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Can our country come together to fight climate change? A look into a deep red state offers hope

By Lucas Boyd


A new study shows strong bipartisan support for energy decarbonization in Indiana.


Photo by Tom Fisk, Pexels


Climate change is one of the most divisive issues in our polarized political landscape. According to one poll, 67% of Democrats and only 21% of Republicans think that addressing climate change should be a top priority for the federal government [1]. Nevertheless, a recent study from the historically Republican state of Indiana showed that most people, regardless of political affiliation, favor a carbon-free energy future [2].


Energy production accounts for 82% of the emissions contributing to global warming in the US, mostly through the burning of fossil fuels [3]. Therefore, moving away from coal and oil into clean energy sources like wind and solar would be a monumental step towards curbing emissions and avoiding the most devastating impacts of climate change.


But despite the massive potential for global warming mitigation, Indianans rarely frame energy decarbonization this way. Researchers asked participants to describe their ideal energy mix in 2050 and to explain their choices. While the preference for clean energy was strong across groups, Indianans were primarily motivated by public health and economic reasons. In line with the political leanings of the state, climate change rarely came up.


A Deep Shade of Red

Red roots run deep in the Hoosier State. All participants in the study were permanent residents of Indiana and as such, only 25% identified as Democrat, 31% identified as independent and 44% identified as Republican [2].


Unsurprisingly, Indiana’s governor’s office and state legislature are both Republican controlled. Mike Pence, the controversial former vice president to Donald Trump, served as governor of the state from 2013-2017. In the last 22 presidential elections, Indiana has voted for a Republican 20 times.


The Republican party tends to favor the fossil fuel industry and has a history of discounting or even outright denying climate science. This is evident in the state’s current energy mix, as Indiana burns the second-most coal of any state in the US and ranks 8th in carbon emissions per capita [5]. Renewables such as solar and wind make up less than 7% of their energy portfolio [6].


Agreeing On Green

However, notwithstanding the state’s current political representation, the citizens of Indiana agree: it’s time for clean energy. They especially denounce fossil fuels, with 75% of respondents reporting a desire to use less coal and 81% for less oil. Moreover, they showed a strong preference for renewable energy, as 94% reported wanting more solar and 88% wanted more wind [2].


A shift to renewables would dramatically curtail carbon emissions in the state. However, when listing reasons for their energy preferences, climate change was rarely mentioned. Deidra Miniard, the lead researcher on the study, reflected on this:


“A transition to clean energy in Indiana may not necessarily be driven by wanting to address climate change, but could be driven instead by the desire to use cleaner sources of energy that don't pollute or cause health issues [8].”


This sentiment was echoed in participant interviews. One Indianan who grew up near a coal mine talked about his experience with fossil fuels:


“We had a significant amount of air pollution even though you probably wouldn’t perceive that you would. In the wintertime you went past the coal mine, and you could see all these little fires that had ignited, smoking, and you knew you were breathing that [2].”


The benefits of clean energy are widespread and far reaching, even without considering climate change. Regardless of motivation, the message is clear: the state that burns the second most fossil fuels nationwide is ready for renewables.


The States are United

This dream of a greener future is not isolated to Indiana. An earlier study by the same team of researchers found that this trend appears across the United States, where both sides of the political aisle favor moving to a decarbonized energy system by 2050 [7].


This shows that a clean energy future is popular, politically viable and within our grasp. However, climate change continues to be a polarizing topic. Said Miniard of her national studies:


“While we still see that participants want a shared decarbonized future energy mix, national polling data and our own previous study of national energy mix perceptions shows us that there is still a partisan divide on climate change [8].”


Just like Indiana, everyone in the U.S. wants the same thing but can’t agree on why. How can we overcome this difference to reach our shared goal? Miniard offers some advice:


“This (and similar studies) can serve as a roadmap to show what values and beliefs individuals use to determine what energy sources and policies they support and oppose. We can take this roadmap and use it to increase support by aligning our message with those values [8].”


Republicans have historically been opposed to environmental regulations. But by better understanding their values and motivations, environmental advocates may be able to reach across the aisle and find true consensus. The next step then is to channel this popular, bipartisan support for decarbonization into robust energy policy that replaces fossil fuels with renewables.


Right now, it feels like our country is more polarized than ever before. Energy decarbonization offers us a rare opportunity to bridge the divide and move forward together. If we do, it will mean a healthier future for the people of Indiana and a cooler, safer planet for all of humanity.


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References:


[1] Pew Research Center, Public’s 2019 Priorities: Economy, Health Care, Education and Security All Near Top of List (2019). https://www.people-press.org/2019/01/24/publics2019-priorities-economy-health-care-education-and-security-all-near-top-of-list/.


[2] Miniard, Deidra, and Shahzeen Z. Attari. “Turning a Coal State to a Green State: Identifying Themes of Support and Opposition to Decarbonize the Energy System in the United States.” Energy Research & Social Science 82 (2021): 102292. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2021.102292.


[3] “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks. Accessed October 19, 2021.


[4] Ballotpedia. “Presidential Voting Trends in Indiana.” Accessed November 6, 2021. https://ballotpedia.org/Presidential_voting_trends_in_Indiana.


[5] “U.S. States - Rankings - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).” Accessed November 6, 2021. https://www.eia.gov/state/rankings/.


[6] “Indiana - State Energy Profile Overview - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).” Accessed November 6, 2021. https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=IN.


[7] Miniard, Deidra, Joseph Kantenbacher, and Shahzeen Z. Attari. “Shared Vision for a Decarbonized Future Energy System in the United States.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 117, no. 13 (March 2020): 7108–14. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1920558117.


[8] Miniard, Deidra. Personal email interview. 22 October 2021.