Joan Kopacek and John Gleneau participate in the first Rural Climate Dialogue, held this June in Morris, Minnesota. (Courtesy of Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy)

[imgcontainer][img: Morris_RCD_Anna_small.jpg][source]Courtesy of Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy [/source]Joan Kopacek and John Gleneau participate in the first Rural Climate Dialogue, held this June in Morris, Minnesota. [/imgcontainer]

A first-of-its-kind community dialogue in rural Minnesota shows that residents with diverse political viewpoints can reach consensus on climate-change policy when the conversation addresses the unique needs of rural areas.

The success of this first Rural Climate Dialogue underscores the importance of honest, frank discussion about climate change in rural America.

Fifteen community members of Morris, Minnesota, a town of about 5,000 people in the west-central part of Minnesota, participated in the dialogue in June. The event was an intense, three-day, deliberative forum to discuss risks posed by climate change and to develop a shared, community-based response to changing weather patterns and extreme weather events.

The community members were randomly selected but demographically representative of the entire Morris population. Participants had access to resources and experts in a wide variety of subjects, including agriculture, energy and climatology. Surveys of the town’s energy use and costs were compiled by local high school students as a way of involving youth in the discussion and making the dialogue relevant to the broader community.

At the end of the three days, the participants produced their own independent recommendations on how the Morris area should respond to climate change. The top concerns were:

  • How low-income households would deal with the rising energy and food costs.
  • How extreme weather would affect agriculture, which is the community’s economic foundation.
  • How to make more community members aware of climate impacts.
  • And how to address those impacts in ways that serve the community’s best interests.

[imgcontainer right][img:Morris_Students_small.jpg][source]Courtesy of Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy [/source]High school students helped compile information that was used in the community dialogue. [/imgcontainer]

At the same time, the community members pinpointed local opportunities to strengthen the agricultural economy. These included promoting increased diversity of crop rotations, using water more efficiently and helping the Morris area residents increase their awareness of climate change and identify ways to be resilient to its impacts.

The community members, despite holding diverse political opinions on climate change, emerged from the dialogue with consensus that the community had to take steps to address climate change.

Given unbiased information and the space to formulate their own conclusions, it appears that rural residents want climate action just as much as their urban counterparts, if only a different type of climate action.

Fundamental differences exist between rural and urban communities that require different responses to climate change. For instance, homes and businesses are much farther apart in rural areas, causing families to rely more heavily on personal vehicles. Therefore, expanding public transportation in urban centers may reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions, but that urban solution won’t work the same way in a rural area.

Rural communities also have more access to natural resources than urban areas. Using these resources to develop renewable energy, biomaterials and other low-carbon alternatives could benefit rural areas economically, even as they help address climate change.

Even though many rural communities outside of the United States have been loudly calling for climate action, the U.S. is far behind other countries in the development, much less implementation, of national policy to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. But we have a unique opportunity to change that. In December 2015, Paris will host a United Nations climate-change convention intended to create global agreement on climate. It is essential to build momentum and policy support in the U.S. for emission reduction standards and climate change mitigation. Both of those goals require rural voices and support.

Timely action to address climate change is necessary to avoid catastrophe. Building consensus for climate policy will require developing a rural platform that takes into consideration the unique needs of natural resource-dependent communities. More deliberate, respectful and candid conversations about climate change and its impacts, like the one held in Morris, need to occur in rural areas to assemble an authentic platform that is truly representative of on-the-ground needs and concerns.

 Tara Ritter is a program associate for Climate and Rural Communities at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. IATP helped organize the Rural Climate Dialogue, along with the Jefferson Center.

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