Rural dialogue and problem-solving around climate change

The rural landscape is comprised of forests, farms and rangelands that can capture carbon when managed appropriately; land and resources for wind, solar and other renewable installations; and most importantly, people and ingenuity to implement the transition to a low carbon economy. While only 15 percent of U.S. residents live in nonmetropolitan counties, these counties account for 72 percent of the nation’s land area, and, by extension, represent most of the nation’s energy production.

Of all the growing divides in our country, none is sharper than that between urban and rural lives. The divide between rural and urban is not just geographic, but more imperatively cultural, economic and political, and here in Minnesota the gap is widening. Furthermore, this divide plays out on both a macro level—between the heartland of the Midwest and the megacities of the east coast—and on micro levels—with discordant concerns, demands and needs between county residents and small town dwellers. City and rural are not equals by any demographic, political or cultural measure. Urban areas are growing and prominent; rural populations are shrinking and becoming increasingly culturally less relevant. The nation’s urbanites increasingly govern those living in the hinterlands, even as rural Americans still feed and fuel the nation.

The failure to effectively engage rural communities on climate change has severely limited our collective (rural and urban) ability to address the biggest challenge of our time. The unfortunate reality pointing to the urgent need for a new approach is that the Obama administration has had to entirely avoid Congress to enact the Clean Power Plan and negotiate at the United Nations level. The strategy of ignoring those obstacles, or trying to ram through them, has thus far delayed action on climate change. Instead, we badly need a new approach to rural engagement on climate change.

While many rural-based climate solutions are already happening on-the-ground, such as the massive expansion of solar and wind energy, biofuels and local food production, many of these developments are often not pursued because they are climate solutions. First and foremost they need to be community solutions. There are many other proven beneficial strategies that could be incorporated into climate policy, including prioritizing local ownership, sustainable development approaches, workforce training, etc. that would make sure climate solutions are also rural community solutions.

For the last year and a half, IATP and the Jefferson Center have organized a series of Rural Climate Dialogues (RCDs). The Dialogues are an effort to identify policy recommendations and direct action ideas developed through multi-day democratic deliberation, high school student contributions, community organizing and urban-rural technical assistance and advocacy partnerships to address the effects of climate change in rural communities. The RCDs use the innovative and time-tested Citizens Jury method for community problem solving and leadership development.

Each Dialogue gathers a randomly selected but demographically balanced group of citizens in a specific rural community for an intense, three-day moderated study and deliberation forum on local climate change impacts. In Winona County, that meant half men, half women. Five Democrats, five Republicans, and eight with no party affiliation. Sixteen white and two people of color. Ten from the city of Winona and eight from the county. Eleven worried about climate change and seven not worried. Ages and education levels were also balanced.

The participants are tasked with creating a shared, community-based response to changing weather conditions and extreme weather events. The conversations are completely citizen-driven; no one tells them what to think. The participants have the liberty, information and resources to produce their own recommendations that respond to community needs, priorities, concerns and values.

The Winona Rural Climate Dialogue does not stand alone. As the third in a series of RCD’s across the state, the Winona Dialogue confirms a shared concern for more responsible land use broadly, emphasizing the need for greater community support for farmers, who face agronomical, economic and social challenges as they transition to a more resilient, diverse agricultural system. There was a recognition by all RCD communities to take greater personal responsibility, but also an acknowledgment that some people in the community would be affected more dramatically in the face of changing weather. For example, people on fixed incomes would have to pay a higher percentage toward cooling their homes, given rising energy costs and participants identified that public decision making needed to take these inequities into account.

Later this year, a state convening will bring together the shared concerns, unique needs and the amplified agency found among all three Rural Climate Dialogues to engage policymakers, administration and agency staff in an effort to create stronger climate policies in the state, the region and the nation.

Democracy in Action

The dialogue process is far more than an exercise in community decision making; it’s the opportunity to rebuild democracy. Democracy requires informed citizens. Without positive, pro-rural voices or proposals on the table, climate change deniers have been able to focus on the additional burdens that new regulation or taxation would bring to rural America while ignoring all of the ways in which climate change itself will negatively impact rural America—and the opportunities for economic development in a new, clean energy economy.

Climate change can make people feel powerless. Therefore, democracy in action requires more than an informed citizenship. People also need to have agency—the feeling and actual power to do something about the problem, not just individually, but as a collective.

The Rural Climate Dialogue process is three-fold: through peer to peer collaboration it enables us to understand the climate challenge for the community; it builds an amplified on-the-ground network of cooperation to implement both policy and non-policy solutions; and then it reforms the political process so that our leaders (and the policies they pass) are influenced and include a more diverse network of citizens.

A Bright Future

Conventional political thinking is that “climate” is too politically charged to discuss in rural America. The reality is that rural citizens are dealing with the challenges of extreme weather directly and are interested in being part of community and political solutions. Rural opposition to effective climate policy is not inevitable, and can be overcome by genuinely engaging rural residents in climate solutions. Most importantly, all communities, rural and urban, will benefit from supporting rural people and farmers in the transition to clean energy. But in the process we must capitalize on the opportunity to bridge a growing divide between urban and rural, in a manner that deliberately rebuilds democracy.

Learn more about the Rural Climate Dialogues.

As the Director of Rural Strategies at IATP, Anna Claussen focuses on the creation and retention of natural and social wealth within rural communities in order to improve the quality of life for all residents. Of particular interest is the impact of extreme weather and changing climate on rural communities and the opportunities for an emerging bio-based economy that can produce clean food, energy and materials. A landscape architect by training, Anna bridges years of practice in urban design and planning with a life deeply rooted on a Minnesota family farm. – See more at: