Volume 8, Issue 6 e484
Advanced Review

How strong is public support for unilateral climate policy and what drives it?

Liam F. McGrath

Corresponding Author

Liam F. McGrath

Center for Comparative and International Studies, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

Correspondence to: [email protected]Search for more papers by this author
Thomas Bernauer

Thomas Bernauer

Center for Comparative and International Studies, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

Institute of Science, Technology and Policy, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

Search for more papers by this author
First published: 11 August 2017
Citations: 12
Conflict of interest: The authors have declared no conflicts of interest for this article.
Edited by Karin Bäckstrand, Domain Editor, and Mike Hulme, Editor-in-Chief


Conventional wisdom holds that climate change poses a global public goods problem, thus requiring a global solution that reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide through some form of centralized target setting and burden-sharing arrangement among countries. Yet, the 2015 Paris Agreement has essentially given up on this approach, on which the 1997 Kyoto Protocol was based, and now relies on policies that are adopted unilaterally and voluntarily by individual countries. Since ambitious climate policies are very unlikely to be enacted and effectively implemented without strong public support, research is beginning to explore how strong public support is for unilateral climate policy and what its determinants are. Recent research has developed useful survey instruments to gauge public support for unilateral climate policy. Results from surveys and survey-embedded experiments show that when respondents are confronted with cost implications and free-riding problems associated with unilateral climate policy, public support tends to drop to some extent, but still remains quite high. Current research thus shows that people are—the hitherto strong global public goods framing of climate policy notwithstanding—surprisingly nonreciprocal in their climate policy preferences. Preferences concerning climate policy tend to be driven primarily by a range of personal predispositions and cost considerations, which existing research has already explored quite extensively, rather than by considerations of what other countries do. WIREs Clim Change 2017, 8:e484. doi: 10.1002/wcc.484

This article is categorized under:

  • Perceptions, Behavior, and Communication of Climate Change > Behavior Change and Responses
  • Policy and Governance > Multilevel and Transnational Climate Change Governance

Graphical Abstract

Citizens in most countries support unilateral climate policy. The figure displays support for climate policy without a global agreement. Source: Based on data from World Bank. The item wording is: “Imagine that at the meeting, the other countries do NOT come to a global agreement on taking steps against climate change. If this happens, do you think our country would have a responsibility to take steps against climate change, or would it not have a responsibility? …Would have a responsibility, Would not have a responsibility.”