Today Yale and George Mason released the fifth report from their latest national survey on American climate change attitudes. Overall trends are still looking good. After a sharp decline in public engagement from the fall of 2008 to January 2010, there was a gradual rebound starting in June 2010. This research shows that the rebound in public engagement has continued: “the Alarmed, Concerned, and Cautious audience segments once again comprise 70 percent of the American public, as they did in the fall of 2008.” (Go here for a Six Americas cheat sheet).

The best news is that the Six Americas has experienced a positive shift at both ends—resulting in a better looking beast, one with a bigger head and a smaller tail.

That is to say that the Alarmed (the most concerned, engaged, and ready for action on climate solutions) have grown from 10 percent of the American adult population to 16 percent. At the same time, the Dismissive (that vocal group that doesn’t think climate change is happening and tends to reject the science) have decreased in size, from 16 percent in 2010 to 8 percent in 2012.

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  • The report focuses on perceived benefits and costs of reducing fossil fuel use, policy support, and beliefs about who has political influence. Here are some of the specifics:

    What do Americans see as the top benefits and drawbacks of reducing fossil fuel use to curb global warming? 

    • For five of the Six Americas, improved public health now ranks among the top three perceived benefits of the nation taking action to reduce fossil fuel use and global warming.
    • Reducing our dependence on foreign oil, creating green jobs and improving the economy are also ranked among the top five benefits by all Six Americas.
    • One of the least recognized benefits is improved national security, which is ranked as one of the two least likely benefits by five of the segments.  Preventing starvation and poverty worldwide were also largely unrecognized benefits, ranking within the two least likely benefits for five of the segments.
    • The drawbacks most likely to be cited were increased government regulation and higher energy prices; these were the top two drawbacks for every segment. (It is worth noting that some of these, like “increased government regulation,” could be seen as a cost for some respondents and a benefit for others.)
    • Whether the question was framed as “reducing global warming” or “reducing fossil fuel use,” there was little difference in respondents’ expected outcomes.
    • Of the Alarmed—those most worried and most eager for solutions—a stewardship ethic was cited by two-thirds, who say action will protect God’s creation. Of the Concerned, 57 percent say this; of the Cautious, 46 percent. The Disengaged don’t see many benefits or drawbacks, and nothing with much conviction. However, they are most likely to strongly identify the protection of God’s creation as a positive, although the proportion is small at 15 percent (total is 23 percent).
    • The Doubtful see costs not benefits, except that 45 percent see “reducing dependence on foreign oil” as a positive outcome.

    How do Americans feel about national-level climate and energy policies?

    • Majorities of four segments—the Alarmed to the Disengaged—favor a large to medium-scale effort by the US to reduce global warming, even if it has large to moderate costs. Seventy percent of the Alarmed favor a large-scale effort. Half of the Doubtful favor a small-scale effort, while 28 percent favor no response and 20 percent favor a medium or large response. Eighty-five percent of the Dismissive say we should make no effort.
    • However, since 2008, the proportion of Americans that favor a large-scale effort has fallen by 7 to 11 points in the Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, and Disengaged segments.
    • Majorities of all Six Americas say the US should increase its use of renewable energy. (Even among the Dismissive, more believe we should increase our use of renewable energy—54 percent—than say we should increase our use of fossil fuels—46 percent) .
    • In five of the six segments, larger proportions prefer to reduce, rather than increase fossil fuel use; only the Dismissive prefer to increase the nation’s use of fossil fuels.
    • In every segment except the Dismissive, half or more favor the elimination of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and oppose the elimination of subsidies to renewable energy companies.
    • Majorities of the Alarmed, Concerned, and Cautious-–that 70 percent of the US population that’s at least somewhat concerned and savvy about climate change—say the US should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of what other nations do.
    • Funding research on renewable energy, and providing tax rebates for purchases of energy-efficient vehicles and solar panels have remained popular policies among five of the Six Americas since tracking began in 2008.

    What about a carbon tax?

    • Among the Six Americas, support for “a candidate who supports a carbon tax” varies considerably, depending on the details of the proposal—though overall more than half say they would vote for a candidate who favors a revenue-neutral carbon tax. The most popular versions—supported by half or more of the Alarmed, Concerned, and Cautious—specify that the tax will either create more jobs in the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries; decrease pollution by encouraging companies to find less polluting alternatives; or be used to reduce the federal income tax. The least popular version proposes to use the revenue to provide a tax refund of $180, on average, to each American household.
    • Majorities of the Alarmed and Concerned support a carbon tax, even if it increases household costs by an average of $180; support among the Concerned is not strong,
      however, with only 10 percent saying they strongly support the proposal. Close to half of the Disengaged support a carbon tax.
    • Over half of the Doubtful, and three-quarters of the Dismissive strongly oppose the idea.
    Support for a carbon tax among global warming's Six Americas.

    Courtesy Yale/George Mason University.

    How do Americans gauge the influence they and other entities have on elected officials?

    • In five of the Six Americas, majorities believe that if they work with others who share their views, they can influence their elected representatives’ decisions.
    • All Six Americas, however, believe that people who share their own views on global warming have less influence than campaign contributors, fossil fuel companies, the media, etc. People who share their views are, in fact, perceived as having the least political influence by every segment.
    • Five of the six segments believe that large campaign contributors have the strongest influence on elected officials.
    • Four segments—the AlarmedConcernedCautious and Disengaged, say that the fossil fuel industry has more influence than the renewable energy industry, while the Doubtful and Dismissive believe that renewable energy companies have more influence than fossil fuel companies.
    • The Dismissive tend to believe the “liberal news media” has the strongest influence on elected officials; 50 percent say the “liberal media” affect legislators “a lot.”

    What are the takeaways?

    • Americans want more clean energy and less fossil fuels. We don’t favor subsidies to fossil fuel companies.
    • When talking about climate solutions, we could benefit from emphasizing health benefits as well as energy independence, a stronger economy, clean energy jobs and pollution reductions.
    • There’s some room in Americans’ minds for discussion of a carbon tax, especially if it’s presented the right way.
    • Americans are weary of money in politics, but they retain some faith in citizens’ ability to join forces and influence policymakers. They need to hear that they aren’t alone in their views.
    • And, overall, the trends are going in the right direction. We’re better off when the beast has a bigger head and smaller tail. Now we need to whip that middle into shape as well.

    The report includes an Executive Summary, charts, and detailed results and can be downloaded here:  Global Warming’s Six Americas in September 2012.