Rural dialogues

Farmers and farm guests partake in field walks and discussions at Willow Lake Farm Agroecology Summit in Windom Minnesota. Anna ClaussenGIT ALONG DIALOGUES

Think rural America doesn’t care about the climate? Think again.

By Scott Shigeoka on Oct 29, 2019  The world of the possible Subscribe To Shift Happens

Anna Claussen grew up on a family farm 20 miles outside of Benson, Minnesota, a town of just over 3,000 souls. She left the farm when she was 18 to pursue her undergraduate degree on the outskirts of Minneapolis, and has lived in the city since. Making that leap, from rural to urban, it didn’t take her long to notice the stereotypes.

Claussen’s family story is unusual: While family farms dwindle due to the rise of industrialized agriculture, a challenging financial climate, and extreme weather events, her parents and two of her three brothers have stayed put. They steward the land, show up for their neighbors, and make a multitude of challenging decisions to do best by the farm, their family, and the future. To create opportunities for the next generation to stay in farming, they’ve added new crops and invested in livestock and ethanol cooperatives.

But no one in Minneapolis ever asked Claussen about all that. When she talked about growing up on a farm, the first question she’d get was often, “How big is your family’s farm?”

“I’d tell them around 3,000 acres and the conversation would stop or shift,” she said. Three-thousand acres seemed large to many of them, so they assumed her family to be an enemy of sustainable farming. “They wouldn’t see my father or brothers beyond a number.”

Claussen saw similar attitudes toward other rural Americans, especially when it came to people’s beliefs, or assumed beliefs, about climate change. “There is a common misconception that you can’t talk about climate change in rural communities,” she said. But it’s simply untrue. “As I sat with what people were saying, I saw that the root of the problem was a lack of understanding and opportunity to meet.”

So in 2018, Claussen started Voices for Rural Resilience, an organization that brings rural people into the conversation by identifying local climate-related problems and creating their own solutions. This ultimately helps them raise their own voices with effective and democratic purpose, she said, countering stereotypes and bringing nuance into the climate dialogue at a time when it is badly needed.

“Rural people are overlooked in a national narrative, making them feel like they’re lesser,” Claussen said. She is determined to change that.

Rural Climate Dialogue jurors and state agency staff convene in St. Paul to prioritize a statewide approach to climate action. Shawn Pointer

Claussen is no stranger to life’s constant tensions. She’s an urban dweller with rural roots; she’s the daughter of farmers who grow crops conventionally on 3,000 acres, yet also a proponent of sustainable agriculture; and she’s a self-professed tomboy who’s also a mother.

“At times, my complexities make me feel torn and conflicted,” she said. “I’ve successfully embraced my own complex identities — the labels society sees as incompatible — by leaning into and relying on empathy.”

That may help explain why she is so good at seeing the nuance and the complexity in small-town America.

Although less than 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural communities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they live and work across 97 percent of our country’s land mass. Almost all of the nation’s energy and food is produced in rural landscapes, which are rich with natural resources essential for our survival and critical in addressing the climate crisis.

We miss out on a significant opportunity when we assume rural people are “the enemy,” Claussen said. She argues that rural work often strengthens people’s connection with nature and stokes their desire for more environmental protection.

You don’t need to take her word for it. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in climate change. That includes folks who live in rural areas in states as diverse as Louisiana and California. A group of researchers at Yale found that more than 6 out of 10 Trump voters believe in taxing or regulating pollution.

“Conversations around climate change don’t have to be polarizing and divisive,” Claussen said.

At the YES! House in Granite Falls, Civic Saturday guests discuss their suppressed identities over coffee and between song and poetry. Bethany Lacktorin

Take, for example, Morris, Minnesota, a town of just over 5,000 people about a three-hour drive west of Minneapolis. In 2014, Claussen led a “Rural Climate Dialogue” that engaged more than 300 people in Morris. She describes the dialogue as a “a 3-day intensive experience that mixes facts and testimonies with their deeply personal beliefs, experiences, and emotions.”

The dialogues, co-founded by the Minnesota-based Jefferson Center and the nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, bring residents together to identify opportunities to reduce carbon emissions and make progress toward healthy, sustainable, and prosperous communities. These solutions are then presented to local, state, and national policymakers.

Blaine Hill, Morris city manager, says he was interested in the dialogue because it was an opportunity to bring local voices into a conversation that was happening in the government and at universities. Rural communities got left behind in the electrification of America, Hill said, and then again during the high-speed internet revolution. He doesn’t want that to happen again.

“The future is not going to be coal,” Hill said. “It’s going to be the production of sustainable and renewable energy, and we have the capability here where we live to do it.”

The dialogue was also a chance to talk about solutions instead of getting into polarizing debates. “You don’t have to sit in a meeting room and argue about whether there’s climate change that’s happening,” Hill said. “We don’t focus on the words ‘climate’ or ‘environment’ because it’s not necessary, and sometimes it gets in the way of what we’re actually trying to do.”

