One-Fourth of Americans Skeptical Paris Talks Will Achieve Anything

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As negotiators in Paris go down to the wire on an agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, more than one quarter of Americans are skeptical the talks will produce any tangible results.

A Morning Consult poll conducted during the COP21 climate conference found that 27 percent of voters don’t think participating countries will follow through on the promises they make in the agreement. They believe this regardless of whether or not the climate deal is legally binding.

Voters’ skepticism on what the Paris talks will achieve is also strikingly partisan: Only 15 percent of Democrats think that participating countries won’t follow through, compared with 39 percent of Republicans and 29 percent of independents.

It also tracks with respondents’ views on climate change. Sixty percent of respondents who think the talks won’t produce anything say climate change is a natural occurrence, while 28 percent say climate change is caused by humans.

People who think the agreement should be legally binding are far more likely to think climate change is caused by humans: 64 percent think it is caused by humans, 29 percent think it is a natural occurrence. 

Just over one-third of voters, 35 percent, think participating countries will only follow through on pledges to reduce emissions if the agreement is legally binding. Seventeen percent think any agreement is better than nothing, regardless of whether it is legally binding.

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Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who calls himself the “world’s leading skeptic” on the Paris talks, says the divergence in Democrat and Republican viewpoints isn’t surprising.

“I think that result aligns pretty well with the partisan breakdown on the philosophy of international agreements has always gone… The narrative from left says the U.S. can show leadership and momentum and get the whole world to go along and do something meaningful. The perspective from the right is that this is naive and disingenuous and a very expensive waste of time,” Cass said in an interview.

Whether or not the agreement will be legally binding for the U.S. has been a balancing act for the Obama administration and main target for Republicans. Secretary of State John Kerry surprised world leaders in early November when he told the Financial Times that the Paris agreement was not going to have “legally binding reduction targets like Kyoto” and it would not be a treaty. President Obama told reporters in Paris last week that while the targets established in a deal would not have the force of treaties, the agreement needs to be legally binding for the sake of accountability. Whether or not a president can agree to “legally binding” emissions reductions without Senate approval is still a topic of debate.

Republicans, for their part, have tried to remain relevant to the Paris talks, even though they have mostly been hunkered down at home. They insist that an agreement must be ratified by the Senate. If not, they say, it doesn’t have the force of law. Ratification of any agreement from Paris is almost certain never to happen as long as Republicans, who are sharply opposed to the Obama administration’s climate platform, hold a Senate majority. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) took to the Senate floor Wednesday to remind the Obama administration that he does not think anything the U.S. agrees to in Paris will carry the force of law.

“Although the European Union and 107 developing countries are hoping for a legally binding, long-term deal with review mechanisms and billions of dollars, any truly binding agreement must be sent to the Senate for approval,” Inhofe said.

Nearly one quarter of voters agree with Inhofe, saying the Senate should get to sign off on any deal. But more Americans, 35 percent, think an agreement should be legally binding and does not need to be a Senate-approved treaty. These numbers barely move when survey respondents are told the a Senate treaty is highly unlikely to be approved.

Americans are less enthusiastic about the talks when they learn that developing countries, like China and India, may not have to reduce emissions at the same level as the U.S. and developed nations. In a separate survey, 22 percent of voters said the U.S. should sign an agreement in Paris even if developing countries are not required to reduce their emissions. But 42 percent said the U.S. should only sign on if all countries are agreeing to reduce emissions. Sixteen percent say the U.S. shouldn’t sign either way.

Half of respondents were also offered the “fairness” argument behind the lopsided reduction levels — i.e., it’s fair that developing countries should not have to reduce emissions because the U.S. didn’t have to monitor its own emissions when developing. When presented with this reasoning, they are more likely to be supportive of an agreement. Those saying the U.S. should sign only if emissions reductions are shared by all countries drops from 41 to 31 percent. Support for an agreement regardless of what developing countries do increases from 22 percent to 28 percent.

But oddly, mentioning the fairness argument also pushes slightly more people to say the U.S. shouldn’t sign an agreement at all. That number increases from 16 percent to 21 percent.

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Skepticism about the Paris talks belies Americans’ apparent willingness to sacrifice from their own pocketbooks to protect the environment. Most respondents said they are willing to spend money to reduce carbon emissions. Sixty-two percent of registered voters would support paying $5 more on their monthly utility bills to see a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly the same amount of voters, 61 percent, said they would spend that $5 just to see a 5 percent reduction in carbon emissions.

The two surveys were conducted from November 20-23 and December 3-7 with a sample of 2,018 and 2,047 respondents respectively. Both polls had a margin of error of 2 percentage points. 

Morning Consult