Rural Roundtable: Climate Change

We asked our Rural Roundtable crew to weigh in on what climate change means in small communities and what is being done to deal with it.

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The Daily Yonder has teamed up with the National Rural Assembly to produce a new series here we’re calling the Rural Roundtable. You may remember the first installment, a couple months ago, about the best bits of 2015.

The idea is to assemble a motley crew of rural advocates, writers, thinkers, pop-culture enthusiasts, farmers, storytellers and malcontents, ask them to comment on a few questions and let them answer as they like. Some will give straightforward answers, others may give anecdotes, stories, cartoons, Creed lyrics (probably won’t publish those), tangential tirades, or limericks. We’ll then compile those answers and present them to you on one page.

This month we’ve asked our team about climate change. Here are the questions we asked participants to consider:

  • What is the biggest threat climate change poses to rural communities? Is it the same or different for urban communities?
  • Do you see resistance to efforts to address climate change among your rural neighbors and fellow leaders? What does engagement look like in your community?
  • What has surprised you or encouraged you about the way your community is responding?

— Shawn Poynter, Rural Roundtable Rounder-upper

 

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Lora Smith, Kentucky, philanthropist, folklorist, small farmer.

Lora Smith
Lora Smith

I think one of the most immediate threats is the threat climate change poses to rural economies. In my corner of rural, the climate crisis is effecting both farmers and miners. Unpredictable weather certainly has an effect on people’s ability to farm and produce food. We’re just starting to see the beginnings of that here. Last year we had a winter that started late and then snows that lasted until late March. It threw everyone off. There was flooding too and at our farm we lost half a field  that got washed away in the creek. Old-timers in our county said it was the worst flooding they’d seen in their lifetime.  If we continue to be reckless with our climate, changes in our food system will eventually destabilize everyone’s security. While that’s happening, the mining industry around us is exiting the area. There’s a much needed push for significant federal and private investment in coal producing counties that are experiencing massive job losses due to the changing economics of America’s energy production.  It’s what the President’s calling for in his PowerPlus plan.

In terms of differences, I think there are place-based differences everywhere in how communities are feeling the climate crisis.  But one thing that’s across the board is that low-income people are being hit first and will be hurt the most. What’s important is that we find common ground across lines of race, class and geography to work on both policy and applied solutions together.

In Kentucky, there is definitely resistance to addressing climate change by many of our political leaders. It’s a coal state and the coal jobs are leaving. While there’s a lot of misinformation out there, disbelief in fossil fuel’s role in climate change and blaming of the EPA and Obama,  the prevailing  “War on Coal” narrative that’s dominated our airwaves for the last decade is starting to fade.  People are hurting. It’s a scary time. But I also think there’s a growing  belief that communities have the answers to solve their own problems. While there is federal help on the way, it’s up to communities to write their future.

I think what I see the most are communities around me being proactive. Taking things head on. Many of us are working toward an Appalachian economic transition. One pathway is through the development of an ecosystem of social enterprises in Appalachia. The movement to support businesses that meet a triple bottom line- good for people, profit and the planet- is one approach I find hopeful. Our farm is a social enterprise so I try to walk my talk  daily through being organically certified, having low-fossil fuel inputs on the farm, and selling locally.

People are also starting to think about new ways to transition ownership and use of the massive amount of acreage we have in Abandoned Mine Lands. There are uses for those lands that could be climate beneficial through restoration and reforestation efforts that capture carbon and create jobs. Likewise, better policies for renewables and energy efficiency are being pushed by community members on the frontlines at the local and state levels.

I’m a child of the South and through my work at a foundation that funds throughout the Southeast, I get to witness some really hopeful and innovative movements coming together.  There’s a growing movement to democratize energy cooperatives. Here in Kentucky, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth is leading that work. With partners they are changing the way a historic coal town in Harlan County will chart their energy future through a municipal-owned utility. In the Deep South, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an African-American farmers cooperative, is beginning work to democratizing their rural electric cooperatives in very poor rural communities of color. Same in Mississippi with the work my colleague Derrick Johnson is doing at One Voice. By democratizing and getting rural folks invested in the future on the boards of these electric cooperatives, community members can lobby for cleaner power alternatives.  That’s important, because rural cooperatives are among the most resistant to the Clean Power Plan and are the most dependent on coal for economic reasons. They have concerns over the debt they owe for coal-fired power plants and the heavy financial lift it’ll take to bring renewable energy online.  In poor  rural communities, who’s going to pay for that?  If communities can get more thoughtful and forward thinking leadership on those rural utility boards, there’s hope things will change and the best possible solutions will win out over burying our heads in the sand. It’s a difficult road ahead, but  I’m encouraged every day by the  hopeful work I see happening across the South.

