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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Where is ‘rural America,’ and what does it look like?

The view from Wyoming County, Pennsylvania. Cropped from nicholas_t/flickr, CC BY
The view from Wyoming County, Pennsylvania. Cropped from nicholas_t/flickr, CC BY

Kenneth Johnson, University of New Hampshire

Rural people and issues generally receive little attention from the urban-centric media and policy elites. Yet, rural America makes unique contributions to the nation’s character and culture as well as provides most of its food, raw materials, drinking water and clean air. The recent presidential election also reminds us that, though rural America may be ignored, it continues to influence the nation’s future.

“Rural America” is a deceptively simple term for a remarkably diverse collection of places. It includes nearly 72 percent of the land area of the United States and 46 million people. Farms, ranches, grain elevators and ethanol plants reflect the enduring importance of agriculture.

But, there is much more to rural America than agriculture. It includes manufacturing parks, warehouses and food processing plants strung along rural interstates; sprawling exurban expanses just beyond the outer edge of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas; regions where generations have labored to extract, process and ship coal, ore, oil and gas to customers near and far; timber and pulp mills deep in rural forests; industrial towns struggling to retain jobs in the face of intense global competition; and fast-growing recreational areas proximate to mountains, lakes and coastlines.

As a demographer studying rural America, I have documented both remarkable continuity and dramatic changes in the size, composition and distribution of the population spread across the vast rural landscape.

Where is rural America?

Clearly farms on the Great Plains are rural and the city of Chicago is not, but where is the boundary between what is rural and what is urban? There is no simple answer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency with primary responsibility for rural America, has multiple definitions of what is rural. The Census Bureau has yet another.

I rely upon a widely used USDA definition in which “rural areas” include everything that is outside a metropolitan area. These 1,976 counties were home to 46.2 million residents in 2015.

“Metropolitan areas” include counties with a city of 50,000 residents or more, together with adjacent counties – mostly suburban – closely linked to these urban cores. More than 275.3 million people live in these 1,167 urban counties.

Demographic trends in rural America

More that 90 percent of the U.S. population was rural in 1790. By 1920, that number had dwindled to just under 50 percent. Today, only 15 percent of the population resides in rural counties.

Growing economic and social opportunities in urban areas, coupled with mechanization and farm consolidation, caused millions of people to leave rural areas over the past century. The magnitude of the migration loss varied from decade to decade, but the pattern was consistent: more people left rural areas than arrived.

Hundreds of rural counties have far fewer people today than they did a century ago. In many, young adults have been leaving for generations, so few young women remain to have children. As a result, deaths exceed births in these counties, producing a downward spiral of population decline.

There were brief periods when the rural population rebounded in the 1970s and the 1990s. But, generally, the growth of the urban population throughout the 20th century has far exceeded that in rural areas. Between 2000 and 2015, the rural population grew by just 3.1 percent. Urban areas grew by 16.3 percent.

Hundreds of rural counties continue to lose population, but growth is widespread near urban areas and in recreational areas.
Provided by author

Demographic trends vary across the rural landscape. Rural population gains have been widespread in the west and southeast, at the periphery of large urban areas, and in recreational areas of the upper Great Lakes, the Ozarks and northern New England. Migration, largely from urban areas, fueled this growth. Migrants who venture just beyond the urban edge enjoy the lower density and housing costs of rural areas, but retain easy access to urban services and opportunities. In contrast, urban migrants to rural recreational counties enjoy a relaxed lifestyle in communities rich in scenic and leisure amenities.

In contrast, population losses were common in agricultural regions of the Great Plains and Corn Belt, in the Mississippi Delta, in the northern Appalachians, and in the industrial and mining belts of New York and Pennsylvania. Many people continue to leave these regions because economic and social opportunities are limited.

Recently, the Great Recession and its aftermath disrupted established rural demographic trends. Both immigration and internal migration diminished, as residents were “frozen in place” by houses they couldn’t sell and by a national job market that provided fewer incentives to move. Fertility rates also dropped to record lows during the recession and have yet to recover.

Fewer births diminished population gains in almost all rural areas, but migration patterns varied. Surprisingly, rural places that had once been fast-growing – rural countries adjacent to urban areas and recreational counties – seemed to slow down more. Meanwhile, the remote rural areas that had historically lost many people to migration were less affected, because fewer were willing to risk a move in such uncertain times. It’s not yet clear whether the reduced number of births and diminished migration to rural America in the era of Great Recession will continue.

Other demographic changes are underway in rural America as well. The population is rapidly becoming more diverse. Minorities represent 21 percent of the rural population, but produced 83 percent of the growth between 2000 and 2010. Hispanics are particularly important to this growing rural diversity.

Children are in the vanguard of this change. The rural minority child population has grown significantly recently, while the number of non-Hispanic white children diminished.

The rural population is also growing older. The median age in rural counties is 41.5. That’s already more than three years older than in urban counties. More than 16 percent of the rural population is over 65, compared to 12.5 percent of the urban population. While these older rural residents age in place, young adults continue to leave and the rural child population is diminishing.

Rural and urban America are intertwined

Few people appreciate that the fates of rural and urban America are inextricably linked. Improving the opportunities, accessibility and viability of rural areas is critical – both to the 46 million people who live there and to the much larger urban population that depends on rural America’s contributions to their material, environmental and social well-being. A vibrant rural America broadens the nation’s economic, intellectual and culture diversity.

Yet, rural areas face unique demographic, economic and institutional challenges. Distances are greater and places are more isolated. The advantages derived from businesses and services clustering together are limited. As a result, programs to expand health insurance and reform education may affect rural people and communities differently than in the 50 largest metropolitan areas. Such challenges are frequently overlooked in a policy and media environment dominated by urban interests.

Policymakers need to design comprehensive policies that can address the multifaceted challenges rural communities face. Fast-growing rural counties need programs capable of managing their growth and development.

In contrast, rural areas with diminishing populations need policies to ameliorate the adverse impacts of this migration. Sustained population loss can affect the availability of critical services like health care, education and emergency services. Resources such as broadband, capital and expertise can facilitate new development.

In the wake of the election upset which hinged, in part, on rural voters, more media companies have dispatched correspondents to rural areas. They, and everyone else with a newfound interest in rural America, need to understand that the people, places and institutions in this vast area are far from monolithic. Rural America has been, and continues to be, buffeted by a complex mix of economic, social and demographic forces.

The Conversation

Kenneth Johnson, Professor of Sociology and Senior Demographer, University of New Hampshire

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

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