State of the Union: Green Energy and Rural

Rural resistance has helped slow down the expansion of renewable energy production. It doesn’t have to be that way. For the President’s green-energy plans to succeed, he needs to reach out to the rural leaders who are ready to act on climate change.


President Barack Obama made urgent calls for new steps to address climate change in his State of the Union address yesterday, “for the sake of our children and our future.” While the focus was on renewable energy, he missed an opportunity to talk about the essential ingredient for addressing climate change: the support of rural communities.

A message from the Rural Assembly

Understanding rural communities’ concerns and interests around climate change and climate policy is the essential starting point. In general, their views are based upon their economic and social realities, which differ in some key ways from their urban counterparts, particularly around the issues of wages and energy costs. Rural residents, on average, earn less than urban residents, and expend a higher percentage of their income on transportation and energy. Existing farm and rural policy, and the farming and rural development that follow, pull in the opposite direction from what is needed to address climate change. For most farmers, fertilizer, pesticides, diesel fuel and propane used for crop drying represent some of the biggest crop production costs. Because these are mostly derived from fossil fuels, it is hardly a surprise that farmers would reflexively oppose any policies that result in higher fossil fuel costs—especially since neither agricultural researchers and educators nor agricultural policies and markets have done anything to promote or support viable, climate-friendly farm production options.

[imgcontainer left][img:barack-obama-state-of-the-union.jpg]President Obama addresses Congress Feb. 12, 2013

Rural opposition to effective climate policy is not inevitable and can be reversed. Rural communities have the highest potential to gain from a shift away from fossil fuel energy and inputs. Whether it is renewable energy, reinvigorated local food economies, or more carbon friendly land use, rural communities are where the “production” part of a carbon-friendly economy will happen, and where much of the benefit can be retained. However, to date, rural communities have not been a clear priority area for promised green jobs and climate-related development. Where green jobs and climate-related investments have been focused in rural areas (as in the case of wind and other renewable power production), the benefits have often gone to big corporations and bypassed the local communities where these facilities are located. 

For rural citizens and farmers to support climate policy and action, they need to see how policies, programs and new development and infrastructure address their existing concerns while also effectively meeting the long-term challenge of mitigating climate change itself. Simply put, to make progress on U.S. climate policy, we need to support and assist rural leaders who are ready to act. 

The next two years will be crucial. The way the climate issue is defined between now and the 2014 mid-term elections will determine the political context within which the Obama Administration approaches national policy as well as the international negotiations for a 2015 climate agreement. 

Let’s hope President Obama extends a hand to rural communities and starts us on the path toward real climate action.

Jim Kleinschmit is Rural Communities Program Director for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

A message from the Rural Assembly