Voice

Why Inking a Global Climate Deal Is Such a Tricky Business

It doesn’t help that only 18 percent of Chinese think climate change is a very serious problem.

A man holds a placard reading in Dutch "Deze weg loopt dood" which translates as "This road is a dead end" on November 29, 2015 during a Climate March in Amsterdam on the eve of the official opening of a 195-nation UN climate summit in Paris. More than 140 world leaders are gathering around Paris for high-stakes climate talks that start November 30, and activists are holding marches and protests around the world to urge them to reach a strong agreement to slow global warming. AFP PHOTO / ANP / BART MAAT

==NETHERLANDS OUT==
 / AFP / ANP / BART MAAT        (Photo credit should read BART MAAT/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds a placard reading in Dutch "Deze weg loopt dood" which translates as "This road is a dead end" on November 29, 2015 during a Climate March in Amsterdam on the eve of the official opening of a 195-nation UN climate summit in Paris. More than 140 world leaders are gathering around Paris for high-stakes climate talks that start November 30, and activists are holding marches and protests around the world to urge them to reach a strong agreement to slow global warming. AFP PHOTO / ANP / BART MAAT ==NETHERLANDS OUT== / AFP / ANP / BART MAAT (Photo credit should read BART MAAT/AFP/Getty Images)

At a time when global publics are distracted by concerns about terrorism, in a city still reeling from the carnage of terrorism, negotiators from over 190 nations have gathered in Paris for the 21st United Nations-led conference on climate change. Their avowed goal is an international agreement limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Whatever the distraction of recent terrorist events, a Pew Research Center survey conducted this year finds that publics around the world overwhelmingly see climate change as a problem and that many believe it is a very serious one. Moreover, a median of nearly eight in 10 people across the 40 countries surveyed say they support their government signing a deal in Paris to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

But concern about climate change is notably less intense among the publics of the nations most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Publics are more divided about whether rich countries should do more than developing nations to address global climate change, a particularly contentious diplomatic issue. And ideological and partisan divisions over global warming within a number of democracies serve notice that, if a deal is struck in Paris, implementation may face obstacles at home.

Around the world, a global median of 54 percent say climate change is a very serious problem, with 85 percent citing global warming as at least a somewhat serious challenge. Few people around the world believe global warming is not a problem at all: 12 percent in the United States and 10 percent in Australia being among the most notable exceptions.

But the intensity of climate concerns varies widely among countries. Publics in Latin America and Africa are particularly worried. Fully 86 percent of Brazilians are very concerned, the highest level of anxiety expressed in our survey. And 79 percent of people in Burkina Faso, 77 percent in Chile, and 76 percent of Indians and Ugandans share that alarm.

The Chinese, however, voice the least concern: Just 18 percent say climate change is a very serious problem. The Poles (19 percent) are similarly unfazed. And only 45 percent of Americans are intensely concerned.

One public opinion challenge facing government negotiators in Paris as they attempt to hammer out a deal is the relatively low level of concern among the publics of some of the countries most responsible for the carbon dioxide emissions that scientists believe are driving global warming. China is the leading source of annual emissions, followed by the United States. Russia is the No. 4 emitter, yet only 33 percent of Russians are very worried about climate change. Japan is No. 5, but just 45 percent of Japanese are intensely concerned. So, in four of the five countries most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, publics express less concern than the global median.

But even in those nations where publics express limited apprehension, they nevertheless support an international agreement to curb emissions. A global median of 78 percent want their governments to sign such an accord in Paris. This includes 83 percent of Japanese, 71 percent of Chinese, 69 percent of Americans, and 65 percent of Russians.

Who should bear the greatest burden in dealing with the issue remains divisive. A global median of 54 percent say rich countries — such as the United States, Japan, and Germany — should do more than developing nations because the rich have produced most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions so far. But 50 percent of Americans and 58 percent of Japanese believe that the developing countries should be constrained in carbon emissions just as much as the rich — because they will produce most of the world’s future greenhouse gas emissions. Resolving such differences is just one of the challenges facing negotiators in Paris.

Other problems may linger ahead if, and when, there is an international climate change agreement to implement. Just 20 percent of Republicans in the United States believe that climate change is a very serious problem, compared with 68 percent of Democrats. And only 50 percent of Republicans want Barack Obama’s administration to sign an accord in Paris, compared with 82 percent of Democrats. With such partisan discord, it is perhaps understandable that Secretary of State John Kerry told the Financial Times that any deal agreed by Washington would stop short of a legally binding treaty requiring approval by the Republican-controlled Senate.

The United States is not the only country where climate change is a politically divisive issue. In Australia, just 16 percent of supporters of the ruling Liberal Party say global warming is a very serious problem, compared with 58 percent of Labor supporters. And in the United Kingdom, only 28 percent of the ruling Tory government’s backers express intense worry, in contrast to the 47 percent of Labour supporters. Even in Germany, which has an international reputation as an environmentally attuned nation, only 43 percent of adherents to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party say climate change is a very serious problem.

In 2009, nations met in Copenhagen to try to hammer out an international agreement on climate changed and failed. This year they will try again. Publics around the world back their governments signing an accord limiting greenhouse gas emissions. But disagreement over who should bear the burden and implementation remain a challenge.

Image credit: BART MAAT/AFP/Getty Images

Bruce Stokes is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Twitter: @bruceestokes

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