Rural communities vary greatly in their geographies, economies, and politics, but one similarity is that they will all be impacted by climate change, and the people that live there have an important story to tell. The Rural Climate Dialogues (RCDs), co-hosted by IATP and the Jefferson Center, sought to explore how climate change is manifesting in rural communities across Minnesota. A newly-released set of 8 video interviews with RCD participants tells the stories of how climate change has impacted them and their communities.
Many of the stories convey a stark contrast between rural life as a child and present day conditions. Troy Goodnough from Morris said, “I love my state, I love Minnesota, I love being Minnesotan, and I love winter. But I’m not really sure that I’m going to get cross country skis for my son, because the winter’s not really there… The way that my son will experience Minnesota isn’t going to be the same way I experienced it as a kid.”
The next Secretary of Agriculture will have to hit the ground running, because the manure is hitting the fan. Farm income has fallen for three straight years. The farm income to debt ratio is the highest since 1985. President Trump’s decision to tear up the Trans Pacific Partnership, pick a fight with Mexico and threaten other key trading partners limits the potential for expanded exports. Trump’s executive order to crackdown on new immigrants will likely disrupt dairy, fruit and vegetable production and meat processing in the U.S. A series of proposed seed/chemical company mergers threatens to greatly reduce farmers’ seed choices. And extreme weather events linked to climate change continue to disrupt agricultural production around the country.
For his part, President Trump seems to have put farmers and the rural economy on the back burner. Trump’s pick for Agriculture Secretary, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, was the last of his cabinet selections. Perdue is embedded in industrialized agriculture. He grew up on a farm, and has run businesses selling fertilizer, grain and a broad array of agricultural exports. But nothing in his background indicates he has the vision and leadership to address the big and increasingly complex challenges facing farmers today.
The past few months have been as much about looking ahead as they have been about coping with life in post-election America, a space that feels post-apocalyptic for many. Americans and people across the globe have been processing their emotions, trying to understand a vote that came as a surprise to many, and in some cases pausing to reflect on rural realities seemingly ignored by the Democratic Party. Voting patterns in the election brought to the surface just how little understanding there is between rural and urban Americans. What can we learn from this? If we stop oversimplifying the Presidential vote—and the voters themselves—we may recognize that people are complex, emotional beings. Many are recognizing the need for Americans to increase our understanding of others and pondering just how to do that. Here are a few good starting points.
Today, politics have become more about identity than policy. This was evidenced in Trump’s campaign, which rarely detailed his stance on policies, but never failed to send a loud, clear, and indeed, successful message of inclusion to rural Americans who felt misunderstood and ignored. The sorting and categorization of communities by race, gender, education levels and shared ideologies is a practice further entrenched by this election, one in which many voters used their vote as one of protest.
As evidenced in the 2016 election, the long-standing urban-rural voting gap is widening. At least part of this gap comes from the fact that rural communities often have different cultural, economic, and community concerns than urban communities. Climate change specifically will impact rural and urban communities differently, yet many climate solutions and policies focus on urban and suburban perspectives. To address this, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Jefferson Center organized a State Convening of rural Minnesotans, state agency representatives, and nonprofit organizations last September in St. Paul. Participants strategized together to improve the effectiveness of state agency program offerings and make them relevant to rural needs and priorities.
The State Convening was the culmination of three Rural Climate Dialogues that took place from 2014-2016 in Morris, Grand Rapids, and Winona, MN. The Rural Climate Dialogues were created to provide a space for rural residents to think critically and plan strategically to address local challenges related to extreme weather and climate change. All three dialogues identified the need to strengthen connections between local efforts and state agencies and programs.
In country star Jason Aldean’s song Fly over States, he overhears first class passengers on a flight from New York to LA, looking down on the countryside and wondering, “who’d want to live down there, in the middle of nowhere.” Aldean then flips the dismissive line into a proud anthem about the middle of the country. Like the song, Donald Trump flipped the predictions of the professional political class and rode a wave of support from many people who felt over-looked in those fly over states all the way to the Presidency.
The power of the so-called fly over states in the election is impossible to ignore. The electoral maps tell the story. A swath of red, often mostly rural, states in the middle and south of the country, bookended by blue states on the coasts. Even within the few Midwest blue states like Minnesota and Illinois, you can see the stark divide between how urban and rural counties saw the candidates. A look back at the 2012 electoral map tells us this divide is not new, but perhaps wasn’t taken seriously by many Democrats because President Obama won. As the Daily Yonder reports, the long-standing urban-rural voting gap is widening. At least part of this voting gap can be attributed to the Democratic Party’s loss of credibility on a number of core issues that affect the lives of rural communities in those so-called fly over states.
