Interstate 80 passes over the Mississippi River in an aerial photo taken from the east on Monday, September 18, 2023. Aerial support provided by LightHawk. Credit: Nick Rohlman, The Gazette

New research gives a rare look at climate attitudes of Mississippi River basin residents and the relationship they have — or don’t have — with one of the world’s most important rivers.

The study, released Oct. 23, was conducted by a team of researchers led by assistant professor Kate Rose at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, also home to the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. They surveyed more than 2,300 adult residents from the 10 states that border the Mississippi River, seeking to better understand what people know about environmental issues in the basin.

Only about half of those surveyed were aware their state was in the basin. In Kentucky just 7.5% of respondents thought they lived in the basin, even though it includes the entire state.

This map shows how many respondents in each mainstem Mississippi River state answered correctly as to whether they lived in the river’s watershed. Credit: Annie Ropeik, Ag & Water Desk

Maisah Khan, policy director for the Mississippi River Network, said she starts every presentation by showing a map of the basin — pointing out the headwaters and the Gulf, explaining the expansiveness of the tributaries that pour in. If people don’t know that they’re in the basin, she said, they can’t grasp that what happens on their stretch of river will affect what happens downstream.

The research points to the need for river scientists and advocates to better communicate what’s going on with the Mississippi, which is essential for wildlife habitat, drinking water and worldwide commerce.

“We know some basic knowledge is lacking. … But it’s important that people in those states know a little more about those issues that are affecting their daily lives,” Rose said.

Even when people notice, they may not feel like they have the power to do much.

Khan said that as the impacts of climate change become clearer, like extreme weather, people are starting to worry but don’t feel like they have much control.

“That’s really troubling,” Khan said. “It’s easy to feel hopeless.”

But the study also showed support for policy reform and other solutions to address the basin’s environmental issues.

Most people believe that climate change is happening

Almost 70% of the survey’s total respondents indicated they believe climate change is happening, with the remainder split evenly between those who didn’t know and those who did not believe it is happening.

They were more divided on the drivers behind climate change and how much scientific consensus there is to support it.

The data is especially notable given that more than 99% of scientists agree that climate change is happening and is largely driven by humans.

DeSeam Williams, 9, runs around his father Dennis Williams while they check out historically low water levels of Mississippi River on October 26, 2022 in Greenbelt Park in Memphis, Tenn. Credit: Mark Weber, The Daily Memphian

Just over half of respondents said human activities were mostly causing climate change, while about 40% said climate change is mostly caused by natural changes in the environment. Nearly 70% said most scientists agree that climate change is happening, but in separate questions, 25% indicated that “there is a lot of disagreement” among scientists, and that “there’s not enough scientific evidence” to determine that it is happening.

These results match up with the most recent national data from Yale University’s climate opinion survey, which last asked American adults in 2021 their feelings on the issue. From those results, 72% of respondents said global warming is happening and 57% believed it is caused by human activities.

A majority of basin respondents, 70%, felt a religious motivation to care — saying they felt they had a responsibility to care for nature as stewards of God.

People worried about the environment, support solutions

Almost 60% of respondents said their state is being affected by changes in the environment, and more than half said environmental changes are affecting their local community. Nearly half said they’ve personally experienced adverse effects as a result of those changes, such as increasing extreme weather events.

The Mississippi River rises to flood stage surrounding a highway outside Memphis, Tenn., in 2016. (Photo by Andrew Breig, The Daily Memphian)

That’s evident even in the last few years in the Mississippi River basin, which has seen periods of intense flooding, drought and extreme heat.

“If you had asked (about environmental changes) 20 years ago, it would (have been) really different,” said Dominique Brossard, chair of the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who reviewed a summary of the study’s findings.

“I think it’s promising that people are realizing there are environmental issues impacting their region as a whole,” she added.

In nine of the 10 states bordering the river, more than half worried about the health impacts of environmental changes, with the most people worried in Illinois and Louisiana (about 59% and 58%, respectively). In Arkansas, about 45% of respondents worried about health impacts.

Younger respondents were more likely to report being worried than older respondents. Overall, most respondents worried about extreme weather, with 88% reporting it as at least a somewhat serious problem, followed by pollution, flooding and water quality.

Respondents overwhelmingly supported policies to protect drinking water and the environment, and the majority supported federal water policies to protect the river. Most said they were willing to support environmental initiatives locally and at the state and federal level.

One such recently proposed initiative is the creation of a multi-state compact to drum up federal support for environmental issues in the river basin, similar to the interstate compact that protects the Great Lakes. Over half of respondents indicated they would support such a compact for the river.

An aerial view of Muscatine, Iowa, on the Mississippi River on Monday, September 18, 2023. Aerial support provided by LightHawk. (Photo by Nick Rohlman, The Gazette)

The study also asked about farming practices and how they affect the landscape. A majority of respondents, 64%, agreed that managing environmental issues on farmland is a high priority. About 30% said current farming practices are more detrimental to the environment than beneficial, while roughly a quarter disagreed with that statement.

Respondents largely supported sustainable agriculture practices like grass-fed animal operations and organic farming, but also approved of traditional farming practices like row-cropping.

Willingness to act, resistance to personal responsibility

Almost half of respondents said they would be willing to change personal behaviors to combat environmental changes, such as recycling more or driving less. Their willingness dropped when the proposed actions would have a bigger impact on their wallet.

When it came to who was responsible for environmental issues that impact their regions, more than half of respondents said society as a whole bears at least a moderate amount of responsibility, compared to about 24% of respondents that felt they were personally moderately or greatly responsible. Nearly 60% said environmental issues require systemic solutions, and about half said individual actions can have a large impact on mitigating environmental degradation.

Getting people to care and take action on climate change and environmental issues relies on connecting those broader issues to what’s happening in people’s everyday lives — as Rose puts it, “bringing the local.”

A map of the Mississippi River basin, including the Mississippi River (bold line) and its major tributaries, based on U.S. Geological Survey data. (By Annie Ropeik, Ag & Water Desk via Google Maps)

“It is harder and harder to get people to take advocacy actions that don’t have a direct connection to their everyday life or direct local tie-in,” Khan said.

Tying climate change to health impacts, for example, can be an effective way to make people take notice, Brossard said. In Khan’s case, her organization has realized that talking about the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico isn’t motivating people upstream to care about what’s running into the Mississippi River. So they’ve pivoted to discussing how those same pollutants cause beach closures and algae blooms.

And while Khan said that societal and individual actions could work together to yield the greatest impact, she and Brossard agreed that systemic and policy changes could make a bigger dent in the problem.

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, with major funding from the Walton Family Foundation. Investigate Midwest is a member.

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