Supercell thunderstorm over the Texas Panhandle. (Photo by Raychel Sanner / Unsplash)

Last month, Hawaii narrowly dodged another powerful hurricane. Wildfires raged across California, causing more than 8,000 people to evacuate their homes as the temperature outside soared above 105 degrees. Simultaneously on the East Coast, Hurricane Isaias triggered tornadoes, fires, flooding, and widespread power outages.

“Climate crisis is not going away. We’re not getting a break from it,” says Dr. Danny Richter, vice president of government affairs for Citizen’s Climate Lobby. 

It’s quite the contrast to spring when the rapidly evolving pandemic had created almost a sense of climate complacency. With all eyes on the virus and quarantine resulting in a reprieve from substantial carbon emissions, people shared images across social media of animals reclaiming urban areas and oceans clearing for the first time in decades. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) published a report predicting that due to multi-month lockdowns and slow global recovery, it’s likely “annual energy demand will drop by 6% in 2020,” a decline not seen in 70 years.

However, the immediate outcomes of the world’s Covid-19 response could never outweigh the climate crisis’ alarming progression. The summer’s series of natural disasters and a tug-of-war between drought and heavy, damaging precipitation have illustrated this dire reality.

Despite the overwhelming circumstances delivered by 2020, Richter, like others, is looking ahead with hope and creativity. He sees interconnected ways to tackle climate issues and the economic recovery once the pandemic has been brought under control. “The trick is going to be coming out of this and putting people back to work in a way that is rebuilding better,” he says. 

As the economy continues to buckle, rural communities are feeling it deeply, while also struggling with the logistics of larger aging populations, underfunded medical facilities, and intermittent gaps in supply lines. 

The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, H.R. 763, for which Richter and his team are advocating, could be part of the solution. It’s forecasted to generate 2.1 million new jobs as a result of growth in local communities across the country. It would also alleviate some of the financial burden on low and middle-income Americans in rural areas by putting money back into their pockets to spend as they see fit. 

Here’s how it works: “We are pumping massive amounts of certain pollutants into our upper atmosphere that are accumulating there for free,” explained John Kondos, a clean energy advocate in New England. By putting a price on carbon emissions, it discourages the use of fossil fuels and incentivizes green alternatives.

“It’s a simple, well-communicated, proven solution to a broken market system,” Kondos says. But won’t renewable energy cost more? That’s where the dividend balances things out. Funds obtained through carbon fees would be divided equally and returned to consumers. Those with a small carbon footprint to begin with, which is often the case for rural households, could even earn extra cash in this model. “It’s equitable; it’s effective, and it’s efficient,” Kondos notes.

And It already has traction with Congress. In January, House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy held a party-wide meeting with republicans, urging them to focus on climate solutions. “This was really exceptional,” Richter says. Instead of worrying they could be punished for being forward on climate, republicans were told they would be rewarded.

Positioned as a bipartisan solution, H.R. 763 is a particularly attractive choice for politicians who need to appeal to rural voters because the bill specifically addresses the rightful concerns of farmers. Our nation’s food producers have no room to absorb additional energy costs, especially in a post-pandemic economy. 

That’s why the bill includes a fee exemption for fossil fuels used for agricultural purposes, including dyed diesel. “We can help farmers feed us,” Richter says, noting that agriculture only amounts to approximately 0.06% of overall emissions.

H.R. 763 would also generate rebates for businesses implementing carbon capture and sequestration strategies, offering fertilizer manufacturers “a bigger rebate for putting it [carbon] in the ground instead of selling it to Coca Cola,” Richter explains. That incentive would lead to lower-cost fertilizer for farmers to take advantage of. 

Richter says ensuring these kinds of provisions in the new legislation is important because rural residents and farmers directly experience climate change, including the effects on their livelihoods. “Because they are so close to nature, and they value nature so much, they have a really important voice,” he notes. 

But as policymakers debate the way forward, the question is: Will those voices make themselves heard? “My main message to them would be that Congress wants to hear from them. They are uniquely positioned to observe and point out the impacts of this crisis we all feel,” Richter said.


Radically Rural explores ways rural leaders are building stronger communities through innovative strategies. 

In 2020, Radically Rural: Remote will feature six tracks on September 24, focusing on key sectors of importance to rural America: Main streets, entrepreneurship, community journalism, arts and culture, land and communities, and clean energy. 
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