The relevance of climate change for society seems indisputable: scientific evidence points to a significant human contribution in causing climate change, and impacts which will increasingly affect human welfare. In order to meet national and international greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets, there is an urgent need to understand and enable societal engagement inmitigation. Yet recent research indicates that this involvement is currently limited: although awareness of climate change is widespread, understanding and behavioral engagement are far lower. Proposals for mitigative ‘personal carbon budgets’ imply a need for public understanding of the causes and consequences of carbon emissions, as well as the ability to reduce emissions. However, little has been done to consider the situated meanings of carbon and energy in everyday life and decisions. This paper builds on the concept of ‘carbon capability’, a term which captures the contextual meanings associated with carbon and individuals’ abilities and motivations to reduce emissions. We present empirical findings from a UK survey of public engagement with climate change and carbon capability, focusing on both individual and institutional dimensions. These findings highlight the diverse public understandings about ‘carbon’, encompassing technical, social, and moral discourses; and provide further evidence for the environmental value-action gap in relation to adoption of low-carbon lifestyles. Implications of these findings for promoting public engagement with climate change and carbon capability are discussed.