 

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Joe_ Schroeder_mug
Joe Schroeder

Joe Schroeder, Kentucky, small farmer and agricultural entrepreneur.

The consolidation of our food and seed supply gets my vote as the biggest threat from climate change for all people rural or otherwise. What’s worse for rural people is that we’re the ones trying to farm and/or survive in farm and land based communities.

Globally only a few corn and soybean varieties are accessible to most farmers and they are grown almost exclusively in the most economically fragile rural places in a handful of countries- most notably ours.

In much of rural America -as in other global  grain belts- all of these places where economies of scale have pushed small and midscale farmers out one (or thousands) at a time, we have effectively whittled down the most precious land and knowledge-based resources we had to manage, let alone fight, the effects of climate change.

It’s a fragile system and there are real dangers.

Our country’s policies continue to feed an agriculture commodity system where the cost of production is higher than the price of grain and this trend shows no sign of slowing. Price is driven almost exclusively by and for a few councils made of corporate lawyers representing chicken companies and Wall Street.

The commodity farmers who got enough credit to get big instead of getting out aren’t the enemies and a worse fate is in store for them if we’re unable to adapt out of dependency. A community’s exposure to a single bad year can mean huge transfers of rural land, knowledge and resources to banks. Banks aren’t very good at growing food and don’t see the risks as worth the credit for someone else to farm.

Farmers are the first to deal with unpredictable weather and if they lose because of it you better believe they’re going to identify the variables that snuck up on them and try to understand how to deal with that risk next year. The problem is they too often get locked in – whether it’s not having access to a seed supplier who carries non-GMO seed, being forced to make big investments in equipment like sprayers, chemicals, licenses, or dependency on leased land where they have no incentive for long term soil health and where it’s not economical to cultivate or use other weed management strategies than roundup.

Commodity farmers are on too thin margins to have the privilege of considering long term benefits, especially if it’s not land they own (and there’s a whole lot of leased farmland these days.) Hell in many cases you can’t get insurance unless you follow the spray schedule and how could a farmer transition to organic in this new climate environment with 3 years of no crop insurance. Crop insurance has come a long way recently Qbut the major land transitions into organic/agroecogical production that could harness the power to both manage carbon and also supply more reliable food sources are still up against huge barriers and in need of coordinated international support.

The handful of companies that own and supply commodity crop seeds and production systems have yet to prove any advantage from their investment in new breeding for drought or climate resilience. Millennia old crop breeding methods along with organic production prove more stable when met with too much rain or too little.  There’s been an increase in organic production systems and more awareness about organic from consumers which is encouraging.

I’ve seen pretty amazing practical designs in production and farm infrastructure that protect against too much or not enough rain. Usually the most at risk, with the most to lose, are the first to figure out how to deal with their problems whether they have money or not. The most resourceful design is the most relevant and therefore adopted and luckily there are still quite a few smart but broke farmers out there.

 

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Sarina Otaibi, Minnesota, nonprofit conservationist and city council member.

Sarina Otaibi
Sarina Otaibi

Because of a rural community’s size and resources, it is more difficult for them to respond to severe weather events than it may be for urban communities. However, the mutual aid that small cities provide each other in times of crisis are invaluable. Many rural communities know what it means to help your neighbors because you will probably need their help in the future.

In additions, it appears to be more difficult for municipalities and rural electric cooperatives to respond when asked to clean up their energy supply because investments have already been made with long-term commitments to fossil fuel generation.

The state of Minnesota recognizes the need for climate change preparedness and that commitment is filtering down to the community level. But there is still resistance in some rural communities to address and/or accept climate change. Then there are other rural communities where the commitment to take action on climate change have taken hold, especially when it comes to building energy systems for the future. Rural communities across the state are investing in infrastructure and preparedness planning to become more resilient to natural disasters like floods and heat waves.

