Red state rural America is acting on climate change – without calling it #climatechange

One primary concern in rural areas: higher temperatures put strain on water and energy sources. AP Photo/Robert Ray
One primary concern in rural areas: higher temperatures put strain on water and energy sources. AP Photo/Robert Ray

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, University of North Dakota

President Donald Trump has the environmental community understandably concerned. He and members of his Cabinet have questioned the established science of climate change, and his choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has sued the EPA many times and regularly sided with the fossil fuel industry.

Even if the Trump administration withdraws from all international climate negotiations and reduces the EPA to bare bones, the effects of climate change are happening and will continue to build.

In response to real threats and public demand, cities across the United States and around the world are taking action to address climate change. We might think this is happening only in large, coastal cities that are threatened by sea-level rise or hurricanes, like Amsterdam or New York.

Research shows, however, that even in the fly-over red states of the U.S. Great Plains, local leaders in small- to medium-size communities are already grappling with the issue. Although their actions are not always couched in terms of addressing climate change, their strategies can provide insights into how to make progress on climate policy under a Trump administration.

‘Deliberate framing’

My colleagues and I did a survey of over 200 local governments in 11 states of the Great Plains region to learn about steps they’re taking to mitigate the effects of climate change and to adapt to them. We found local officials in red states responsible for public health, soil conservation, parks and natural resources management, as well as county commissioners and mayors, are concerned about climate change, and many feel a responsibility to take action in the absence of national policy.

In terms of framing, using wind energy is a way to improve local air quality and save money on energy, while also reducing emissions from fossil fuels.
paytonc/flickr, CC BY-SA

But because it is such a complex and polarizing topic, they often face public uncertainty or outrage toward the issue. So while these local officials have been addressing climate change in their communities over the past decade, many of these policy activities are specifically not framed that way. As one respondent to our survey said:

“It is my personal and professional opinion that the conservation community is on track with addressing the issue of climate change but is way off track in assigning a cause. The public understands the value of clean water and clean air. If the need to improve our water quality and air quality was emphasized, most would agree. Who is going to say dirty water and dirty air is not a problem? By making the argument ‘climate change and humans are the cause’ significant energy is wasted trying to prove this. It is also something the public has a hard time sinking their teeth into.”

In order to address the vulnerabilities facing their communities, many local officials are reframing climate change to fit within existing priorities and budget items. In a survey of mayors, we asked: “In your city’s policy and planning activities (for energy, conservation, natural resources management, land use, or emergency planning, etc.) how is climate change framed?” The following quotes give a sense of their strategies.

“In terms of economic benefit & resource protection. This framing was deliberate to garner support from residents who did not agree with climate change.”

“We frame the initiative as: energy savings (=$ savings), as smart growth/good planning, and as common sense natural resource management. Climate change is only explicitly referenced in our Climate Protection Plan adopted in 2009. Most initiatives fall under the “sustainability” umbrella term.“

“We mask it with sustainability, we call it P3 (People, Planet, Prosperity)”

“The initial interest in climate change came about as a result of concern about the potential for poor air quality affecting economic development in the City. Air quality and climate change were framed as being extremely related issues.”

“Climate change is framed as one of several benefits of conservation measures. Other benefits of conservation, recycling, walking, etc. include it’s ‘good for the earth’ (regardless of climate change), healthful, economical, etc.”

The results show that energy, economic benefits, common sense and sustainability are frames that are providing opportunities for local leaders to address climate change without getting stuck in the political quagmire. This strategy is being used across the Great Plains states, which include some of the most climate-skeptical areas of the country.

Local needs and values

Every region of the U.S. will need to address practical questions of how states and local communities can reduce emissions and adapt to climate impacts. Under the Trump administration, it is likely any progress on U.S. climate policy will continue at these subnational levels. That’s why a variety of experts argue that we should encourage the types of pragmatic strategies now being employed by local leaders in red states.

In the Great Plains in particular, local officials are facing severe impacts from higher temperatures, which will place greater demands on water and energy.

Capturing methane gases from landfill can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and be a local source of fuel for power.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, CC BY-NC

In our research we found local leaders focus on regional and local issues such as drought, energy and flooding. These are problems that are tied to climate change, but are already a priority on the local level. And the sought-for improvements, such as energy savings, health benefit and flood management, fit well with local needs and values.

For example, Fargo, North Dakota mitigates some of its greenhouse gas emissions and created a new source of city revenue by capturing the methane from its landfill facility and selling that gas to the electricity company. The city trash is now providing renewable energy for local residents and an industrial facility.

Perhaps the question facing us is: Should we reframe climate change and other environmental problems to fit the Trump administration’s priorities with a strong focus on practical solution ideas? For example, Trump has stated that infrastructure projects will be a high priority. That could easily translate into fixing the drinking water crisis experienced by Flint, Michigan and many other cities where it is likely to happen; Trump has also highlighted mass transit, which could help reduce air pollution and carbon emissions.

