Before COVID-19, Hoosiers underestimated risks of pandemic and climate change, survey shows

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect daily life in Indiana, a major new survey from Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute reveals that, as recently as December 2019, only 1 out of 5 Hoosiers anticipated being affected by a major disease outbreak this decade.

The findings are a result of the Hoosier Life Survey, part of IU’s Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenge initiative and a comprehensive effort to gauge Hoosiers’ attitudes toward the environment and extreme weather. Released today, the survey offers state-specific insights on public attitudes toward environmental change, personal values, trust in news media and attitudes toward a variety of risks, including epidemics.

Indianapolis skyline at dusk along White River Parkway
Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

When asked how likely it was that their family would be harmed by a major disease outbreak in the next 10 years, only 18 percent of survey respondents said “likely” or “very likely.” In comparison, 43 percent of respondents said it was likely their families would be impacted by extreme weather, 49 percent expected a government shutdown, and 56 percent thought an economic crisis would affect them. Notably, lower-income Hoosiers were more likely to report they would be impacted by major crises than Indiana residents with higher incomes.

“People often underestimate how vulnerable they are to future threats, whether that be the current COVID-19 disease outbreak, economic crises or the impacts of climate change,” said Matt Houser, an IU sociologist and Environmental Resilience Institute research fellow who co-led the survey. “These survey results suggest that, until recently, Hoosiers were largely unconcerned about the likelihood of a pandemic.

“From coronavirus, to climate change, to corn yields, we live in interconnected systems. Many of the actions we can take to be prepared for climate change will also increase our resilience to diseases like COVID-19. By asking Hoosiers how they see themselves in relation to the environment and what actions and policies they support in a time of environmental change, we can get a clearer picture of what a resilient Indiana looks like and identify the best strategies to protect the health of residents and the state’s economy.”

The Hoosier Life Survey captures how Indiana residents perceive environmental changes, how residents are being affected in their homes and communities, how Hoosiers are preparing, and what they expect in the future.

An interactive map of survey responses is available on the Hoosier Life Survey’s webpage. ​

Bar graph showing Hoosier Life Survey responses
An accessible version of the infographic can be viewed online.

Among the key findings:

  • Indiana residents express strong trust in scientists as a source of information on extreme weather. However, Hoosiers who identify as “rural” are much less likely to trust scientists and prefer their “own judgment” as a source of information on extreme weather. Community dialogues, rather than expert outreach, may be a more effective way to discuss resilience planning with rural residents.
  • Most Hoosiers expect climate change will harm plants, animals, people in the state and themselves at least moderately. This concern could indicate a willingness to engage in and support preparedness activities.
  • Lower-income Hoosiers are more likely to expect to be harmed “a great deal” by climate change, suggesting a need for programs and policies to help these communities act on their relatively high level of concern.
  • Lower-income Hoosiers are more likely to expect to be harmed “a great deal” by climate change, suggesting a need for programs and policies to help these communities act on their relatively high level of concern.
  • Rural and urban Hoosiers expressed about equally high levels of interest in or current use of solar panels for their homes to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, despite rural residents expressing far less belief in human-caused climate change. This may indicate a recognition that low-carbon technologies provide multiple benefits, such as energy independence or lower energy bills.

In the coming months, IU researchers will be releasing a series of policy reports based on Hoosier Life Survey results, including geographic- and demographic-specific analysis. These reports will provide a deep dive into the survey data on topics such as what Hoosiers believe about climate change, what actions they are taking and who Indiana residents think should pay for climate policy. Reports specific to regions of the state and a number of Indiana cities will also be released.

“Past surveys of climate change attitudes in Indiana have largely relied on statistical models to estimate public opinion,” said Eric Sandweiss, IU professor of history and co-leader of the survey. “The Hoosier Life Survey is based on the documented responses of thousands of Hoosiers. We expect that our results will not only inform policies and communication strategies for Indiana and similar states, but also help us to better understand how Hoosiers’ values and backgrounds shape their diverse approaches to shared challenges.”

The Hoosier Life Survey was sent to 10,000 Hoosiers between August and December 2019. To ensure adequate coverage across the state, the survey was mailed to 1,250 home addresses in each of eight pre-defined regions.

The margin of error for the survey report fell within plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, with a confidence level of 95 percent.

About the Prepared for Environmental Change initiative

The Indiana University Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenge initiative brings together a broad, bipartisan coalition of government, business, nonprofit and community leaders to help Indiana better prepare for the challenges that environmental changes bring to our economy, health and livelihood. Announced in May 2017, Prepared for Environmental Change is working to deliver tailored and actionable solutions to communities across the state of Indiana.

IU Research

Indiana University’s world-class researchers have driven innovation and creative initiatives that matter for 200 years. From curing testicular cancer to collaborating with NASA to search for life on Mars, IU has earned its reputation as a world-class research institution. Supported by $680 million last year from our partners, IU researchers are building collaborations and uncovering new solutions that improve lives in Indiana and around the globe.

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