LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Davidson College in North Carolina has fewer than 2,000 students – small enough that the presidents of the College Republican and College Democrats clubs count each other as friends.
They disagree on some political issues, but an unusual one unites them: they both believe climate change is a serious problem.
“Climate change is really real and really alarming to me personally,” said Grace Woodward, the College Republicans’ president. University students – and Republicans in particular – “need to do a better job of talking about climate change”, she said.
Woodward is well aware that her views differ from those of many older Republican leaders. But “we shouldn’t just be blindly loyal to a party”, she said. “In 20 years maybe we’ll hold those positions and we can make changes to the party.”
In the U.S. Congress and in U.S. party politics, beliefs about climate change often match party membership: Democrats believe it is a largely man-made problem and something that needs urgent action, while a share of Republicans – including President Donald Trump – have dismissed it as anything from a natural phenomenon to a hoax.
But a younger generation of Republicans – those on college campuses today – increasingly say they believe climate change is a human-caused problem, and that Americans have a responsibility to act on it and protect the environment, according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation review of college Republican clubs across the United States.
That shift appears to be the result of a range of differences, not least that most of the university students will be alive for many decades after current Republican leaders are gone.
That period is expected to be a time of worsening climate change impacts, from stronger droughts to sea level rise, unless there is urgent action to address the problem.
The climate generation gap may herald the start of a party-wide shift among Republicans, with scepticism about the problem dissolving as global warming morphs into a generation-wide concern, experts, politicians and campus leaders said.
“I think that there will be a big change in the (Republican) Party,” said Kent Haeffner, president of the Harvard University Republican Club, whose members are firm believers in man-made climate change.
“Demographically, the ‘Trump coalition’ will not last. I think that the folks that are our age are going to have to reshape the party and take it in a different direction,” he said.
According to Young Republican clubs at a variety of four-year colleges around the United States — including private universities, public state-owned schools, liberal arts colleges and community colleges — climate change is an issue the Republican Party needs to rethink and ultimately embrace. The risks the planet faces, many club representatives said, should not be ignored.
Of 21 college Republican clubs surveyed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, about half said their members believe climate change is predominantly human-caused. Another quarter said their members held a mix of opinions on the issue, while three said climate change simply doesn’t come up often as an issue.
The University of Pennsylvania’s College Republicans called it “ludicrous” to suggest the climate is not changing or that humans are not driving that change, according to a statement from the group’s director of communications.
A poll carried out by the Cornell University College Republicans club found that 74 percent of its members see climate change as an important issue for the United States to address.
On the Ohio State University campus, similarly, “you’d be hard pressed to find someone who thought that climate change is not occurring at all”, said Nick Frankowski, chairman of the university’s College Republicans.
“The evidence is fairly overwhelming that climate change is a thing,” he said. “The biggest debate is, of course, what to do about it.”
At Indiana University, members of the College Republicans club are working with the university’s College Democrats to look for ways to implement effective national environmental policy, including on climate change, said Reagan Kurk, chairman of the College Republicans group.
But at other schools, including Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Texas and Florida State University, college Republican clubs include a more diverse variety of opinions on climate change.
Drew Wicker, president of SMU’s College Republicans, for instance, defines himself as skeptical of man-made climate change, and says he remains unconvinced there is scientific consensus on the issue.
“There’s generally mixed feelings about the evidence of climate change and whether or not there is a legitimate concern in terms of, ‘Will it lead to the destruction of human lives? What’s the severity of it?’” Wicker told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But he said he still prioritizes taking care of the environment, and supports companies that promote sustainable energy, such as car maker Tesla Inc.
Only two College Republican clubs interviewed — those from Emory University in Atlanta and Duquesne University in Pittsburgh — said their members are largely skeptical about climate change.
Many of today’s college students have grown up aware of environmental and sustainability issues, said Michele Combs, the chairman and founder of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, which promotes clean energy use.
