Jessica Hullinger is a freelance writer and editor who likes to think deeply about climate science and sustainability. She previously served as Global Deputy Editor for The Week, and her writing has been featured in publications including Fast Company, Popular Science, and Fortune. Jessica is originally from Indiana but lives in London. Read MoreRead More
Poll: The Americans Who Worry Least About Climate Change
Midwesterners lived through the Dust Bowl. Why would climate change be any different?
When Canadian wildfire smoke descended on my hometown in Indiana this summer, I was distraught. I live in London now, but much of my family remains in the Midwest, and as an orange haze blanketed the landscape and the air quality plummeted, I worried about their health. “Smoke everywhere!” my dad texted, alongside a photo of the fields near my childhood home, shrouded in smog. “Guess I better stay inside when I get home.”
The effects of climate change will vary from region to region, but everyone’s life will be affected in some way, eventually. Even though I know this to be true, I had selfishly and naively hoped that the Midwest would be insulated from the worst of it. I fretted about my friends on the East Coast and my mom in California. But for my relatives in the middle of the country, I was never that worried.
And it seems I’m not alone. A recent Heatmap News poll found that, compared to people in the South, Northeast, and West, Midwesterners were consistently blasé about climate change. The poll tried presenting this question in different ways: Do you worry about what climate change means for you personally? Do you worry that extreme weather events will happen in your area more frequently? Do you worry about what climate change means for your kids? Over and over, Midwesterners registered the lowest level of alarm.
On the topics of wildfires, drought, flooding, and extreme heat, the Midwest has the highest share of respondents who say they are not concerned. Fifty-two percent of Midwesterners say climate change poses little or no risk to their region — no other region comes anywhere near that level of confidence in their own safety. In fact, all other parts of the country think the Midwest is at greater risk from a planet on fire than Midwesterners themselves do.
It would be easy to dismiss this phenomenon as politically fueled, but that would be too simple. It’s true that Pew surveys show the majority of voters in the Midwest lean conservative, and there’s no doubt Republicans are historically less likely to believe that climate change is a serious problem. But in Heatmap’s polling, at least, respondents in the Midwest largely identified as moderates and independents. Plus, the poll doesn’t show that Midwesterners doubt climate change is real. They just don’t think it affects them all that much.
And in some respects, they’re right. By virtue of its location, separated by hundreds or thousands of miles from the flood-prone coasts and the fire-prone regions to the south and west, the Midwest has so far been spared some of the scariest, most extreme weather events of recent years. No hurricanes decimating neighborhoods. No major wildfires scorching the landscape.
“We up to now haven’t suffered the loss and damage a lot of coastal or mountain areas have,” said Dr. Gabriel Filippelli, professor of Earth sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and executive director of the Indiana University Environmental Resilience Institute. But climate change is happening here. It’s just happening more slowly.
Take flooding, for instance. While warming oceans and sea level rise are imminent threats to America’s coasts, climate change is gradually making extreme precipitation more likely in the Midwest. “Our 100-year floods are no longer 100-year floods,” said Filippelli. “Now they happen every 10 to 15 years.” Last year heavy rain brought devastating deluges to states including Illinois and Missouri; 2019 was the Midwest’s wettest calendar year since 1895, causing at least $6.2 billion in damage.
Dangerous heat and “flash droughts,” extremely dry periods that come on quickly and with little warning, are also creeping risks. Research from the nonprofit First Street Foundation shows the Midwest is part of a growing “extreme heat belt” that will, over the next 30 years, experience more days when the heat index – what the temperature feels like to the human body, factoring in humidity – hits 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat like that can kill not only humans, but also farm animals and crops. The Natural Resources Defense Council says extreme heat and drought could wilt crops across “America’s Breadbasket,” “potentially causing ripples to food supplies across the world.”
Why aren’t Midwestern farmers sounding the alarm, then? Because many “believe that this is a cycle that we’re going to get through,” said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and 2023 recipient of the Climate Breakthrough Award for her work in blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline. “They’ve been through difficult times, whether it’s the Dust Bowl or the Depression or World Wars, and those generational lines are still threaded through families,” Kleeb said. “There’s a huge value in hard work in rural communities, and in the idea that as a community, we’re going to get through it together. I think that’s how they view climate change.”
In other words, Midwestern farming families are used to doing the Very American Thing of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and getting on with it. The federal government’s Crop Insurance program makes it easier to keep on believing in the power of pure gumption — the government pays if crops fail due to “ natural causes,” which means that rarely do farmers feel the full effect of climate change on their pocketbooks.
There are plenty of other effects of climate change the federal government won’t help with — a rise in tick- and mosquito-borne illnesses, for one. The federal government’s most recent National Climate Assessment projects that the Ohio Valley could see more than 200 cases of West Nile virus every year by 2050. Lyme disease is already endemic to the region.
There’s also the secondary risk of an influx of climate migrants seeking safety, which will affect not just rural and industrial communities but also population centers like Minneapolis and Kansas City. “It’s anecdotal at best,” said Filippelli, “but we have evidence there are people leaving the coasts because of fire danger as well as the water issues.” These people may come not just from the U.S., but also around the world.
And then there’s that wildfire smoke. The National Climate Assessment predicts that drifting haze will become a regular nuisance in the Midwest. Hoosiers were annoyed by the smoke this year, Filippelli said, but “they didn’t always link it to climate change.” That comes across in the polling: Sixty-three percent of Midwestern respondents said — in November of this year, a few months after their summer of smoke — that their areas have not been affected by climate change.
To Kleeb, bridging this disconnect is the project. Messaging matters, and climate advocates and policymakers would do well to know their audience. Extolling veganism or focusing on the environmental hazards of methane produced by cow burps probably isn’t going to land well with farmers and ranchers.
“Rural folks get very defensive because you’re essentially blaming their grandpa, their father, their husband or wife who is currently farming and, from their perspective, providing food not only for America, but for the world — and you’re saying they’re bad,” Kleeb said. “When people say they don’t believe in climate change, it’s because they feel they’re being blamed for something they’re not responsible for.”
Instead, Kleeb wants to see more emphasis put on how rural Midwesterners can be part of the solutions, from introducing regenerative farming to providing the land needed to build out renewable energy infrastructure. “If anything, they know the land,” Kleeb says. “They know every hill, every blade of grass. They know where it floods when they get heavy rains. So really acknowledging that local knowledge in asking them to be partners at the table is absolutely critical.”
One thing many don’t appreciate about the Midwest is how much sky there is — any weather that’s on its way you can see from miles out. The smoke hovered over my hometown for a few days. During that time, I hardly slept. I kept checking the weather obsessively, hoping for some sign of relief. I even sent my dad links to articles about how to build your own air purifier. Finally, on the third day, he texted me an update: A strong weather front was approaching Indiana from the west, expected to sweep away the wildfire smoke as it passed over the state.
“Rain!” the text read. “Beautiful rain!”