My community is surrounded by agriculture. Most farmers clearly recognize that we have a change in climate without acknowledging where it is coming from. But they are adapting their farming practices to seasonal changes and changes in precipitation patterns. They are also recognizing new opportunities that come from a changing climate like a longer growing season.

To continue the momentum of addressing climate change, cities and farmers will need to engage with each other more often to share their resources and knowledge of how they are dealing with a changing climate. But for most individuals in Minnesota’s rural communities, it is still a difficult issue for them to speak about or to admit it as a reality.

Rural communities across Minnesota including my own community of Granite Falls are beginning to recognize and take advantage of opportunities to install renewable energy like wind and solar with incentives from the federal government. A significant transformation at the community level to cleaner energy generation and investments in energy efficiency reflects a response to climate change. Over the last couple of years, I have witnessed more rural communities in Minnesota making that transformation. I am encouraged by the positive momentum towards ]solar, wind, and energy efficiency.

 

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Billy_Altom_mug
Billy Altom

Billy Altom, Arkansas, disability rights activist and musician. Read Billy’s tweet here: @arwheelbilly.

One of the biggest threats climate change brings to rural America is its impact on our infrastructure.  With the unstable weather patterns, we have seen tornadic havoc throughout

middle America, flooding on the east coast and fires out west.  These events devastate our roads, electric grids and water systems (and the list goes on).  And, with shrinking budgets, our ability to repair or replace these critical services gets strung out over time.  Forcing some to leave their homes permanently.

However, we rural American’s are a resilient bunch:  neighbor helping neighbor, community helping community.  These dramatic events may finally cause us to recognize the short comings of our infrastructure systems and reprioritize our spending.  If only this was an election year……

 

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Wayne Myers, Maine, retired pediatrician and rural medical educator.wayne-myers_mug

It seems to me that rural communities are more exposed to climate change than are urban centers. The major economic bases of most urban communities are relatively independent of climate. These bases include wholesale and retail distribution, financial services, medical care. Many, perhaps most, rural communities are economically depend on the physical environment in some way; farming, summer and winter participant sports, commercial fishing, hunting, tourism to scenic attractions. The economic vigor of many of these enterprises are highly dependent, directly or indirectly, on weather and climate. There will be winners and losers among rural communities as our climate shifts. More rural than urban communities will suffer as their climate dependent economic bases are destabilized.

Here in Mane there seems to be little denial of climate change Some commercial fisheries have been damaged or destroyed by warming of the waters of the Gulf of Maine. Damage to coastal property by extreme storms, enhanced by rising sea levels has been widely and repeatedly publicized. The spread of human and wildlife diseases carried by climate dependent agents such as Lyme disease, spread by deer ticks, is well known. On the other hand there is no consensus that actions Maine people might take could reduce climate change. A traditionally conservative electorate which is closely tied to the ocean, forests and outdoor recreation seems genuinely conflicted.

Environmental organizations are robust in Maine. The Maine Organic Farmers‘ and Gardeners’ Association is the largest such organization in the U.S. with over ten thousand members. Members value climate care just as highly as other environmental issues and plan accordingly in managing their lives and land. Maine is becoming increasingly reforested for a mixture of economic and environmental reasons Local and regional land preservation trusts are active across most of the state.

The basic dynamics of climate change seem to be widely understood. Cooperative solar panel arrays with many families owning shares are springing up. Train and bus services are expanding. Carbon sequestration in forests is recognized and included in land management decisions. Cheap land drew many young “hippies” to Maine in the 1970’s. They are now active in progressive politics and public life….an interesting long term unexpected consequence.

 

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Julianne Couch, Iowa, writer. Read Julianne’s feed on TwitterJulianne_Couch_mug

The threat posed by climate change to communities of any size depends on where they are located, it seems to me. Here in the Midwest severe tornados are becoming more frequent, but of course, hurricanes are not. In the Midwest our warmer winters have given longer life to insects from ticks and mosquitos to emerald ash borers. Like with the storms, these events occur in urban and rural areas, alike. It is about geography.

I live in a small community settled 180 years ago by European problem solvers. Their descendants haven’t changed much over the generations. If a tree is buggy, it is cut down. If a snowstorm hits, all streets are cleared by day’s end. For better or worse, there isn’t a lot of time spent wondering why these conditions occur with more frequency.