The two-day Minnesota Rural Climate Dialogue State Convening got underway today bringing together citizens from rural communities in the state. Over the past two years, Rural Climate Dialogues held throughout Minnesota in Stevens, Itasca and Winona Counties brought together groups of rural citizens to learn and deliberate about the effects of climate change and extreme weather in their communities, and create plans for how their communities should act to sustain and improve resilience. Over the course of two days, rural citizens from each of the three communities are convening to recall and share their community plans, form statewide rural climate priorities and present them to state agency staff to connect them with existing financial and technical assistance programs.
The day kicked off with introductions. People shared what they do for work—the group included sustainability and healthcare professionals, timber mill and railroad employees, and farmers—but everyone focused primarily on the pride they have for their communities. People talked about the beauty of rivers, bluffs and forests and their towns’ engaged residents. Everyone agreed that their communities had countless assets worth preserving, and that many of those assets are at risk from extreme weather and climate change impacts.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the announcement of the Clean Power Plan, President Obama and the EPA’s regulation to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants. While the Clean Power Plan focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it also includes a program to make sure all communities benefit from a clean energy transition. This program—the Clean Energy Incentive Program—is currently open for comment, providing an important opportunity to shape the environmental justice and rural implications of the Clean Power Plan.
The Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP) is a voluntary part of the Clean Power Plan that provides support for low-income communities to undertake renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. The CEIP will match state funds to incentivize early investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency before the Clean Power Plan’s first compliance deadline in 2020. The renewable energy projects can happen anywhere, but the energy efficiency projects must happen in low-income communities. This is an excellent opportunity to level the playing field for low-income communities, which often face barriers to accessing renewables and energy efficiency upgrades.
In early March, farmers and rural residents of southeast Minnesota gathered for three intensive days of presentations, discussion and deliberation around the thorny issue of climate change. The Winona, Minnesota Climate Dialogue participants, most of them in shirts and jeans, were a blend of ages, cultural backgrounds and jobs. Some had lived in the community their whole lives, while others had moved to the area recently. All said they loved where they lived and cared about its natural beauty—ideally positioned where fertile farmland meets the deeply carved Mississippi River Valley. But, all certainly did not come to the table with any shared view of climate change or common political perspective.
There is a common misconception that you can’t talk about climate change in rural communities because the issue is considered too polarizing. Many would likely wage a bet that a climate discussion would paralyze Winona residents, divide them, and lead to more finger pointing than hand holding. But not here. Despite their differing viewpoints, the 18 participants in the Winona County Climate Dialogue produced a collective statement and action plan, crafted solely using participant input, based on six topical presentations from local experts on weather trends, energy use, water, insurance, public health and agriculture in Winona County.
The controversial new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has been a tough sell for the Obama Administration. The top four Presidential candidates oppose its passage and support in Congress is waning. The road to TPP approval got a little tougher when 161 food, farm, faith and rural organizations sent a letter to Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to reject the deal.
“The main beneficiaries of the TPP are the companies that buy, process and ship raw agricultural commodities, not the farmers who face real risks from rising import competition. TPP imports will compete against U.S. farmers who are facing declining farm prices that are projected to stay low for years,” the organizations wrote.
At a time when the farm economy is struggling, the 12-nation TPP is being sold as a boost to farmers. But many farm groups are not buying it. “Trade deals do not just add new export markets—the flow of trade goes both ways—and the U.S. has committed to allowing significantly greater market access to imports under the TPP,” the groups explained.
An IATP paper earlier this month raised concerns about the impact of increased imports of milk and whey protein concentrates from the largest dairy exporting company in the world, based in the TPP country New Zealand. U.S. dairy farmers are already suffering under a climate of extremely low prices.
In this season of political speeches and debates, a harmful myth continues to surface: taking action on climate change will ravage the economy. Recently, this myth has been applied to the Clean Power Plan, the first regulation in the U.S. to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants.
In February 2016, the Supreme Court halted implementation of the Clean Power Plan until a federal appeals court rules on its legality in June 2016. Although implementation of the plan has been stayed, officials in the Obama Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency remain confident that they have strong legal footing and that the Clean Power Plan will resume as planned once it has made its way through the courts.
A new IATP report, titled “The Clean Power Plan: Opportunities for an Equitable Energy Transition in Rural America,” outlines how the Clean Power Plan can benefit all communities, especially the rural communities that produce most of the nation’s energy. The report makes the case that the artificial divide between the environment and the economy obscures the many opportunities for rural America that come along with clean energy development.