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Extreme weather brought on by climate change will affect each community differently. Rural communities face particular challenges, as they often have higher transportation and energy costs, and their economy is frequently linked to agriculture—a sector directly impacted by a changing climate. But as we learned at the first Rural Climate Dialogue held in Morris, Minn., last week there are effective community-level options to respond to these climate concerns—as well as important opportunities for rural communities to be part of the climate solution.

The small town of Morris lies in west-central Minnesota along the Pomme de Terre River. This town of 5,000 is surrounded by farms, and is also home to the University of Minnesota-Morris. Last week, 15 Morris-area citizens came together for a remarkable conversation about climate change, how it is affecting their community and what can be done for the future. The citizens were part of a Citizens Jury process perfected and run by the Jefferson Center. The Citizens Jury is a randomly selected, but demographically representative group, who, over the course of three days, had access to independent resources and experts to produce their own recommendations that respond to the Morris-area community’s needs, priorities, concerns and values. As we reported earlier, Morris High School students played a critical role in assembling data for the meeting through a series of local energy surveys. 

The three-day process allowed the Citizens Jury to hear from, and question, a series of local experts including the University of Minnesota’s climatologist, the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, the Morris City Manager, the local power company (Otter Tail Power), and the University of Miinnesota – Morris Sustainability Coordinator.

The result was a strong statement outlining community concerns and opportunities, and a list of concrete recommendations. Concerns for the Morris community included: the impact possible increases in energy and food costs could have on low- and fixed-income residents, and the possible negative effects of climate change on local farmers. The Citizens Jury also identified opportunities to sustain and actually strengthen its agricultural economy in responding to climate change, and that the Morris community can use local expertise and resources to build a more resilient local economy.

“Climate change is happening and we need to adapt our behavior and infrastructure to meet the challenges of our new world, which include extreme weather events, financial difficulties and long-term adverse effects on agriculture,” said the Morris citizen statement. “Climate change presents short- and long-term challenges and opportunities for everyone. We must all participate to solve these issues. Education is key.”

The Morris citizens issued a series of recommendations for the Morris area community to pursue including: home assessments for structural and energy-saving improvements; better water management to deal with flooding and erosion; the encouragement of greater crop diversity and crop rotations; the discussion of climate change in K-12 education; and the need to hold town meetings where more members of the community can generate and discuss new ideas.

You can read more details about the Morris’ dialogue at the Rural Climate Network’s Dialogue page, including a breakdown of each day, the final executive statement and a recap of the student’s Citizen’s Jury process conducted in May. A longer report from the Morris Citizens Jury will be coming out in the next few weeks. IATP and the Jefferson Center are in the process of identifying other rural communities that might be interested in holding a Rural Climate Dialogue.

Morris is one of the many smaller, rural towns across the country that have been largely been left out of national discussions about how to address climate change, but it’s clear that it’s time for a shift. Climate change has been so overly politicized that many have lost track of the true challenges it poses at the community level, and of the fact that those communities know best how to address those challenges. Our rural communities are great places to live; we must secure them for the next generation. As one Morris student shared in reflection of the student jury process conducted at the High School, “Climate change is going to affect business and the agricultural world […] I really thought about how this change is going to affect my generation and those that come after me so I am ready to do something about climate change.”