Politics Counts: The Real Split on Global Warming
In his second inaugural speech this week President Barack Obama made a point of planting a flag on the issue of global warming. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Mr. Obama said from the steps of the Capitol.
That’s the kind of line that brings applause from an audience of strong Obama supporters, but beyond the Beltway, attitudes about global warming are more complicated and mixed. How mixed? Consider two places: Ronan, Mont., and Ann Arbor, Mich.
In 2011, a state representative from rural, agricultural Ronan submitted a bill that embraced global warming as “beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana” and that said “reasonable amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere have no verifiable impacts on the environment.”
In Ann Arbor, a college town where the stated goal is to “eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions and other destabilizing climate impacts,” one the big debates last year centered on whether the city should ban excessive car engine idling, because of the harmful health and environmental effects.
In those two communities, you have the divide over global warming in nutshell. While politicians and the media tend to focus on the Democratic/Republican divide on the issue, the real split is evidenced in other ways – the urban/rural divide, the education divide and, crucially, the age divide. And when you add all those differences together and look at it through geography, you see glaring differences in how various places understand the issue.
To get a sense on the country divides on global warming and Mr. Obama’s sentiments regarding it, we looked at numbers from an October Pew Research Center question on global warming through Patchwork Nation’s lens of demographic county types.
From what you’ve read and heard, is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, or not?
|County Types||Yes, mostly because of human activities||Yes, mostly because of natural patterns||Yes, don’t know/refused||Total “Yes”|
|Campus and Careers||50%||21%||6%||77%|
|Service Worker Centers||30%||21%||6%||57%|
In some ways those numbers show great agreement – at least on the question, is global warming occurring? People in every one of the nine county types here (all the types where there was a statistically significant sample) say they believe the earth is getting warmer.
But when the question turns to why, the numbers shift pretty sharply – and fall into familiar patterns.
In some places – the rural Service Worker Center counties and the poorer Minority Central counties – only about 3 in 10 people believe humans are “mostly” responsible for global warming. The numbers aren’t much higher in the socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters, the formerly fast-growing Boom Towns and the aging Emptying Nests.
Mr. Obama lost all those county types in November, except for the Minority Central counties.
In the urban Industrial Metropolis counties and the suburban Monied Burbs, large pluralities agree that that global warming is real and that it is being caused by humans. And in two county types the belief in man-made global warming reaches the 50%-or-above mark – the collegiate Campus and Career counties (Ann Arbor sits in one of those counties) and Latino-heavy Immigration Nation counties.
Mr. Obama won all those county types.
So, voila, the voter breakdown on the global-warming issue is nearly a duplicate of the breakdown of Mr. Obama’s support. It’s just another partisan issue, right? Not exactly, there is something else going on in those figures with longer-term implications and it involves age.
The two biggest supporters of man-made climate change are the Immigration Nation (light blue on the map below) and Campus and Career (green) counties. Those places don’t share a lot of commonalities. There are big differences in income and education levels. But they have one common trait – they are younger than other places.
In both of those county types roughly 50% of the population is under 34 years of age – it’s actually slightly more than 50% in Immigration Nation. In most of the county types that figure is 45% or less. And both Campus and Careers and Immigration Nation counties have fewer people over 65, about 11%. Nationally that figure is 13%.
What does that mean? It indicates that while there are a variety of factors that go into people’s attitudes on global warming, age is profoundly important. In reporting in Campus communities in particular, Politics Counts has found environmentalism is held out as one issue where most all students agree. Liberal and conservative. Democrat and Republican.
If those young people hold on to those beliefs as they age, it has big implications for the global-warming debate in the coming years. As pollsters like to say, the numbers above represent a “snapshot in time.” While the divide in the chart above is stark, it may not always be.
That doesn’t mean the Democrat/Republican divide on global warming is going to disappear. And it doesn’t mean places like Ronan and Ann Arbor will ever be the same. But over time, attitudes amongst all kinds of voters in all kinds of places may move closer together – and closer to Mr. Obama’s position.