Some of their families drove energy-efficient “hybrid” cars as they grew up, or recycling was encouraged in schools, she said. Many are familiar with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s climate change film “An Inconvenient Truth”.
“The younger generation and the younger conservatives do understand and appreciate and believe in (climate change), more than the older Republicans,” Combs said.
Woodward, of the Davidson College Republicans, said her generation’s easy access to information on climate impacts – including via the internet – has shaped its understanding of the problem.
“We’ve grown up in sort of a globalized world where we’ve seen the impacts that global warming has,” she said. “The people that are in power right now, for whatever reason, don’t have that same global view.”
Frankowski, of Ohio State, said he cannot think of another political issue “where there’s as big a big disconnect in acknowledging the issue”.
Climate change “is much more of an established field now, and so I feel it has more credibility in that sense than when, say, Donald Trump or someone in Congress was in high school”, he said.
Plenty of surveys and studies have examined climate change as a partisan or generational issue. An October 2016 Pew Research Center study found that 69 percent of Democrats believe the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity, compared to only 23 percent of Republicans.
A Pew report published a year earlier found that 52 percent of people aged 18 to 29 years saw global warming as a “very serious problem”, though only 38 percent of adults over 50 did.
Young people were also more likely than older age groups to think climate change will affect them personally, and to support the United States’ participation in global agreements aimed at lowering carbon emissions, according to Pew.
A survey by the Young Conservatives for Energy Reform last year found that 85 percent of young Conservative respondents believe the climate is changing.
The surveys suggest views on climate change by Republican legislators are increasingly out of synch with those of their constituents.
Trump, in a 2012 tweet, called global warming a “hoax” concocted by the Chinese, and his administration, since taking office, has worked to reverse Obama-era regulations to reduce carbon emissions.
His appointee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, said in March he did not believe carbon dioxide is a major contributor to global warming.
The Trump administration’s well-publicized scepticism about the need for climate action has made it easy for many Republican lawmakers to set the issue aside. But others are fighting back: last month 17 Republican congressmen signed a resolution vowing to find “economically viable” solutions to climate change.
One of the congressmen who introduced the resolution, U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo, represents the southernmost region of Florida, and has seen the effects of climate change firsthand.
Curbelo serves as co-chair of the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group that he said has especially attracted younger Republican lawmakers.
“I’ve been very encouraged by the interest that a lot of Republicans, especially younger ones in the Congress, have taken to this issue,” he said.
“I’ve used everything from humor to data to make my case. I’ve threatened (other politicians) that if my district ends up underwater, I’ll go run against them.”
But while a rising number of young Republicans recognize climate change as a human-caused problem, many still are not in favor of significant regulation to address the problem, fearing it could stymie business.
“We believe that the actions that have been taken by the Obama administration to combat (climate change) are not the most effective means of doing so,” Haeffner said.
Rather than putting regulation in place, the government should take a market-based approach that encourages innovation and job growth, he said.
Curbelo said it is easy to see the desire for climate action among young Republicans.
“I get thanked by young Republicans over and over again for my engagement on the topic of climate change and other environmental policies,” he said. “This is the generation that’s going to ironically take us back to a time when environmental protection was not a partisan issue.”
Haeffner, of Harvard University, said he believes it will eventually become politically unviable for Republicans to dismiss climate change.
“Part of the word ‘conservative’ is to ‘conserve’,” he said. “To preserve the environment and natural resources that provide so much bounty and utility for our country ... I think that’s a conservative value.”
Combs believes climate change could in time become a political issue like gay marriage or women’s rights — one that can unite a generation, largely transcend party lines and gain broad legislative support.
“I see clean energy, the climate issue for this younger generation, on that same barometer,” she said.
Curbelo agreed that younger Republicans are likely “to get us to a good place in this debate” – something Woodward, of Davidson College, predicts as well.
“When our generation is in power,” she said, “we will take climate change much more seriously.”
Reporting by J.D. Capelouto; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate