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.
At the State Convening, rural participants identified and presented their shared climate action priorities, which included energy, infrastructure, and land use concerns. State agency staff also presented on a number of key climate issues for rural Minnesota, including available programs and technical support. Topics included clean energy and energy efficiency, climate-friendly agriculture, resilient transportation infrastructure, and health impacts of climate change on rural citizens who work mostly outdoors.
Rural citizens and state agency staff then strategized together on key priority next step actions within existing programs in the areas of land use (e.g. soil health, water quality, ecotourism), infrastructure (e.g. stormwater, transportation planning), and energy (e.g. clean energy, energy efficiency). The State Convening also identified areas where change is needed, including building a state program navigator for local government officials, encouraging more rural-focused research on climate resilience, sharing best practices between rural communities, and creating an ongoing space for state agency staff to engage constructively with rural citizens.
The meeting provided a useful space for state agencies and rural residents to learn from one another. John Geleneau, a participant from Stevens County, said, “even if you thought you knew a lot about climate change, the information that we were all given, the experts that were provided, really gave you a chance to gain so much more knowledge and be able to have a dialogue with other people with all the information that you learned.”
In addition, state agency staff were able to learn from one another. Marcie Weinandt from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture said, “I found it very useful knowing what other agencies are doing—there are few good forums for that.”