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Of all the third rails a member of Congress can touch to commit political suicide, the deadliest is to propose a tax on carbon, right?

Well, that depends. If you couple that tax with an equivalent reduction in income taxes – a revenue-neutral tax swap, as it were – majorities across the political spectrum would vote for a candidate who supports it. In fact, only 25 percent of Republicans would oppose for that reason.

That’s just one of the surprising findings from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which, since 2005, has been trying to bridge the gap between climate change science and policies that could avert catastrophe.

If there is gap between science and policy, it most likely stems from the public’s confusion about climate change and its causes. At the Citizens Climate Lobby Conference in Washington, D.C., last month, Tony Leiserowitz from the Yale Project walked us through the research. Some of it was depressing, but a lot of it was hopeful, pointing to opportunities that exist for communicating vital information on climate change.

The depressing: Since 2007, the percentage of people who say global warming is happening has dropped significantly. Tracking data from Pew, for instance, finds that figure fell from 77 percent in 2007 to 58 percent in 2010. Since then, however, those numbers have rebounded but have yet to reach previous levels. Equally disconcerting is the trend in what people believe is the cause of global warming. The percentage who think it is human-induced has declined while the percentage who believe it occurs naturally has gone up (see below).

Yale Chart 3

So, why all the confusion? Hasn’t everyone read James Hansen’s “Storms of My Grandchildren”? Well, no they haven’t, and Leiserowitz ticks off a list or reasons behind these numbers heading in the wrong direction:

•    The economy and unemployment
•    Declining media coverage
•    Unusual cold weather
•    An effective “denial industry”
•    “Climategate”
•    Increasing political polarization

One of the more illuminating facts from the Yale Project is the percentage of people who think there is agreement among the experts on climate change and its causes. Among scientists who do peer-reviewed research on climate change, various surveys show some 98 percent concur that global warming is happening, primarily because we burn fossil fuels. For those who follow the issue closely, this comes as no surprise. Among the general public, however, this vital piece of information has gone unnoticed (see below).

Yale Chart 4

The opportunity: Based on extensive research done by the Yale Project over the years, here are the five most important things that need to be communicated to the public about climate change:
1)    Climate change is happening
2)    We're causing it this time
3)    There are serious consequences to humans and nature
4)    Experts agree on the first 3 points
5)    There are lots of options to solve this problem and to make our lives better.

Among these, number four is perhaps the most critical. Leiserowitz characterizes this as a “gateway belief.” Those who understand that scientists are in agreement on climate change and its causes are likely to accept the first three points. Those who accept the first three points are likely to be concerned or alarmed about the situation and expect their government to do something about it. This is where that elusive phenomenon called political will kicks in, and we inch closer to the tipping point for pricing carbon.

Which takes us back to that delightfully surprising poll I mentioned at the beginning about large majorities supporting a revenue-neutral tax swap on carbon (see below).

Yale Chart 5

    Leiserowitz et al (2011)

As one might expect, strong majorities of Democrats and Independents would support a tax shift, but 51 percent of Republicans also express support for a carbon tax swap, with only 25 percent likely to oppose. What makes this poll even more remarkable is that support for this type of a carbon price exists even in the face of limited understanding among the public on climate change (that depressing stuff we talked about before). As more and more people begin to comprehend the ramifications of our changing climate, support for a price on carbon will only go up.

There’s lots more juicy information from the Yale Project, including the latest poll finding that pro-climate-policy candidates are likely to win votes and another study showing more and more people connecting the dots between extreme weather and climate change.

So, here’s your conversation opener for the next six months: “Bet you didn’t know 98 percent of climate scientists say global warming is happening and we’re the cause.”

Tell them Tony from Yale sent you.

Originally posted to Climate Change SOS on Wed Aug 22, 2012 at 10:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Climate Hawks, DK GreenRoots, and J Town.

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