With an administration eager to expand fossil fuel development and consumption, the outlook for federal action on reducing climate-altering greenhouse gases is dire. Given that, reframing climate change to address cobenefit issues seems a logical strategy, and we can look for local government leaders in red states to show the way.

The Conversation

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, Professor of Environmental Science & Policy, University of North Dakota

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Food Security: How Drought and Rising Prices Led to Conflict in Syria

EPA/Russian Defence Ministry Press Service
EPA/Russian Defence Ministry Press Service

 

Aled Jones, Anglia Ruskin University

In 2015 the Welsh singer and activist Charlotte Church was widely ridiculed in the right-wing press and on social media for saying on BBC Question Time that climate change had played an important part in causing the conflict in Syria.

From 2006 until 2011, [Syria] experienced one of the worst droughts in its history, which of course meant that there were water shortages and crops weren’t growing, so there was mass migration from rural areas of Syria into the urban centres, which put on more strain, and made resources scarce etc, which apparently contributed to the conflict there today.

Goaded on by the tabloids, Church reaped a whirlwind of public ridicule:

But what she said was correct – and there will be an increasing convergence of climate, food, economic and political crises in the coming years and decades. We need to better understand the interconnectivity of environmental, economic, geopolitical, societal and technological systems if we are to manage these crises and avoid their worst impacts.

In particular, tipping points exist in both physical and socio-economic systems, including governmental or financial systems. These systems interact in complex ways. Small shocks may have little impact but, a particular shock or set of shocks could tip the system into a new state. This new state could represent a collapse in agriculture or even the fall of a government.

In 2011, Syria became the latest country to experience disruption in a wave of political unrest crossing North Africa and the Middle East. Religious differences, a failure of the ruling regime to tackle unemployment and social injustice and the state of human rights all contributed to a backdrop of social unrest. However, these pressures had existed for years, if not decades.

So was there a trigger for the conflict in the region which worked in tandem with the ongoing social unrest?

Syria, and the surrounding region, has experienced significant depletion in water availability since 2003. In particular an intense drought between 2007 and 2010, alongside poor water management, saw agricultural production collapse and a mass migration from rural areas to city centres. Farmers, who had been relatively wealthy in their rural surroundings now found themselves as the urban poor reliant on food imports. Between 2007 and 2009 Syria increased its annual imports of wheat and meslin (rice flour) by about 1.5m tonnes. That equated to a more than ten-fold increase in importing one of the most basic foods.

Cereal imports by weight and value to Syria from 2006 to 2010. Source: UN Comtrade Database.

Complex system

There is a tendency these days to believe that global trade will protect the world from food production shocks. A small production shock in one region can be mitigated by increasing, temporarily, imports of food or by sourcing food from another region. However, certain shocks, or a set of shocks, could create an amplifying feedback that cascades into a globally significant event.

The food system today is increasingly complex and an impact in land, water, labour or infrastructure could create fragility. A large enough perturbation can lead to a price response in the global market that sends a signal to other producers to increase their output to make up for any shortfall. While increased prices can be beneficial to farmers and food producers, if the price increase is large enough it can have a significant impact on communities that are net food importers.

Additionally, food production is concentrated both in a relatively small handful of commodity crops such as wheat, rice and maize as well as from a relatively small number of regions, for example the US, China and Russia. This concentration means any disruption in those regions will have a large impact on global food supply. Reliance on global markets for sourcing food can therefore be a source of systemic risk.

Rising prices

In 2008 the global price of food increased dramatically. This increase was the result of a complex set of issues including historically low global food stocks, drought in Australia following production lows in several other areas over the previous few years, and speculation and an increase in biofuel production in North America.

This spike in global food price in 2008 was a factor in the initial unrest across North Africa and the Middle East, which became known as the Arab Spring. As prices peaked, violence broke out in countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

In Syria a local drought which coincided with this global shock in food prices resulted in dramatic changes in the availability and cost of food. In response small groups of individuals protested. The government response, combined with a background of rising protests, existing social tensions and instability in the wider region, quickly escalated into the situation we are experiencing today.

The events in Syria, then, appear to stem from a far more complex set of pressures, beyond religious tension and government brutality, with its roots in the availability of a natural resource – water – and its impact on food production. This is worrying as decreasing water availability is far from a localised issue – it is a systemic risk across the Middle East and North Africa. Over the coming decades this water security challenge is likely to be further exacerbated by climate change.

To better manage these types of risks in the future, and to build societal resilience, the world needs to understand our society’s interdependence on natural resources and how this can lead to events such as those that unfolded in Syria. We need analytical, statistical, scenario or war game-type models to explore different possible futures and policy strategies for mitigating the risk. By understanding sources of political instability we hope to get a better handle on how these types of crisis arise.

The Conversation

Aled Jones, Director, Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.