Pew Research – Climate Change is Not a Top Priority for Most Americans

Brian McCowan, Zondits staff, 6/13/2023

If you listen to National Public Radio (NPR) or watch public TV, you likely have heard of Pew Research, as they are regular sponsors of educational programming. Public opinions on energy and environmental issues are regularly tracked by Pew. Their research results have a mix of good and bad news for those seeking dramatic action related to climate change.  

Pew’s most recent survey on climate change opinions was completed on March 19, 2023 and was subsequently released to news outlets. According to Pew, over 10,000 adults were interviewed. The participants were recruited through a random sample of residential addresses and were then weighted to be representative of U.S. demographics, including political affiliation, gender, ethnicity, race, and education level.  

The good news is that the results demonstrate that most Americans support the climate goals proposed by the Biden administration, which include carbon neutral status by 2050. They also support federal government investments in renewable energy development. 

However, as political and environmental leaders increasingly describe climate change as an “existential threat,” the research reveals that the public does not place climate change at the top of its concerns. The economy and healthcare costs hold the top positions. There is also a large partisan divide, with Democrats identifying climate change as a significant concern, while Republicans place it near the bottom of their list, slightly above COVID concerns. 

Some of the significant findings are summarized below. Further details are available at: For Earth Day, Americans’ views of climate change in 8 charts | Pew Research Center 

Climate change is not a top priority for Americans.  

Strengthening the economy and lowering healthcare costs remain the top priorities for most Americans. An earlier 2023 Pew research study pegged climate change 17th out of 21 national issues. Overall, 37% of Americans say addressing climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress in 2023, and another 34% say it’s an important but lower priority.

There’s a striking contrast between how Republicans and Democrats prioritize the issue. For Democrats, it falls in the top half of priority issues, and 59% call it a top priority. By comparison, among Republicans, it ranks near the bottom, with only 13% identifying it as a top priority. 

A majority of Americans support the U.S. becoming carbon neutral by 2050.  

According to the research, nearly 70% of the U.S. population favors the Biden administration’s stated goal of the country becoming carbon neutral by 2050.  The same percentage also supports the prioritized development of renewable energy sources over expanding the production of oil, coal, and natural gas.  

Not surprisingly, there is also a political divide on the issue. About 90% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents support the carbon neutral goals.  Of Republicans and Republican leaners, over half oppose the goals with 44% supporting. However, two-thirds of Republicans under age 30 favor the U.S. taking the proposed steps to become carbon neutral.  

Most Americans are reluctant to phase out fossil fuels altogether, but respondent age is a factor. 

About 70% of Americans favor the country relying on a mix of fossil fuels and renewable sources. 30% favor a complete phase-out of fossil fuels.

A chart showing that younger U.S. adults are more open than older adults to phasing out fossil fuels completely. 

Younger Americans (18 – 29) are evenly divided on the complete phase out of fossil fuels, while older Americans favor continuing to use a mix of fossil fuel and renewable sources. Republicans of all age groups support a mix of energy sources, as do older Democrats. A majority of younger Democrats support a complete transition to renewable energy. 

The public supports the federal government promoting renewable energy with incentives and regulations . 

Two-thirds of Americans think the federal government should encourage domestic production of wind and solar power. 7% say the government should actually discourage the growth of wind and solar. 26% are neutral on the subject. 

Less than half of the public supports the federal government encouraging the switch to electric vehicles (EVs).

Although only 14% are negative on governmental support of EVs, the remaining 86% are split evenly, with half expressing support and half remaining neutral or undecided on the subject. It is not clear if this result is reflective of the public’s view of EVs in general, or if it represents views that the market for EVs is expanding on its own. 

Support for nuclear power is also mixed

About the same percentage of Americans that support government encouragement of EVs, support nuclear power. 22% are opposed to the government supporting nuclear power, and this number represents a recent softening of public opposition. 

The public is divided on fossil fuel support.

34% of the public thinks the government should encourage oil and gas drilling; 30% say the opposite; 35% say it should do neither. The survey did not differentiate as to drilling locations, such as offshore, or wildlife refuge drilling. Opinions are more negative on coal mining with only 21% supporting continued support from the federal government. 

Americans want multiple actors to take more action on climate change.

About two-thirds believe that corporations, state governments, and the energy industry should do more to counter climate change. Environmental organizations are identified as placing the appropriate attention to the issue. Interestingly, when asked about their own actions as individuals, over half think that they are doing “just fine.” 

Most Americans support U.S. participation in international efforts to reduce the effects of climate change.

75% support U.S. participation in international efforts to reduce the effects of climate change. However, there is little agreement as to the level of responsibility the U.S. shoulders and the level of our financial support going forward. For example, about 60% of respondents do not believe that the U.S. has a responsibility to provide financial assistance to developing countries for the development of renewable energy sources. 

Some Zondits Conclusions 

In reviewing the results, it’s important to consider how the questions were asked. Many of the questions focused on whether the federal government should increase investment in certain climate related efforts. That should not be confused with asking about general support for those same actions. For example, EVs are often viewed as growing their market share with, or without, government subsidies. Individuals opposing further taxpayer investment may indeed support the growth of the EV market, and/or have one in their driveway. 

Regardless, the partisan divide on climate issues is troubling. It illustrates that the policy battles are likely to continue for some time, and the commitment to a clean energy transition will change with the political winds. 

For Earth Day, Americans’ views of climate change in 8 charts | Pew Research Center