People who live in rural Indiana have complex views about climate change and aren’t as skeptical about long-term changes in weather patterns as public opinion polling may suggest, a new study said.

Indiana University student Molly Burhans said in a Daily Yonder interview that rural climate change views are “a lot more nuanced” than some may think. She co-authored a study with Associate Research Scientist Matt Houser of the University of Maryland about rural climate change discourse in Indiana.

After conducting the Hoosier Life Survey Rural Report, Burhans and Houser followed up with participants to do interviews. Surveys, like the Yale Climate Opinion Survey in the maps above, are helpful for painting generalizations but don’t portray a holistic picture. 

“Surveys capture dichotomous or categorized beliefs,” Houser said. “Of course, that ‘s not reality. We don’t think and act in black-and-white terms. It’s gray. And interviews really bring … those contradictions to light.” 

The Importance of Family

Rural people tend to have stronger family bonds than their urban counterparts, according to researchers Christine Mair and R.V. Rikard in a 2010 study

Houser, who grew up in a rural area, said his personal experience confirms this. He noticed that rural people value the opinions of their friends, neighbors, and families more than urban people. Mair and Rikard’s work shows that strong ties improve one’s well-being, especially for older adults. But people more influenced by close personal ties may also find it difficult to disagree with dominant cultural attitudes. 

Social connections are “extremely significant for their behavior and their thinking,” Houser said of his respondents. He describes how this can produce an “echo chamber effect” in which everyone is only exposed to opinions they already agree with. This can help explain the dominance of climate change skepticism among rural communities, according to Houser.

Climate Change Contradictions

Some rural Hoosiers are skeptical of climate change because popular environmentalism criticizes rural lifestyles. Ranchers blamed for methane emissions can’t just tell cows to swallow their gaseous burps, for example. The people whose livelihoods depend on industries demonized by climate change discourse find it hard to make a meaningful change without threatening their own financial survival. 

Other respondents said they didn’t want to give up driving their trucks. Contrary to what country music videos suggest, pickup trucks aren’t just a prop for romanticizing rural life.

In a recent commentary, Donna Kallner pointed out that they’re often a practical necessity. Kallner says that they can be helpful for “getting through snow too deep for the fuel-efficient low clearance on our car” or for “Transporting large boxes to the post office to ship instead of ordering a pick-up by our rural mail carrier, who can’t fit this size in their vehicle,” among other things.

“Actions related to mitigation … have a high price tag,” Burhans said. “So a lot of them were like, yeah, an electric car sounds cool and great, but I’m never going to be able to afford one.”

Despite their initial skepticism, Burhans and Houser found that many respondents recognized that climate change itself – not just the proposed solutions to it – can also threaten rural life. Some concerns include human health and the preservation of natural spaces. Mothers were especially concerned with the well-being of future generations. 

Burhans called these contradictions “push and pull factors.”

“In my experience working with farmers, there is a deep level of concern about environmental issues,” Houser said. “I’ve interviewed hundreds of farmers and I have never once encountered a farmer that wanted to pollute the water or that willingly would have contributed to climate change. And in fact … they’re extremely enthusiastic about undertaking actions that can address those problems.” 

When the Burden Falls on Rural Communities 

Even when farmers care deeply about the ecological health of their farms, making a significant change comes with a high price tag. Urban and suburban resident wanting to decrease their personal impact on the environment might change their light bulbs, start biking to work, eat local food, or even buy an electric car. 

But rural industries like agriculture are disproportionately blamed for climate change, while the individuals working in those industries are less likely to be able to sacrifice their livelihoods for environmentally friendly alternatives. 

“The burden of taking action to address environmental problems is actually pretty darn significant, if not much more significant on those individuals than it is on an urban individual or a homeowner,” Houser said. “I think in many cases, whenever we think through whether we would make an environmental decision or not, we’re not put in that position of thinking through our family’s well-being and our own economic survival. And in many cases, rural folks are…more likely to be struggling economically than urban individuals.”

Respondents also fear the “liberal agenda” as a narrative that excludes rural communities and needs. Houser said that environmental policies often threaten the ability of farmers to keep operations afloat. Policies that affect natural resource economies, like agriculture and mining, might be inconsequential for urban voters. 

“But for a rural community,” Houser said, “it attacks them very directly.”

Rural economies confronting environmental mandates have to consider that complying may threaten their livelihood and ability to support their families. Houser said that farmers are “extremely frustrated” when they are blamed for not taking enough action. The reality is that they are often risking their profitability to make changes. 

“Whenever we institute environmental policy, which is often born out of urban centers… often the places where that needs to be manifest in behavior and action falls on rural communities,” said Houser. 

A Perception of Ignorance

“Rural spaces and rural individuals are often devalued in the wider discourse in this country… They’re perceived as less than, and frankly, they’re often perceived as ignorant and as a barrier to making change,” said Houser. 

Houser and Burhan’s work suggests that rural people internalize the perception of ignorance. Burhan said she noticed some respondents “devaluing their own opinion.” 

“They’d say [things like] ‘I don’t know how I would know that,’” Burhan said. She added that misunderstanding rural environmental attitudes because of a lack of research on the topic is a “detriment to outreach in this area.” 

Houser said he finds it important to implement environmental protections but says “we need to do it in a way that uplifts and brings along rural communities and those critical industries they support at the same time.”

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