Citizens Support Unilateral Climate Action

U.S. and Indian citizens don't see a need to wait for an international agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
cut greenhouse gas emissions

Over 300,000 took part in the People's Climate March, held in New York City in 2014 -- the largest public demonstration for climate policy to date.

Alison F. Takemura, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- For more than 20 years, countries have been trying to negotiate an international agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions and the negative effects of human-caused climate change. Delegates from 195 countries are now wrangling for a global commitment once again at the UN conference in Paris, which began Nov. 30. But a new study suggests that the majority of citizens in both the U.S. and India would support unilateral action from their respective countries, just as much as an international agreement.

Politicians largely argue for tit-for-tat deals, according to the Environment Science & Policy study author Thomas Bernauer, a political scientist at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. And there's a rationale to their rhetoric. Countries are unwilling to make deep cuts without other nations in tow because it could put them at an economic disadvantage. 

"The general fear among policymakers is that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is very costly. So say the U.S. or India goes on its own, that will make the industry in that country less competitive internationally," Bernauer said. Thus politicians stress that they "need a level playing field" that only reciprocal agreements can grant them.

The question that Bernauer and co-author Robert Gampfer, also of ETH Zurich, pondered was whether voters feel as strongly about reciprocal climate deals as their representatives seem to.

Surveying about 1,200 citizens from the each of the world's two largest democracies, the United States and India, the authors tested two features that would indicate support for reciprocal policy: if it was contingent on other countries adopting it, or if it included punishing countries with sanctions for failing to make equal commitments. They then compared how respondents rated these policies against ones that ignored what other countries did.

Whether a policy took into account another country's behavior proved moot for most citizens, who spanned the gamut of party affiliation, education, and annual income.

"Most people want their government to do something about climate change no matter what other countries do," said Bernauer, who was surprised by the finding. "That basically flies in the face of a lot of arguments you hear among politicians that say we should not invest a huge effort in combating climate change, because we're not sure that other countries will follow up and do the same."

The researchers also tested whether priming respondents with select information would skew their preferences -- for example, saying that many experts argue that because the U.S. is responsible for only a fifth of total carbon emissions, global warming can't be solved by the U.S. alone.

That information does deflate voter enthusiasm for unilateral policy, but only from 72 percent to 60 percent. Six out of 10 still wanted the U.S. to act, even if it meant going solo.  

Indian citizens had an even smaller negative response, dropping support for unilateral action from 60 to 58 percent.

"It's positive news that support for unilateral climate policy is so strong," said Steffen Kallbekken, research director for the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, in Oslo, Norway. He was not involved with the study, which he called an important one.

"But where I would have liked to see further exploration is with respect to industry support," Kallbekken said. "Even though what they're referring to is democracies, it's obvious [that] what is politically feasible is not only what the public supports, but it's also a matter of industry support."

Because industry often bucks at having to face different regulations in their home country than their competitors do, they represent an important influence on a unilateral policy's adoption, Kallbekken said.

Bernauer recognizes that problem, particularly in the U.S. and Australia, he said. But he cites previous work, like an example from trade policy, that suggests that most governments do what their voters want. That way they can be re-elected.

Ultimately, "we think that governments in many countries, including the United States," Bernauer said, "could politically afford to be more ambitious in their greenhouse gas policies." 

Editor's Note: December 4, 2015. 7:45 a.m. -- This article has been updated to fix earlier editing errors. It now indicates the correct number of countries represented at the Paris conference (195, not 196) and the correct name of Steffen Kallbekken's institution. We regret the earlier errors.    

Alison F. Takemura is a science writer based in Santa Cruz, CA. She tweets @AlisonTakemura.

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