The U.S. Global Change Research Program released their Third National Climate Assessment on May 6; compiled by over 300 experts and peer reviewed by members of the public, climate change experts, federal agencies, and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, the report details the impacts of climate change on the United States, including impacts on water, energy, transportation, agriculture, and human health, among other sectors.
One chapter of the report focuses on rural communities, which are at-risk to be disproportionately affected by the direct impacts of climate change because of their high dependence on natural resources. At the same time, rural communities have a limited capacity to invest in public infrastructure, decreasing their preparedness for climate impacts. The National Climate Assessment says it best: “Responding to additional challenges from climate change impacts will require significant adaptation within rural transportation and infrastructure systems, as well as health and emergency response systems. Governments in rural communities have limited institutional capacity to respond to, plan for, and anticipate climate change impacts.”
At the same time, rural communities will play an integral role in addressing climate issues as much of the “production” in climate-friendly economies will occur in rural areas, including renewable energy, reinvigorated local food economies, and changes to land-use patterns. The Rural Climate Network, an IATP-led initiative to foster cross-sector collaboration and information dissemination of best practices for climate change in rural America, is already working at the intersection of these challenges and opportunities. However, more conversation and resources are needed at the community level to ensure viable solutions for climate change adaptation and mitigation.
IATP and the Jefferson Center are helping advance this work through our joint convening of a Rural Climate Dialogue this summer in Morris, Minnesota, a rural community with just over 5,000 residents in the west-central part of the state. The dialogue will follow the Jefferson Center’s proven Citizens’ Jury process, bringing together a randomly selected and demographically representative group of 15 Morris citizens for a few days to discuss community climate concerns and preparedness. The dialogue process aims to engage all community stakeholders from recreationists to faith communities, public utilities, farmers and government representatives in an honest, citizen-led discussion about the realities of climate change and volatile weather. Most importantly, the dialogue will offer an opportunity to begin discussing what the community can and should do to prepare and adapt.
As a precursor to the Rural Climate Dialogue, IATP and the Jefferson Center have been engaging Morris High School students in a student’s Citizens’ Jury process. This process has been less about generating actual climate solutions and more about arming students with real information on climate and effective communication and deliberation skills. Within their classrooms, students are discussing climate science, learning about the impacts climate change will have on Morris, and deliberating what responses they’d like to see. Outside the classroom, they are disseminating energy surveys to their family and neighbors to help better map the community’s energy situation and interest in energy savings and options. Aside from data collection, the survey opens up conversations between students and the adults in their life about climate change adaptation and mitigation, which are topics that may not arise at the dinner table very often.
Whether rural communities engage in climate conversations through their children, through community deliberation processes like the Rural Climate Dialogue, or through other avenues, these hard conversations have to happen. As of the 2010 Census, over 95 percent of the land in the United States was classified as rural, but only 19.3 percent of the population called that area home. As a result, that 19.3 percent have a disproportionately large impact on our country’s climate preparedness. The initial Rural Climate Dialogue in Morris aims to pave the way for many more Rural Climate Dialogues which could increase rural America’s community and natural capacity to respond to the challenges that climate change inevitably presents.
At top: Anna Claussen, IATP’s Director of Rural Strategies, guides students at Morris High School through the Community Energy Survey on May 5, 2014.