Majorities See Government Efforts to Protect the Environment as Insufficient

Pockets of partisan agreement over renewables despite wide divides over increasing fossil fuels and effects of climate change

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Majorities of Americans say the federal government is doing too little to protect key aspects of the environment including water (69%) and air quality (64%). And two-thirds of Americans (67%) say the government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change. These findings come after a year of change in climate and energy regulatory policies under the Trump administration.


At the same time, Americans are closely divided (52% to 48%) over whether or not it is possible to cut back on regulations while still effectively protecting air and water quality. There are wide political divides on this issue, with roughly three-quarters of Republicans (74%, including independents who lean Republican) convinced this is possible but 64% of Democrats (including Democratic-leaning independents) convinced it is not possible.

The national survey by Pew Research Center, conducted March 27-April 9 among 2,541 adults, finds pockets of partisan agreement over expanding solar and wind power, though wide political divides remain over increasing fossil fuels through such methods as coal mining, hydraulic fracturing and offshore drilling for oil and natural gas, a pattern consistent with a 2016 Pew Research Center survey.


Further, a majority of Americans support a range of energy policy priorities including protecting the environment from the effects of energy development and use (72%) and increasing reliance on renewable energy sources (71%), as well as reducing dependence on foreign energy sources (69%) and keeping consumer energy costs low (66%). More Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents give priority to protecting the environment as well as increasing reliance on renewable energy sources; a larger share of Republicans and independents who lean to the GOP put priority on reducing U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources.

Consistent with past studies, Republicans and Democrats remain divided over whether the Earth is warming and the importance of human activity in the process. The new survey finds three-quarters of Democrats and Democratic leaners believe the Earth is warming primarily due to human causes, compared with 26% among their Republican counterparts. Similarly, Democrats are much more likely than are Republicans to express concern about the issue of climate change and to see at least some effects of global warming in their local community or in their own lives.


There are wide political divides over the consequences of policies aimed at climate change that hold even among those who agree that the Earth has been warming. Most Republicans are skeptical about whether, in general, policies aimed at reducing climate change benefit the environment (72% of Republicans and Republican leaners say these policies either make no difference or do more harm than good), and 57% think such policies harm the economy. For their part, about two-thirds of Democrats (66%, including leaners) think that such policies will help the environment and most see either no harm (39%) or net benefits for the economy (45%) from such policies.


When asked about specific proposals to reduce climate change, most Democrats (90%) and smaller majorities of Republicans (65%) say that restrictions on power plant emissions would make a difference in reducing climate change, as would tax incentives encouraging businesses to reduce their carbon emissions (85% and 65%, respectively). Republicans, particularly conservative Republicans, are less convinced that tougher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles or tax incentives to encourage more individuals to drive hybrid and electric cars will make a difference in reducing climate change.

Opinion about one new approach on the horizon – solar geoengineering, which seeks to lower the Earth’s temperature through broad-based changes to the atmosphere – divides strongly along political lines. About eight-in-ten conservative Republicans (78%) say solar geoengineering would not make a difference in reducing climate change while 64% of liberal Democrats say it would. Four-in-ten Democrats (40%) and about half of Republicans (54%) express concern that such approaches would do more harm than good for the environment, however.


Generational differences emerge on some energy and climate issues, but such differences occur primarily among Republicans, not Democrats. Republican Millennials are less inclined than their elders in the GOP to support increased use of fossil fuel energy sources through such methods as offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing and coal mining. For example, 75% of Republicans in the Baby Boomer and older generations support the increased use of offshore drilling, compared with 44% of Millennial Republicans. Among Democrats, there are no more than modest differences by generation on beliefs about these climate and energy issues.


Most Americans say government is doing too little to protect the environment, but conservative Republicans tend to disagree

During the first year of the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back more than 30 environmental regulations, and it recently announced a plan to lower carbon emissions standards on automobiles.


Amid these changes, Americans are divided on whether it is possible to cut regulations while still effectively protecting air and water quality, with 52% saying it is possible and 48% saying it is not.


Some 74% of Republicans and independents who lean Republican believe it is possible to cut regulations and protect the quality of air and water, compared with 35% of Democrats and Democratic leaners who say the same.


More specifically, majorities of Americans say the federal government is doing too little to protect water quality (69%), air quality (64%), animals and their habitats (63%) or open lands in national parks (57%).


Also, two-thirds of U.S. adults (67%) say the government is not doing enough to reduce the effects of global climate change. Only about one-in-five Americans (19%) say government officials are doing “about the right amount” to deal with climate change, with another 13% saying “too much” is being done.


