The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s a global warming generation gap in the GOP, like on the issue of gay marriage

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)
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Congressional Republicans want to make fighting the Environmental Protection Agency's climate regulations and President Obama's greenhouse gas reduction targets a centerpiece of their agenda over next two years -- now that they have wrested control of the Senate as well as House.

But how will the politics of that look 10 years from now?

Several commentators have suggested that climate change could become the gay marriage issue of the future for the GOP. In other words, demographic changes within the Republican Party itself and in society in general could leave GOP leaders looking badly out of step with their own constituency and scrambling to switch sides.

Over the past decade, support for gay marriage has grown within the Republican Party, especially as young Republicans grew older and swelled the ranks of the party. Opposition to gay marriage -- and the party's support for a slew of state ballot initiatives banning gay marriage -- may have looked mainstream with the Republican Party 10 years ago, but now looks outdated. "The ballot initiative wins masked the rapidly rising tide of gay acceptance fueled by younger generations," wrote Bill Scher of the Campaign for America's Future, who likens the issue to climate change.

Will the climate change issue really follow the same course? To test that theory, we looked more closely at the data from a series of global warming questions asked by the Washington Post-ABC News poll back in June. In particular, that poll asked a nationally representative sample of respondents whether they believed the federal government "should or should not limit the release of greenhouse gases from existing power plants in an effort to reduce global warming?"

People overwhelmingly supported this idea of doing so, with 70 percent in favor.

Then, a subsequent question asked, "What if that significantly lowered greenhouse gases but raised your monthly energy expenses by 20 dollars a month - in that case do you think the government should or should not limit the release of greenhouse gases?"

This is a harder test, but once again, a majority (63 percent) was willing to spend $ 20 per month to limit greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, although they are more resistant than Democrats and Independents, even a slight majority of Republicans concur:

Support for action to slow climate change (even if it costs something) was also much more widespread among younger voters in the poll. As they become increasingly central to the electorate, the GOP war against the EPA's climate regulations could look shortsighted:

The age gap here is quite significant -- those under 30 are 22 percentage points more supportive than seniors (65+) of government limits on greenhouse gases if they add $20 to their monthly energy bill. It's worth noting that majorities in all age groups supported this in the poll. The age gap on climate is about half the size of the age gap on same-sex marriage -- in the same survey, those under 30 were 39 points more supportive of gay marriage than seniors (77 vs. 38 percent).

The key question, though, is whether even within the GOP, there is a split between younger and older voters on climate change. Sure enough, our poll suggests that this is the case:

What this shows is that age matters above and beyond partisanship in how people think about the climate issue. Roughly six in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents under age 50 think the government should limit greenhouse gases even if it causes a $20 increase in their monthly bill; fewer than half of Republicans ages 50-64 or over 65 support this policy. Support is only slightly higher among Democrats under age 50 than those over age 65, which is statistically insignificant. Support does rise to 78 percent among Democrats under age 40.

It is worth noting that a post-election Pew Research Center poll also showed an age gap among Republicans, albeit smaller than the Post-ABC survey. A 56 percent majority of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents under age 40 supported "setting stricter limits on power plants in order to address climate change," compared with 44 percent of Republicans over age 50, according to breakdowns provided to the Washington Post.

Where does that leave the Republican leadership? Earlier this month, after China and the United States made historic commitments to curtail greenhouse gases, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kty.) took aim at what he called "the President’s ideological War on Coal." House Speaker John Boehner bemoaned "the latest example of the president’s crusade against affordable, reliable energy that is already hurting jobs and squeezing middle-class families.”

They clearly think this is a politically winning line of attack. But as ocean waters rise with climate change, a sea change at work within the GOP may one day wash away today's Republican strategy.