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Despite what Trump says, most Americans want climate action — even if China doesn’t do its part

An environmental activist protests outside the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, on Dec. 10. (Agencja Gazeta/Grzegorz Celejewski/Reuters)

At December’s U.N. conference on climate change (COP24), Trump administration officials defended fossil fuels and argued that economic growth was more important than a sustainable environment. The move reinforced the president’s 2017 decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement, which he has criticized as unfair for requiring the country to sacrifice too much and letting developing nations do too little — pointing particularly to China, the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases.

But do Americans agree with President Trump’s “fairness” argument? With the president doubling down on both international and domestic issues, the answer could be politically significant.

Here’s how we did our research

Recent Gallup polls reveal that U.S. public concern about the climate has remained steady since Trump exited the Paris agreement. But attitudes have increasingly polarized by partisan identity: Democrats express somewhat more concern and Republicans somewhat less than in 2017. But these shifts may simply come from increased partisanship in general and reveal little about the public’s feelings toward Trump’s position.

To more directly examine how the public feels about Trump’s fairness argument, we analyzed data from our nationally representative survey of 1,021 U.S. adults fielded for us by NORC at the University of Chicago. We asked whether the United States should take action on climate change “only if China does its fair share” or “even if China does not do its fair share,” or if “the U.S. should not take action.”

We collected our data between Dec. 13 and Dec. 16, just as COP24 was drawing to a close. If the U.S. public was buying Trump’s fairness argument, our survey was well timed to detect it.

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Americans don’t agree with Trump’s climate argument

Of the 982 respondents who answered this question, 73 percent said the United States should take action even if China does not. Only 11 percent responded that the United States should act only if China does its fair share. The rest said that the United States should not take any action.

When we restrict our sample to those who said they believe climate change is real, fully 82 percent support climate action regardless of what China does.

Does this vary by party?

In short, yes. Eighty-nine percent of Democrats — in which we include those who identify as independents but who say they lean toward the Democratic Party ­— said they support climate action, no matter what China does. By contrast, only 53 percent of Republicans (including leaners) say the same.

But still, that means a majority of Republicans we surveyed said they want climate action, no matter what. And even among Republicans — a group that strongly supports the president — only 19 percent said the United States should take climate action “only if China does its fair share,” while 28 percent wanted no action at all. In other words, Republicans supported climate action no matter what China does over each of the alternative responses by a wide margin.

Our findings are consistent with other recent polls suggesting that most Republicans now believe in climate change and support government action to address it.

Could these numbers be inflated?

Some Americans may assume that China is already stepping up in response to the U.S. withdrawal, and if so, they may have felt it unnecessary to choose the “only if China does its fair share” response, even if they agree with the president’s argument. Our data offer little support for this possibility. We asked whether Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement would increase, decrease or not affect China’s actions on climate change. Fully 60 percent said it would have no effect on China’s actions; roughly equal numbers thought it would increase (17 percent) or decrease (23 percent) China’s efforts.

Although Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say that the U.S. withdrawal would increase China’s climate actions (21 percent to 9 percent), this remained the least common response for both groups.

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Why does this matter?

These attitudes are likely to matter for U.S. politics. If Trump overestimates public support for his chief justification for abandoning the Paris deal, he may attract resentment from voters on both sides who increasingly favor government action on climate change.

However, the president and others hoping to stall climate action may be able to exploit Americans’ limited knowledge about what other nations are doing. We asked our respondents whether they had heard or read about China’s recent large-scale coal-to-gas energy conversion, part of its effort to curb pollution and become the new global power on climate change. But nearly half (48 percent) of our respondents said they knew nothing about it, a figure that varied little by party.

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Whatever they do or do not know, our study finds that a strong majority of Americans — including a plurality of those surveyed from Trump’s own party — don’t accept the president’s “fairness” reasoning for U.S. inaction. Other Republican politicians may wish to take note.

Jonathon P. Schuldt (@JonathonSchuldt) is associate professor of communication and a faculty affiliate at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.

Connie Yuan is professor of communication at Cornell University.