In Paris, the international community decided to try something new. Under the Paris agreement, each country voluntarily sets its own climate goals. Then, at regular intervals, countries will come together to report progress on meeting those goals. They will also meet regularly to “ratchet” up the ambition of their voluntary commitments. However, the Paris agreement does not include any penalties for noncompliance. The agreement’s success depends on peer pressure and the honor system.
Will this new carbon-reduction strategy work?
Climate change is one of the most serious collective action problems that the world has ever faced. No individual nation has an incentive to reduce carbon consumption alone — shutting down its fossil-fuel electricity plants, electrifying its transport system, and imposing a price on its carbon pollution. Acting unilaterally means taking on all the costs — while only getting a fraction of the benefits, which will literally be distributed all around the globe.
Worse, anything a single country does to reduce carbon dioxide emissions might be useless — unless other countries sacrifice as well. Without global cooperation, every nation has a strong incentive to be a free rider, letting others do the hard work. But if that happens, the globe suffers together.
This means that the outcome of the Paris agreement will depend on whether nations expect other nations to do what they’ve promised. That’s why negotiators included provisions for regular “stocktaking” summits in the agreement, at which countries will have to give progress reports. At these summits, countries will have to stand up and report on their successes and failures.
Whose credibility is most important? The U.S. and China’s.
The United States and China are the world’s two largest carbon polluters. If they don’t live up to their promises, it’s reasonable to predict that many other countries will also renege on their commitments.
There are some reasons to be optimistic. In November, the United States and China agreed to their own bilateral climate accord. Under this voluntary agreement, President Obama announced that the United States would cut its carbon pollution by 26 percent by the year 2025. China agreed to stabilize its carbon pollution levels and meet 20 percent of its energy needs through clean renewable energy by 2030.
As with the Paris agreement, China and the United States will be eyeing one another’s actions to decide whether to keep these promises. New surveys by the Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) project at the College of William and Mary asked U.S. citizens and international relations scholars what they think. Two surveys were distributed. In March 2015, TRIP surveyed 1054 International Relations scholars. In May 2015, TRIP fielded a nationally representative survey of the U.S. public.
The first figure below examines whether U.S. International Relationships scholars and the American public believe China will live up to its side of the 2014 U.S.-China Climate Accord.
In general, Americans are skeptical that China will comply. Majorities of both scholars and the public believe China will fail to meet its goals. Very few respondents from either survey “strongly expect” China to comply.
Interestingly, scholars are actually more pessimistic about Chinese compliance than the broader public. This pessimism among IR scholars is at odds with the optimism of global politicians in the aftermath of the Paris agreement.
So what do our respondents think about U.S. compliance with the 2014 bilateral accord? They are more optimistic than they are about China, but the picture is still mixed. A slight majority of the U.S. public somewhat or strongly believes that the United States will comply. But again, scholars are more pessimistic and remain more divided.
One hopes that the Paris climate agreement will help scholars and the public — and the nations themselves — have more faith in each other. That’s most likely to happen if, at the first stock-taking summit, a number of countries will have made strong progress in meeting their commitments. Skepticism would fade, at least a bit.
The architects of the Paris agreement are making a bet that compliance by some countries will launch a virtuous feedback loop, increasing the pressure on other countries to follow and changing the way that experts and the public think about global climate change. If not, weak expectations risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Matto Mildenberger is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His research explores cross-national differences in the politics of climate change, and the dynamics of public environmental opinion. Dustin Tingley is a professor of government at Harvard University. Find him on Twitter @dustintingley.