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Participants in the Winona Climate Dialogue, held from March 3-5 2016 on the Winona State University campus, identified opportunities for the region to respond to a changing climate. Opportunities included local development of clean energy, creating balanced watersheds, adopting agricultural best management practices, and striving for responsible land use practices.

The Winona Climate Dialogue was the third in a series of Rural Climate Dialogues organized throughout Minnesota by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Jefferson Center. The Rural Climate Dialogue model is a unique approach to engaging rural communities on climate change at the local level. Each Dialogue brings together a microcosm of a community to study local climate impacts in-depth for three days and generate a shared community response. The participants are chosen from a pool of individuals who respond to a mailing sent to 5,000 households in the county or to invitations in the local newspaper or on social media.

The Winona Climate Dialogue consisted of 18 individuals from across Winona County, an area of southeastern Minnesota on the Mississippi River marked by gorgeous bluffs and landscapes. Some of the participants had lived in Winona for their entire lives, and some had chosen to move to the area later in life. What united all the participants was a love of the area’s natural beauty, landscape and outdoor opportunities. In the opening introductions, one of the participants professed, “We live in God’s country!”

The Dialogue spanned three days and was filled with presentations, deliberation and priority setting. The first presentation was from Mark Seeley, Minnesota’s Extension Climatologist, who provided an overview of southeast Minnesota’s weather history and trends. This presentation provided a common understanding of how climate change is impacting the local area and was the foundation for the rest of the Dialogue. As one participant noted, “I’ve known there have been changes in the weather here, but not to this magnitude.”

Participants then heard presentations from local experts on energy, water, insurance, public health and agriculture. After each presentation, participants had the opportunity to ask questions and identify ways the community could address climate change’s impacts on that subject. At the end of the Dialogue, a participant said, “I learned that we all agreed a lot on what to do, even though we come from a wide variety of viewpoints and backgrounds.” 

The presentation topics were chosen based on conversations in the community in the months leading up to the Dialogue. City officials, teachers, business owners and other community members identified what topics best defined Winona County’s economic, social and environmental well-being and then local experts were identified to speak on those subjects.

On the third day of the Dialogue, participants returned to create their “Statement for our Neighbors”—a summary of top concerns, opportunities and actions to put forward for the rest of the community to see. People debated, voiced interests and concerns, and voted on what would make it into the statement. The statement will serve as a report to the rest of the community, including city and county officials, about what Winona County residents think should happen in the community to address extreme weather and climate change impacts locally.

The Dialogue closed with comments from each participant reflecting on their  experiences over the past three days. One participant noted, “From a personal standpoint, I feel like I grew. My views have changed. I was wrong—I was dead wrong.” Another said, “It was so nice to see that people do care, people do want to change. It was nice to see that, to know that you can make a difference and there are opportunities.”

Later in 2016, the Jefferson Center and Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy will convene a statewide meeting bringing together participants from all three Rural Climate Dialogues. The goal of this meeting is to share lessons learned among the three communities and communicate rural perspectives—which often aren’t apparent in climate policy—to Minnesota policymakers. As one Winona Climate Dialogue participant said, “One of the things we need to do is not only talk to our neighbors, but also some of our legislators.”