Sometimes it disturbs me to see that not everyone recycles when the city comes twice a month for pickup. Or that not everyone hauls their empties back to the town’s one grocery store for the five cent refund in this “bottle bill” state. On the other hand, almost everyone grows vegetables or clusters with family or friends or neighbors who do. People bake, can, jelly, pickle, fish, hunt or otherwise procure enough food by their own hand to last until the next ice age. People do the responsible thing–most of them, much of the time. The guiding principal is that wastefulness costs too much. Last fall we practically had a bidding war over the leaves we’d raked and bagged. One friend wanted them to compost the dozens of saplings he’d planted on his rural property. The other wanted to feed her goats. We gave each person half. We let them keep the plastic bags.

 

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Savannah Barrett, Kentucky, rural arts advocate.

Savannah Barrett
Savannah Barrett

Climate Change will drastically impact both rural and urban communities, and perhaps most of all, will underscore their interdependence. Rural America is diverse, and rural regions of the U.S. will be impacted in different ways. Across the board, one of our greatest challenges will be resilience, as we are forced to adapt to changes population and migration, economy, and the health of our natural environments.

Rural America is highly dependent on natural resource economies like agriculture, forestry, outdoor recreation, and energy production. These natural resource economies stand to see the most impact from climate change, and that challenge is exacerbated by rural America’s comparative lack of diversified economies. In some parts of rural America, water scarcity and decreased snow pack is the biggest challenge, and will threaten agricultural futures and complex ecosystems like the Olympic Peninsula and the Giant Sequoias. In my home region of Kentucky, the potential for increased precipitation will impact the viability of commodity agriculture, and increased erosion and subsequent agricultural runoff into the water table will adversely affect the bio-diversity of our streams and cave systems.

Though the form of natural disaster is varied across various regions, floods, hurricanes, and tornados will be more common across many rural regions. These storms will continue to stress rural America’s aging infrastructure, which many rural municipalities have neither the “rainy-day” fund nor the tax base to improve. Dams and bridges will need to be reinforced to withstand the heightened challenges that climate change will bring, and those costs alone could bankrupt rural regions. That said, urban communities are also reliant on our food and energy production, and should be sharing these burdens for the sake of their own viability.

We know that we have to change the way we produce and consume energy. As energy production in coal, oil, and natural gas declines, cost will rise and will eventually transform transportation systems. In my experience, few rural communities have access to comprehensive public transportation. Most rural Americans are dependent on cars, and farm and construction businesses are further reliant on other gas engines. Many commute significant distances to work, and many rural communities have also become dependent on big box stores that truck in goods. As auto transportation costs rise, so will the costs of these goods and the costs of commuting to work. Rural America will require a more closed economic loop to sustain their communities and weather these economic shifts.

On the upside, there are also opportunities for rural America embedded in these significant global challenges. As sea levels rise inland rural communities can likely expect population gains in the coming decades. Some coastal cities will lose inhabitable land and face a cost of living increase. This challenge could escalate with trials to their physical infrastructure that will require higher public investment. I’d imagine that more folks will be concerned with water scarcity, and water-rich rural states like those bordering the Mississippi and Ohio rivers may see increased property values and increased population. This could mean more diverse economies and stronger tax bases for these rural regions, but will also mean that the people who have lived in these regions for generations, many of them poor and working class, could be endangered by the increased demand of their homelands and natural abundance. Rural communities are less likely to have landscape planners on staff in their municipalities, and are less likely to have comprehensive plans that include forward-thinking planning for climate change. That brings us back to resilience. Adaptability is our greatest strength, and rural America will need an educated citizenry capable of understanding our rights and our competitive advantages, so that we can face these global challenges with informed and progressive policies that will benefit our communities.

 

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Bob Reeder, Program director for Rural LISC.

Bob Reeder
Bob Reeder

It is a little difficult to assess or rather to quantify threat levels. But that said: clearly changing weather patterns and the severity of those patterns as manifested by prolonged drought, wildfires, floods, etc. have more of an impact on the economic livelihoods of rural communities where many residents still make their living “from the land”. I would add that the looming water crises does pose a significant threat to all communities.

 

 

 

 

 

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