The town used the dialogue to engage residents in a conversation that was already underway about sustainability and renewable energy — and it worked. A survey conducted with the University of Minnesota found that participants left with a deeper understanding of climate change.

“I have to admit when I came here when people talked about climate [change] I thought ‘Oh, come on,’” wrote one participant in a post-dialogue survey (the respondent’s names were kept confidential to protect privacy). “But I did learn a lot and I am grateful.”

And knowledge, as they say, is power.

The Claussen family and farm crew pause harvest to gather for evening field dinners in Chippewa County. c / o Anna Claussen

The community’s ongoing conversation about climate change has led to an initiative called the Morris Model, designed to reduce the town’s emissions and support climate adaptation and resilience projects. They’ve even established a three-year partnership with a small town in Germany, called Saerbeck, to share insights and solutions with each other.

This year, Morris replaced its 450-watt streetlights with energy-saving LED bulbs and installed electric vehicle charging stations, including one behind Morris City Hall. Around town, solar farms are popping up. Rebecca Michael, a representative from the area’s Otter Tail Power Company, said there are plans to install about 250 kilowatts of solar energy near Morris over the next few years.

“We are a small rural town and we’re able to do things here that are going to be renewable and sustainable for the future,” Hill said. “If we can do it, then anyone can do it.”

Claussen has led other dialogues around Minnesota, including a statewide dialogue that brought three rural communities together. The key to doing this work well is fostering empathy, she said. This means asking questions before making judgments, focusing on the issues and solutions instead of just personal identities, and countering stereotypes. This means seeing the grit, determination, and real, on-the-ground progress that is coming from communities like Morris.

“When people are empowered with locally relevant knowledge, resources, and tools,” Claussen said, “they move to action.”


Katherine Hayhoe Explains The Strange Disconnect Between Evangelical Christians & Climate Science

November 1st, 2019 by Steve Hanley 

Katherine Hayhoe is an evangelical Christian. She is also the co-director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, she explains how to resolve the conflict in America between climate science and evangelical Christians. Religion is an explosive topic, one which provokes strong opinions. It is not CleanTechnica’s job to advocate for one religious point of view over another. But what Professor Hayhoe has to say is relevant to us all.

Hayhoe begins by saying she was raised in religious family in Canada. Her father was a science teacher who taught her that “science is the study of God’s creation. If we truly believe that God created this amazing universe, bringing matter and energy to life out of a formless empty void of nothing, then how could studying his creation ever be in conflict with his written word?”

In selecting her career path, she says “I chose what to study precisely because of my faith, because climate change disproportionately affects the poor and vulnerable, those already most at risk today. To me, caring about and acting on climate was a way to live out my calling to love others as we’ve been loved ourselves by God.”

Her beliefs have earned her many enemies, who use social media to attack her. Those attacks are “often by people with Bible verses in their social media profiles who accuse me of spreading Satan’s lies, or sometimes by others who share my concerns about climate change but wonder why I bother talking to ‘those people.’ The attacks I receive come via email, Twitter, Facebook comments, phone calls and even handwritten letters.”

Common Denominators

“I track them all,” she says, “and I’ve noticed two common denominators in how most of the authors choose to identify themselves: first, as political conservatives, no matter what country they’re from; and second, in the United States, as conservative Christians, because the label “evangelical” has itself been co-opted as shorthand for a particular political ideology these days.”

“But I refuse to give it up, because I am a theological evangelical, one of those who can be simply defined as someone who takes the Bible seriously. This stands in stark contrast to today’s political evangelicals, whose statement of faith is written first by their politics and only a distant second by the Bible and who, if the two conflict, will prioritize their political ideology over theology.”

Why engage with her detractors?

“Because I believe that evangelicals who take the Bible seriously already care about climate change (although they might not realize it). Climate change will strike hard against the very people we’re told to care for and love, amplifying hunger and poverty, and increasing risks of resource scarcity that can exacerbate political instability, and even create or worsen refugee crises.

“Then there’s pollution, biodiversity loss, habitat fragmentation, species extinction: climate change makes all those worse, too. In fact, if we truly believe we’ve been given responsibility for every living thing on this planet (including each other) as it says in Genesis 1, then it isn’t only a matter of caring about climate change: We should be at the front of the line demanding action.”

Religion & Climate Science Are Not Enemies

“Why do surveys in the United States consistently show white evangelicals and white Catholics at the bottom of those Americans concerned about the changing climate?” Hayhoe asks. “It turns out, it’s not where we go to church (or don’t) that determines our opinion on climate. It’s not even our religious affiliation. Hispanic Catholics are significantly more likely than other Catholics to say the Earth is getting warmer, according to a 2015 survey, and they have the same Pope.”

