Sep 15, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Survey reveals public doubts about climate action before UN summit

Public opinion on how well each is dealing with climate change
Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

New polling indicates pervasive doubts among people in 17 advanced economies about whether China and the U.S. — the world’s two largest carbon emitters — will take meaningful steps to fight climate change.

Why it matters: The Pew Research Center survey released ahead of a critical United Nations climate summit in just over six weeks reveals public skepticism over whether multilateral negotiations will succeed in confronting the problem.

  • The polling also finds that most citizens give their countries modestly positive grades for tackling climate change.

How it works: The surveys were conducted from March 12 to May 26, among 16,254 adults in Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the U.K., Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Polling in the U.S., of 2,596 adults, ran Feb. 1-7, 2021.

  • The polling has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 to 4.4 percentage points for other countries, and 2.5 percentage points for the U.S.

Details: The European Union’s climate change response is viewed favorably by citizens of most of the economies surveyed.

  • The United Nations, where Secretary-General António Guterres is rallying countries to slash emissions, gets high marks, with a median of 56% of respondents seeing its efforts favorably.

Yes, but: In a yellow light for the climate summit in Glasgow, a median of 52% of the public in advanced economies — which are collectively responsible for the majority of the world’s historical emissions — say they lack confidence that a multilateral response will succeed. Whereas 46% are optimistic that nations can respond to climate change through international cooperation.

  • Respondents in France, Sweden and Belgium have the greatest skepticism of multilateral approaches, whereas optimism is highest in South Korea and Singapore.
  • In just 12 of the 17 countries studied, half or more think their society has done a good job dealing with the climate challenge, with more than 1 in 10 describing such work as “very good” in just five countries, including New Zealand and the U.K.

The intrigue: The least faith is reserved for the biggest emitters — the U.S. and China.

  • China almost universally gets worse marks for its climate efforts, with a median of 78% across the 17 publics surveyed describing the country’s handling of climate change as “bad” to “very bad.” That compares to 61% with the same judgment of the U.S.

Our thought bubble: Skepticism of the multilateral response to warming is understandable. The climate summit is the 26th such meeting since a U.N. climate treaty entered into force in 1994, and emissions have only gone up, while warming's impacts dramatically escalated.

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