The following was first published in The Hill on January 31, 2019.
The boldness and urgency of a proposed Green New Deal has shaken Washington’s longstanding “inside the beltway” climate change inertia. The plan is backed by the Sunrise Movement and has garnered the support of new members of Congress like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez(D-N.Y.).
The Green New Deal sets an ambitious course to make the U.S. economy greenhouse gas-emission neutral, while prioritizing a just transition for workers and communities by 2030. Its emphasis on equity and locally-driven climate change responses echo principles that more than 20 rural-based climate policy organizations identified in 2015.
Those groups agreed that to meet the urgency of the climate challenge, new U.S. policy must be:
- Resilient: “Policy solutions need to focus on increasing the resiliency of our communities, economy, and the natural systems they depend on. We must prioritize climate responses that minimize emissions and community risk.”
- Equitable: “Policies must be constructed and delivered in ways that recognize historical and ongoing discrimination, and work to reduce—not increase—current and long-standing economic, racial, cultural, gender and other forms of inequality.”
- Diverse, democratic and locally determined: “Policies should encompass diverse solutions, utilize locally produced ideas, and respect the unique characteristics, culture and knowledge of each rural community. Local and community ownership of renewable energy and other key resources should be prioritized based on the benefits that accrue to rural economies.”
- Transformative and long term: “Climate policy must support approaches that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable in the long-term, and provide assistance and risk mitigation in making that transition, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged rural communities and residents.”
Rural America has much at stake when it comes to climate change. The National Climate Assessment outlined a series of daunting challenges for our farmers, including “increased rates of crop failure, reduced livestock productivity, and altered rates of pressure from pests, weeds, and diseases.” The report also identified a rural “climate gap,” where natural resource-based economies are particularly exposed to future climate disruptions.
While only 19 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, more than 90 percent of our geography is rural. Rural communities can provide climate answers, including:
- renewable energy production
- forests, farms and rangelands that capture carbon when managed appropriately
- the people and ingenuity to implement these solutions
While rural communities will be key in the transition to a low carbon economy, they also face challenges that make a just transition critical. Rural areas have lower employment levels, lower incomes, higher childhood poverty, worse housing, and worse access to health care than urban or suburban communities. Rural areas are more reliant on food assistance and face a crippling digital divide.
Within this context, rural-based groups identified a set of Rural Climate Policy Priorities in agriculture, conservation, education, energy, fisheries, forestry, health, infrastructure, recreation and tourism. As the Green New Deal develops, these rural-focused policies should inform the plan.
Unfortunately, the ambition and urgency of the Green New Deal is not an approach Washington does well. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rejected the call for a special Green New Deal Committee, instead reinstating a weaker Select Committee on Climate Change. Nevertheless, this committee could still play an important role. It should start with field hearings in communities that have recently experienced extreme damage associated with climate change, such as Paradise, California, devastated by recent wildfires, rural North Carolina hit by successive hurricanes, and tribal communities in Louisiana and the Inupiaq community in Alaska forced to relocate because of rising sea levels.
Rural areas forgotten by a dying coal industry are leading important conversations about a just transition, and Midwest farmers are increasingly adopting climate-resilient soil health practices that any climate committee should consider.
Washington is painfully behind the curve in responding to climate change. Earlier this month, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) downplayed climate concerns on his list of priorities. While his Senate counterpart Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) did list climate change, he oversaw the recently passed farm bill, which neglected to even mention climate change. Despite efforts in Washington to temper expectations on climate action, polling shows there is strong support for a Green New Deal.
As guideposts for a way forward, the Climate Justice Alliance has called for a Green New Deal rooted in “a just transition for workers and communities impacted by climate change” and as a tool to empower the grassroots. This approach is consistent with the principles outlined by rural-based organizations. As the Green New Deal takes shape, the transformative policies we need are unlikely to emerge from Washington, but will instead come from state and local governments, communities and leaders who have already started the movement.