Unsurprisingly, more Democrats rank global warming relatively high; 54 percent would make it a top priority. But only 15 percent of Republicans would. That 39-point partisan divide is the widest on any issue Pew asked about. Independents sat around the national average, at 39 percent.
Adding in those who say that global warming is “important but lower priority,” 85 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of independents rank it as a significant issue. But that figure is only 36 percent for Republicans. Meanwhile, 31 percent of Republicans think the issue is “not too important” and another 31 percent believe that dealing with global warming “should not be done.”
These numbers tell Republican leaders two things. First, they are unlikely to suffer significant political damage from opposing climate policies, since independents don’t seem to care as much about the issue as they do others — and even many Democrats aren’t enthusiastic. A large number of Democratic and independent voters don’t rank the issue high nevertheless favor doing something. But they’re not bashing down their senators’ doors demanding action. Second, a large swath of the GOP base demands intransigence — and another big chunk really doesn’t care.
Fixing the climate debate will require at least one of two things that seem unlikely now.
More politicians, particularly Republicans, have to accept that their responsibility to work in the public interest requires them to take global warming seriously. There are GOP politicians who sympathize with this point. They, among others, have to lead. The president and Congress plan to do this on trade policy over the next two years, advancing worthwhile trade deals even though “global trade” is the only issue that ranks lower than global warming in Pew’s priority index.
Alternatively, or in addition, voters in all camps must start rewarding candidates who promise action and punishing politicians who refuse to act.
Pew’s numbers offer a bit of hope. Though still low, the proportion of Americans who say global warming should be a high priority has recovered from a deep dive during and after the “Great Recession,” rising 13 points since its January 2012 trough. Mostly, that’s because more Democrats and independents care about the issue now than in recent years. Also, a larger proportion of young Americans than older ones are alarmed about global warming, suggesting that generational change will help shift attitudes.
If these improvements turn into long-term trends, perhaps encouraged by politicians willing to talk about the issue, political incentives will change. But it would be a whole lot better — though wholly improbable — if Republicans recognized and reversed their recklessness sooner.