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Majority Of Montanans 'Very Concerned' About Climate Change

Windmill at the Judith Gap, MT wind farm.
David J. Laporte (CC-BY-2)
A new survey says Montanans support alternative energy, but aren't ready to abandon fossil fuels.

A majority of Montanans think climate change is a very serious concern for the state. That’s according to a pollcommissioned by the University of Montana and Stanford University. UM Political Science Professor Christopher Muste helped conduct the survey.

Christopher Muste: I was somewhat surprised that over half of Montanans thought climate change was extremely or very serious for Montana, but at the same time look at state and federal policies towards energy production; about half of that favored both oil, gas, coal and wind solar and other renewal productions, and about a third of Montana’s favored renewables over fossil fuel. So there is sort of a split won what kind of energy development should be in the state.

At the same time when we asked the carbon emissions and the EPA new regulations that are clearly going to have a huge impact on Montana and we asked, well what should Montana do about that? 71 percent said the state should produce it’s own plan, 17 percent said suing the federal government was a good idea, and even fewer, 13 percent suggested allowing the federal government to develop the plan. So this another piece of evidence that Montanans really like homegrown solutions. I was surprised on how few people supported suing the federal government since both the attorney general has filed suit and the governor supported filing the suit.

Eric Whitney: And right now the EPA plan, those rules are on hold, pending that lawsuit?

CM: Absolutely, the federal judges have put that on hold, so it's not clear if they will be implemented, or if so when, and what the timetable will be. But clearly Montanans liked when the previous draft carbon emission rules came out, Governor Bullock formed a commission to try to come up with a 'Montana based solution,' I think he called it, and that clearly resonates across the aisle. Very high bipartisan support for that.

EW: Right, and the governor said the first draft of those regulations were something Montanans can do, but when the second draft came out, the phrase he used was, "the feds moved the goalposts on Montana.” So you said that a significant majority of Montanana are very concerned with climate change?

CM: Yes 54 percent

EW: Did you ask any specific questions about what actions Montana feels should be taken to address their concerns about climate change?

CM: Well, we didn’t ask directly about specific responses to climate change but we did ask the change about energy development and the carbon emission rules. And it does seem clear that there is a sort of a wait and see attitude about carbon emissions, and they don’t necessarily want the energy industry in Montana to be completely shut down. So I think there is a very pragmatic economic concern by Montana in general.

EW: Montanans are really of two minds, they’re very concerned about climate change but they are also very concerned about the economy and the jobs that come from producing energy and those carbon emission. It’s not an either or for them.

CM: We are, and that's why it was notable that exactly half of them said they favor both fossil fuel and renewable developments, and out of the remainder there was about a two-to-one favor of renewable. So there's really strong favorability towards renewables in the state, but that doesn't translate to opposition for continued use of carbon based fuels, fossil fuels in Montana.

EW: The fourth area you asked about was tribal sovereignty. What kind of questions did you ask there?

CM: Well we asked a general question, whether people thought about tribal sovereignty in a favorable or unfavorable way. And by a substantial margin about 60 percent viewed tribal sovereignty as negative instead of positive.

EW: And by sovereignty you mean just as tribes exercising their own political power to advance their own agendas?

CM: We didn’t define exactly what it meant unless the respondent asked specifically or they said they didn't know what it meant and asked for some clarification. And we had this very specific response that is very similar to what you just said: tribes controlling their own tribal government and having separate sovereignty over their own affairs.

I was somewhat surprised by the negative responses to the general idea of tribal sovereignty. Especially, in light of the fact when we asked people questions about tribal control over resources, both resources on the reservations and off tribal reservations and we asked about broader issues that have larger ramifications like the CSKT water compact or the transfer of ownership of the former Kerr damn.

There was a very large majority supporting tribal sovereignty in those ways and that exists pretty much across the state. We would love to drill down into this if we were able to do a second survey a year or two from now and ask people what they think of when they think of tribal sovereignty. So for example, it might have to do with some of the legal issues involved and if a person commits a crime on tribal land how they are treated in the legal system? It depends partly on if they’re Native American or not native and that isn't totally in control of the tribes. A lot of the legal framework is set by the U.S. Government and what it permits and what it does not permit to happen in terms of prosecution and investigation of criminal cases on tribal land.

EW: Do you know what proportion of the people you surveyed were Native American?

CM: We do. About 6 percent of the overall survey self-identified as Native American and that’s roughly the proportion in the overall population of this state. If we’re able to do this survey again, even thought it’d be quite expensive, we’d like to do what is a called an over-sample of Native American respondents in the survey, which would mean gaining more respondents with more Native American background so it would be statistically easier to separately analyze their opinions and to contrast those with a non-native population within in Montana.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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