“It’s because of the alliance between conservative theology and conservative politics that has been deliberately engineered and fostered over decades of increasingly divisive politics on issues of race, abortion and now climate change, to the point where the best predictor of whether we agree with the science is simply where we fall on the political spectrum.”

The Influence Of Framing

“An important and successful part of that framing has been to cast climate change as an alternate religion. This is sometimes subtle, as the church sign that reads, ‘On Judgment Day, you’ll meet Father God not Mother Earth.’ Other times this point is made much more blatantly, like when Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told Glenn Beck in 2015 that ‘climate change is not a science, it’s a religion,’ or when Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said at a 2014 event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations that ‘the problem is Al Gore’s turned this thing into a religion.’

“Why is this framing so effective? Because some 72 percent of people in the United States already identify with a specific religious label, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. And if you are a Christian, you know what to do when a false prophet comes along preaching a religion that worships the created rather than the Creator: Reject it!

“So this framing plays right into the narrative that scientists are a godless bunch who have teamed up with liberals (and perhaps the Antichrist, according to some comments I’ve received) to rule the world and overthrow religion, an agenda that any right-minded believer will oppose until his or her dying breath. In fact, 51 percent of scientists said in a 2009 Pew survey that they believed in God or a universal spirit or higher power.”

Do You Believe In Climate Change?

When Katherine Hayhoe is asked if she believes in climate change, she says “No.” Why? Because that diffuses skepticism about her motives and opens the door to a candid discussion.

“I explain that climate change is not a belief system. We know that the Earth’s climate is changing thanks to observations, facts and data about God’s creation that we can see with our eyes and test with the sound minds that God has given us. And still more fundamentally,” she goes on to say, it allows her “to explain why it matters: because real people are being affected today; and we believe that God’s love has been poured in our hearts to share with our brothers and sisters here and around the world who are suffering.

“After hundreds, even thousands, of such conversations, I’ve grown to understand how much of this opposition to the idea that the climate is changing, that humans are responsible, that the impacts are serious and that the time to act is now, comes from fear: fear of loss of our way of life, fear of being told that our habits are bad for society, fear of changes that will leave us worse off, fear of siding with those who have no respect for our values and beliefs.

“But as a Christian, I believe the solution to this fear lies in the same faith that many non-Christians wrongly assume drives our rejection of the science. In the Apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy, he reminds us that we have not been given a spirit of fear. Fear is not from God. Instead, we’ve been given a spirit of power, to act rather than to remain paralyzed in anxiety, fear, or guilt; a spirit of love, to have compassion for others, particularly those less fortunate than us (the very people most affected by a changing climate); and a sound mind, to use the information we have to make good decisions.”

Connecting Identity To Action

“Connecting our identity to action is key, and that’s exactly why I don’t typically begin with science when starting conversations about climate change with those who disagree. Rather, I begin by talking about what we share most. For some, this could be the well-being of our community; for others, our children; and for fellow Christians, it’s often our faith.

“By beginning with what we share and then connecting the dots between that value and a changing climate, it becomes clear how caring about this planet and every living thing on it is not somehow antithetical to who we are as Christians, but rather central to it. Being concerned about climate change is a genuine expression of our faith, bringing our attitudes and actions more closely into line with who we already are and what we most want to be.

And that’s why I’m more convinced now than ever that the two most central parts of my identity — that of climate scientist and evangelical Christian — aren’t incompatible. They are what’s made me who I am.”

The Koch Brothers’ Influence

If you do not know this yet, the Koch Brothers have spent the past 50 years creating their own religion, one based not on a Higher Power but on the power of money. Their catechism is simple: the free market is good, government regulation is bad. For more on this subject, please see Jane Mayer’s exhaustively researched book Dark Money or Leonard’s equally well documented book Kochland.

The Koch playbook is all about creating doubt about climate science so Koch Industries can continue to rake in obscene profits based on the extraction, transportation, refining, and sale of oil and gas. ExxonMobil is on trial right now for lying to investors about what it knew about carbon emissions and a warming planet, but Koch Industries has been at the forefront of the campaign to demonize climate science longer than most Americans have been alive.

Early in their campaign, the decision was made to target evangelical Christians. The sales pitch was that climate scientist were concocting an alternate religion that would destroy the bedrock principles that underlie their beliefs. The campaign has succeeded far beyond the wildest dreams of Charles and David Koch. David died earlier this year.

Katherine Hayhoe’s words can undo the damage done by the cynical exploitation of evangelicals who have played for suckers by the Kochs. There is no rational reason why evangelicals should prefer the destruction of the Earth so Koch Industries can gorge itself further on profits derived from despoiling the Earth. Professor Hayhoe shows us how to address the fears of evangelicals — fears that have been shamelessly exploited by Koch Industries. There may be no more important lesson for us all in this time when the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance.