Republicans who dominate the conservative media echo chamber and control power in Congress and state legislatures. In Virginia, as in other states and Congress, lawmakers are older, whiter and more male than the people they represent. They can afford to dismiss climate change, because the worst impacts won’t happen until they have disappeared from the planet. 

But that tendency of older voters to die off is exactly why catering to the curmudgeon bloc is a bad strategy for holding on to power in the long term. Greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase; the planet keeps warming. The choking smoke from Canadian fires is merely a warning of what lies ahead.  

The nothing-to-see-here narrative on climate change will only appear more fringe with every record wildfire season, every killer heat wave and every freak mega-storm. If Republicans don’t find a way to pivot, they will continue losing younger voters until they find themselves out of power. 

That’s actually the best-case scenario. In the worst-case scenario, Republicans win the presidency and Congress and, having backed themselves into a corner pandering to the curmudgeons, will feel forced to undo recent federal climate legislation including the Inflation Reduction Act. Consequences for the planet and the American economy would be disastrous. The IRA is not just the most impactful climate law the U.S. has ever passed, it has unleashed enormous infusions of capital into red states

And what demographic benefits most from the millions of new jobs being created in green energy and electric vehicles? Why, that would be the young people. 

Some Republicans in Congress and state legislatures do recognize the climate is in crisis. Behind closed doors, they may even concede their party needs to do more. But each lawmaker has a different excuse for failing to act. They fear a primary challenge from someone even farther to the right, or they depend on donations from fossil fuel apologists like the Koch brothers (again, old white men!), or they fear retribution from party leaders if they buck their caucus. In the end, they fall back on obfuscation, deflection, Democrat-blaming and wishful thinking. 

Recent news stories have featured much wringing of hands and pointing of fingers over Gen Z’s tendency towards pessimism and nihilism. Surveys show these young people are more likely to believe it is too late to avert climate change, and more than half feel “humanity is doomed.” Close to 40% say their fears about the future make them reluctant to have children. 

Many young people are channeling their anxiety and anger into action. Election turnout among younger voters has surged, though it’s still woefully behind that of older generations. Young workers are more likely to seek jobs with a positive impact for people and the planet — which makes the green job incentives in the IRA all the more relevant to their lives. 

Indeed, the good news for this generation is that the urgency of the climate crisis has spurred a remarkable acceleration of research and development into climate solutions. For young workers especially, there are more opportunities for meaningful work than at any time in history. The kids are right to worry about hard times ahead, but their generation may be the one to save humanity from this crisis of their elders’ making. 

Success, however, requires that those elders acknowledge the crisis, find the courage to move past partisan politics, and help.

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Ivy Main
Ivy Main

Ivy Main is a lawyer and a longtime volunteer with the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter. A former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee, she is currently the Sierra Club's renewable energy chairperson. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.