Political leanings have a profound influence on how Americans view government activity. Roughly nine-in-ten liberal Democrats believe the federal government is not doing enough to protect key aspects of the environment such as air (89%) and water quality (91%). By contrast, minorities of conservative Republicans believe the government is doing too little in these areas.


For instance, 89% of liberal Democrats say the federal government isn’t doing enough to protect air quality, compared with just 26% of conservative Republicans who say the same. When it comes to water quality of lakes, rivers and streams, 91% of Democrats say the federal government isn’t doing enough, compared with 39% of conservative Republicans.


Conservative Republicans – about half of them – say the government is doing “about the right amount” to safeguard these aspects of the environment. A smaller share says the government is “doing too much” to protect air (18%) or water quality (14%).


Moderate or liberal Republicans are more likely than their conservative counterparts to say that the federal government’s environmental efforts are insufficient. For instance, 63% of moderate or liberal Republicans believe the government is doing too little to protect the water quality of lakes, rivers and streams, compared with 39% of conservative Republicans who say the same.


Separate Pew Research Center surveys found a 15-percentage-point decline between 2015 and 2017 in Americans’ overall ratings of how well the federal government is protecting the environment. Views of government performance in this area shifted among both Republicans and Democrats.


More Republicans say reducing reliance on foreign energy sources should be a top policy priority; more Democrats say the U.S. should prioritize environmental protection

Strong majorities of Americans believe the top priorities for U.S. energy policy should be protecting the environment from energy development and use (72%), increasing reliance on renewable energy sources (71%) or reducing U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources (69%).


Majorities of Americans also say that keeping energy prices low (66%) or creating jobs within the energy sector (58%) should be top priorities.


As is often the case with issues related to energy and the environment, there is a partisan divide over how best to prioritize U.S. energy goals.


Strong majorities of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents believe the top priorities should be protecting the environment from the effects of energy development and use (83%) or increasing America’s reliance on renewable energy sources (80%), compared with 56% of Republicans and Republican leaners who say the same about protecting the environment from the effects of energy development and 59% who would prioritize renewable energy sources.


Eight-in-ten (80%) Republicans and Republican leaners believe a top objective of U.S. energy policy should be reducing dependence on foreign energy sources – a view shared by 61% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.


The two parties tend to agree on the relative importance of economic issues when considering energy policies, with 56% of Democrats and 59% and Republicans saying that creating jobs within the energy sector should be a top priority, and 61% and 71%, respectively, saying the U.S. should focus most on keeping consumer energy prices low. Liberal Democrats are less likely to give top priority to maintaining low energy prices (49%) than moderate or conservative Democrats (72%). The views of moderate or conservative Democrats are nearly the same on this issue as moderate or liberal Republicans (69%) and conservative Republicans (72%).


Renewable energy has strong bipartisan support, but there are wide partisan divides over fossil fuels

Around three-fourths of Americans (76%) are aware that U.S. energy production has increased over the past 20 years. And large majorities of Americans favor expanding at least two types of renewable sources to provide energy: solar panel (89%) and wind turbine (85%) facilities. Fewer than half of Americans support more hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” (39%), offshore oil and gas drilling (39%) or coal mining (37%); 44% support more nuclear power plants. These figures are in keeping with the findings of a 2016 Pew Research Center survey.

Robust support for expanding solar and wind power represents a rare point of bipartisan consensus in how the U.S. views energy policies. Both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, for instance, strongly favor the expansion of solar panel farms (80% and 96%, respectively) and wind turbine farms (71% and 93%, respectively).

However, the political gap over fossil fuels remains vast, with 73% of conservative Republicans and 16% of liberal Democrats favoring more offshore drilling; 70% and 13%, respectively, supporting more coal mining; and 67% and 17%, respectively, in favor of expanded fracking. Moderate or liberal Republicans tend to be more divided than their conservative counterparts over fossil fuels. For example, 49% of this group favors more offshore drilling for oil and natural gas, while 50% oppose it.


The political divide over nuclear energy, a carbon-neutral technology, is less pronounced than it is over fossil fuels: 57% of conservative Republicans support the expansion of nuclear power plants versus 38% of liberal Democrats.


In keeping with previous Pew Research Center surveys, women tend to be less supportive of expanding nuclear power than men, even after controlling for political party. Some 35% of women favor and 63% oppose more nuclear power plants. Men are more closely divided on this issue: 53% favor and 46% oppose.

Political divides over expanding the use of offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing and nuclear power are consistent with past Pew Research Center surveys using somewhat different question wording and polling methods. See the Appendix.


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