On Energy, Green Issues, Generation Gap Is Pronounced

CongressDaily logo Another survey confirms that younger people are more inclined to have a pro-environmental stance than older adults. The Pew Research Center survey reveals that the environmental generation gap is more significant than other issues that divide various demographic groups. 65% of young people (ages 18-29)
believe that protecting the environment should be a more important priority for U.S. energy policy than keeping prices low.

Posted June 17, 2010
By Ronald Brownstein, CongressDaily

On the environment, the generation gap looks like a great green chasm.

Generation Gap On almost every major question examined in the latest weekly Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, young people lean much more heavily than older adults toward green-tilting positions favored by environmentalists and President Obama.

That gap is a much more powerful and persistent trend in the survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, than other divides that usually separate the population — such as the differences in opinion between men and women, whites and nonwhites, and whites with and without college educations. The survey, conducted from June 10-13, surveyed 1,010 adults; it has a 4-point error margin, with larger error margins for subgroups.

Asked, for instance, to identify the top priority for U.S. energy policy, fully 65 percent of young people say the highest goal should be protecting the environment, while just 29 percent say the top goal should be to keep energy prices low.

For older Americans, the balance shifts steadily toward price. Those aged 30-49 also prioritize the environment (60 percent) over price (32 percent); but the numbers shift to 53 percent for the environment and 41 percent price for those aged 50-64. And with seniors, the priorities flip, with 47 percent picking price and just 40 percent the environment.

These sorts of results help explain why White House Chief of Staff Emanuel believes a highly visible debate over energy leading into the November election could help somewhat reverse the usual falloff in midterm turnout among young people.

On average since 1992, the share of the vote cast by voters under 30 has been fully one-third lower in midterm than presidential elections, according to calculations from exit polls by Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. That's obviously a major risk for Democrats, because Obama's standing remains much stronger with young people than with older adults: in this week's Congressional Connection Poll, Obama's favorability rating among adults under 30 (72 percent) is a head-turning 27 percentage points higher than his 45 percent favorability among seniors.

In an interview, Emanuel said that while it's not possible to fundamentally reshape traditional turnout patterns, "at the margins" more young people could be inspired to vote by a legislative debate that shows Democrats committing to moving toward alternative energy and Republicans resisting the change. "It's a way to get them engaged in the coming election," he said. "They see it as being about the future, and less about energy policy."

The shape of the coming energy debate remains uncertain. While environmentalists still hope to pass comprehensive energy legislation that would include legislated reductions in carbon emissions, the administration has sent mixed signals on whether it believes such an approach can obtain the 60 votes required to clear the Senate.

Like Senate Democratic leaders, Obama has left the door open to scaled-down "energy-only" legislation that might jettison carbon limits but maintain incentives to increase production of renewable energy. Some senior House Democrats, like Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman, the co-author of the climate bill the House passed last June, have suggested that if the Senate passes an energy-only plan, carbon limits could be added during the conference process.

However the legislative maneuvering ultimately unfolds, it's clear that young people align more strongly than older Americans with Obama's positions in the energy and environmental debate.

"This reflects the broader political generation gap," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. "People under 30 years of age, or under 35, are more liberal across the board. They are certainly more environmentally sensitive, compared to older people, where there is more of a division of opinion."

In the poll, nearly three-fourths of adults under 30 said they favored including in any energy legislation mandatory limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change. That compares to about two-thirds of those aged 30-64, and just 46 percent of seniors. A near-monolithic 93 percent of young people said they favored including in any bill requirements that utilities generate more power from wind, solar and other renewable sources. That idea drew nearly as broad support from middle-aged respondents, and backing from around three-fourths of seniors.

Equally telling, young people, by a resounding 2-1, said they trusted Obama more than congressional Republicans in deciding whether to regulate greenhouse gases. Middle-aged respondents more narrowly preferred Obama over Republicans while seniors placed more trust in Republicans by a 42 percent to 28 percent margin. White seniors preferred the Republicans over Obama by two-to-one.

Young people didn't differ as much from their elders on what to do next about offshore drilling. Only one-fifth of young adults said they wanted to ban offshore drilling, actually a slightly smaller percentage than seniors (almost one-fourth). Nearly one-third of young people still want to expand offshore drilling, and the largest group (just under two-fifths) would continue to operate existing wells, but ban additional ones.

In other ways, though, young people expressed less enthusiasm than older Americans about measures to promote more conventional sources of energy. They were less likely than those aged 49 and older to say they favored including in energy legislation incentives for increased development of nuclear power, and expanded exploration of coal, oil and gas. Still, a solid three-fifths of young adults favored more exploration for fossil fuels.

Kohut said it was too early to tell whether a visible energy debate would help politically energize younger voters — but that Democrats needed something to give them a jolt. "They need some way to get people who are core Obama supporters energized again," he said. "Because all of the conservative trends we saw in [the 2009 election] were in part a function of Republican energy, but also a function of Democrats being asleep."

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