Research Article: Generation gaps in US public opinion on renewable energy and climate change

Date Published: July 10, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Lawrence C. Hamilton, Joel Hartter, Erin Bell, Kimmo Eriksson.


The topics of climate change and renewable energy are often linked in policy discussions and scientific analysis, but public opinion on these topics exhibits both overlap and divergence. Although renewable energy has potentially broader acceptance than anthropogenic climate change, it can also face differently-based opposition. Analyses of US and regional surveys, including time series of repeated surveys in New Hampshire (2010–2018) and northeast Oregon (2011–2018), explore the social bases and trends of public views on both issues. Political divisions are prominent, although somewhat greater regarding climate change due to substantive differences and more partisan opposition. Regarding climate change and to a lesser extent renewable energy, political divisions tends to widen with education. There also are robust age and temporal effects: younger adults more often prioritize renewable energy development, and agree with scientists on the reality of anthropogenic climate change (ACC). Across all age groups and both regional series, support for renewable energy and recognition of ACC have been gradually rising. Contrary to widespread speculation, these trends have not visibly responded to events such as the US hurricanes of 2012, 2017 or 2018. Together with age-cohort replacement and the potential for changes in age-group voting participation, however, the gradual trends suggest that public pressure for action on these issues could grow.

Partial Text

The topics of climate change and renewable energy are often linked in policy discussions and scientific analysis. Mitigation of increasingly severe impacts from anthropogenic climate change (ACC) will require steep reductions in fossil fuel burning, and corresponding shifts to energy from renewable sources that produce less greenhouse gases—such as electricity generated by wind, solar or tidal power. Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions therefore becomes a key argument favoring renewable-energy development.[1] It is not the only argument, however. Renewable energy offers economic advantages including lower costs as well as new jobs, and income to producers or landowners.[2][3][4] Compared with coal or oil, it tends to generate less pollution of land, air and water. Decentralized renewable energy such as rooftop solar also promises some degree of consumer independence. These non-greenhouse arguments appeal to many of the same people concerned about climate change, but they can also reach beyond, to some who reject the reality of ACC. At the same time, the perceived impacts of large-scale energy developments such as wind farms can inspire local opposition from people who otherwise might support action on climate change.[5][6][7][8][9][10] Thus, renewable energy has potentially broader appeal, but sometimes also broader-based opposition, compared with public concern about climate change.

Data analyzed here come from four projects summarized in Table 1. For each project, trained personnel at the Survey Center of the University of New Hampshire conducted cell and landline telephone interviews with randomly-sampled participants. The nationwide POLES survey took place in two stages just before and after the 2016 presidential elections, with little difference in the main response patterns.[23] The North Country survey took place in summer 2017, interviewing residents of four rural counties in northern New England.[24][25] Two other regional projects, covering New Hampshire and northeast Oregon, each involved a series of surveys carried out with independent random samples from 2010 or 2011 to 2018. Many papers present results from the various Oregon surveys up to 2015 [26][27][28][29], and New Hampshire surveys up to 2017.[30][31] Results from the 2018 Oregon and New Hampshire surveys are described for the first time in this paper.

Decades of survey research on the social bases of environmental concern has established robust patterns with regard to respondent age, sex, education and politics. Concern about environmental problems, across many different topics, tends to be higher among younger, female and better educated respondents. In some data one or more of these effects may be relatively weak or not significant, but they almost always point in the same direction. The most consistently dominant predictors of environmental concern, however, are ideology or political identity: conservatives less often view environmental problems as serious.

From 2012 through fall of 2018, 13 New Hampshire surveys with a combined total of 7,707 interviews carried the renewable-energy question, as did four northeast Oregon surveys (2011–2018) with 3,782 interviews. Fig 5 tracks these regional-survey results, along with results on the same question from the POLES and North Country surveys. Unlike Figs 1–4 which depict only the most recent years of each project, Fig 5 and subsequent graphs employ all available data for the analysis shown. The number of observations fluctuates, because some questions were not asked on some surveys. The upper line in Fig 5, drifting up about 21 points, tracks the percentage of New Hampshire respondents who prioritize renewable energy. The lower line shows an upward drift of about 14 points among northeast Oregon respondents. Nationwide results from the POLES surveys (1,411 interviews) appear slightly lower than contemporary New Hampshire results; North Country results (1,650 interviews) match New Hampshire almost exactly. Error bars depict the 95 percent confidence intervals for each survey. We see minor survey-to-survey variations, within the range of sampling error, but the main visual impression is how stable percentages appear, from one survey to the next. Their short-term stability reflects use of consistent sampling and interview methods, repeating a straightforward question. An earlier paper based on Oregon data through 2015 and New Hampshire through 2017 observed similar upward trends,[23] which are now seen continuing in these longer time series.

Figs 3 and 4 chart bivariate relationships between renewable-energy or climate responses and four background factors that often predict environment-related views. Figs 5–9 track the upward drift in these views over time. Table 3 tests these background and timing factors together. The table gives odds ratios from four weighted logistic regression models with respondent characteristics and yearly trend as predictors. Each model draws on all available data—including more historical survey data as well as the most recent, so estimation samples include about 1,000 additional interviews for both Oregon models, and 700 (renew) to 14,000 (climate) additional interviews for New Hampshire, compared with previously published analyses.[23] Consequently, parameter estimates here are more precise.

Strimling et al., analyzing responses to “moral issue” questions on the US General Social Survey over the past 40 years, find a common theoretical explanation that fits divergent trends.[44] Public opinion has become more favorable toward positions whose moral foundations involve fairness and harm, values favored by liberals and conservatives alike. Opinion has not moved as much on issues whose moral foundations involve authority, loyalty or purity, values favored mainly by conservatives. This moral-issue analysis does not address environmental, economic or policy-effectiveness issues, which have central importance for energy and climate. Fairness and harm values have also been prominent in discourse on energy and climate, however, so the Strimling et al. moral dynamic might contribute to the upward trends observed in our study as well.

Earlier survey research on renewable energy and climate change is extended here using data that include 3,000 new survey interviews, through fall 2018, for two regional time series (New Hampshire and northeast Oregon, benchmarked by nationwide surveys). The extended timelines broadly confirm earlier trends while filling in new details. We see no short-term impacts on public opinion from events such as the disastrous US hurricanes of 2012, 2017 or 2018. Instead, there have been gradual upward trends in acceptance of anthropogenic climate change, and in support for renewable-energy development. These overall trends are repeated within age groups of our regional series. Climate and renewable-energy views in both regions have similar social profiles, including generational differences, and political divisions that are narrower on renewable energy than climate. Political divisions tend to widen with respondent’s education, an interaction effect noticed previously but here confirmed with very large samples (up to 18,000 interviews) yielding more precise parameter estimates. Multivariate analysis establishes significant age effects net of trends, and trend effects net of age—both pointing toward the direction of future shifts in public opinion on these two interlinked topics.




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