A new report on climate change attitudes is out from Yale and George Mason University. There’s good news along with worrisome trends, revealing a bunch of odd inconsistencies in our attitudes. Indeed, I see some serious confusion.

It sounds bad, but I think there’s opportunity here; majorities think something should be done about climate change, but they’re confused when it comes to what to do, how to do it, as well as who should do it. Call me overly optimistic, but I think it leaves us open to bold, confident leadership on climate solutions.

Think of it this way: We may be a ball of confusion, but we’re poised to roll. We simply need speed and momentum—in the right direction. A swift kick is just the thing, but someone has to kick.

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  • Who Should Do Something?

    Corporations, government, or citizens?

    A growing majority (77%) think that Congress and the president should make global warming a priority; yet at the same time, when asked who should be doing more to address the problem, more than two thirds look to corporations and citizens before government.

    A mixed up relationship with fossil fuel companies

    We’re ambivalent about subsidizing fossil fuels. On one hand, nearly 60 percent of us want to end direct federal subsidies, such as tax breaks, for fossil fuel companies. But on the other, less than a third of us think that fossil fuel companies should be responsible for the hidden costs of their products.

    Meanwhile, Americans seem to understand that campaign contributors and fossil fuel companies have the greatest influence over the decisions elected officials make about global warming.

    Where Are We Going?

    Gung-ho for renewables—but hang on to fossil fuels!

    An overwhelming majority—more than nine out of ten—say developing clean energy should be a priority for the president and Congress. In addition, a majority of Americans—across party lines—say the US should increase our use of renewable energy immediately (76 percent). And a large majority of Americans—eight in ten—say the US should use more renewable energy in the future.

    But then when we turn around, it looks like we want it both ways: Only half says that in the future, the US should use much less—a paltry 26 percent—or somewhat less (28 percent) fossil fuels than we do today.

    Notably, a plurality—32 percent—says we should be using either much more, somewhat more, or the same amount of fossil fuels in the future as we use today.

    A large response—or not so much?

    On the one hand, we act like we’re ready for action no matter what. For example, majorities say the US should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do (61 percent). Only 9 percent say the US should reduce its emissions only if other industrialized and/or developing countries do. And a large majority (88 percent) of Americans support a US effort to reduce global warming “even if it has economic costs.”

    On the other hand, while support for a medium-scale effort to reduce global warming has increased modestly (up 4 points since 2008), support for a large-scale effort has declined—more steeply—over time (by 10 points since 2008).

    How Should We Get It Done?

    Majority support for solutions, alive but flagging

    While majorities continue to support certain climate policies, there are worrying trends. We favor funding more research into renewable energy sources (73 percent), providing tax rebates for people who purchase energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels (73 percent), regulating CO2 as a pollutant (66 percent), eliminating all subsidies for the fossil-fuel industry (59 percent). But support for all these has been declining over the past several years—by quite a lot. Support for funding renewables research is down 17 points since 2008, support for regulating CO2 is down 14, tax rebates for efficient vehicles or solar panels is down 12 points.

    On the flip side, nearly six in ten support expanded drilling for oil and natural gas off the US coast (58 percent)—but that support is also down by 17 points.

    Conflicted on a carbon tax

    Surprisingly (considering past polling on this topic where support has been fairly low), at least half of Americans say they would vote for a candidate who supports a revenue neutral carbon tax, especially if it’ll create more American jobs in the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries (61 percent would support such a candidate), if it would decrease pollution by encouraging companies to find less polluting alternatives (58 percent), or if it was used to pay down the national debt (52 percent).

    However, the numbers drop to fewer than half for a candidate who supports a carbon tax used to reduce the federal income tax (47 percent support) or to give a tax refund of $180 dollars a year to the average American household (39 percent support). I wonder if Americans simply don’t buy the promise of a rebate?

    Similarly, Americans oppose increasing gas taxes by 25 cents a gallon, even if the money is returned by reducing the federal income tax (62 percent oppose, 32 percent strongly).

    And, unsurprisingly, a majority opposes requiring companies that produce or import fossil fuels to pay a carbon tax that would cost the average American household $180 a year (54 percent oppose, 21 percent strongly).

    What To Do With a Big Ball of Confusion

    Soccer ball.

    Great Beyond, Flickr.com

    In short, we’re looking confused.

    We really, really love renewables—and want them right now. But just as our love of alternative energy and new technologies rises, our enthusiasm for funding them or policies to create incentives for them flags.

    At the same time that we think we should be transitioning to renewable energy sources, we are loath to imagine life with fewer fossil fuels.

    We say we want the president and Congress to get going on climate, but we look first to corporations and ourselves to act.

    We want to regulate CO2 and end subsidies for fossil fuel companies, but we’re not sure we want to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for their pollution.

    We say we want climate action even if it costs us, but when costs are spelled out (as in a dollar figure per household or a price per gallon) we quickly lose our appetite.

    We like a hypothetical candidate who favors a carbon tax—only if it has economy-boosting bells and whistles, but we don’t like a carbon tax so much anymore if it puts cash in our own bank accounts.

    Where does the ball of confusion leave us? Luckily, it’s not a starting-from-zero type of confusion—far from it. It’s confusion about what direction to take, with the knowledge that we’ve got to get going. Indeed, there are enough robust majorities and positive trends here to say Americans are ready for solutions—heck, even starting at around 50 percent for a carbon tax is nothing to scoff at. But who, how, and where to?

    This and other recent research indicates that Americans could be poised to lap up what bold, confident, forward-thinking leadership comes their way on climate.