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Rural America Keen on Environment

Local Communities Plant Seeds for Different Ways to Tackle Climate Change

Old McDonald had a lot more than cows, pigs, ducks, and horses on his farm. He also had crops that needed tending, waste that needed disposing, and soil that needed tilling. This required deep knowledge of how nature works – including how to ensure that the ecosystem didn’t get out of balance while everyone was busy with their E-I-E-I-O’s.

Rural communities still have that connection to nature and the environment, more than a century after “Old McDonald Had a Farm” was written. In fact, experts now believe that rural communities might be more attuned to environmental and climate change issues than many people realize.

“Rural Americans’ relationship with the environment is profoundly different compared to urban residents, but they care about it just as much,” Brent Fewell, an environmental lawyer, and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official, wrote in a column for Morning Consult earlier this year.

“The truth is that many rural Americans have a much closer bond to the land because they depend on it for their livelihoods,” Fewell added. “This is especially true of farmers.”

He cited a recent study by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions on rural attitudes toward the environment and conservation. The study found that rural and small-town residents support stronger environmental protections even though they might differ from urban residents on how best to get there.

An updated version of the study, published in July, explained that while urban/suburban voters were more supportive of direct climate action than rural voters, there were still several climate change policies that received strong backing in rural communities. These included policies that:

  • Reduce pollution from power plants
  • Strengthen rural communities against extreme weather events
  • Make vehicles more fuel-efficient
  • Incentivize agriculture’s contribution toward the mitigation of climate change
  • Provide economic and environmental benefits to rural communities

The main difference between rural residents and their more urban counterparts has to do with large-scale federal programs that leave little room for local input.

As a general rule, Fewell wrote, rural residents “express support for conservation but question the unintended impacts and efficacy of federal policies. And they are skeptical of outside activist groups, whom they view as more influenced by politics than the environment.”

Rural residents “tend to place a higher emphasis” on directly relatable matters such as farmland conservation, clean water, and clean air. They put less emphasis on reducing global emissions.

“Rather than centralized mandates passed down from Washington, environmentalists, conservation groups and policymakers should engage with rural voters directly to form authentic partnerships to develop environmental policies at the local level that have a real impact on communities,” Fewell wrote.

The study also found that rural voters “prefer moderate, practical messaging” about climate change. They are especially motivated by messages that emphasize how climate policies can strengthen the economic and environmental resiliency of rural communities.

A recent article in Forbes, citing data from Environment America’s Renewables on the Rise 2020 report, noted that many states with large rural populations are also embracing renewable energy sources.

The two biggest coal-producing states in the U.S. – Wyoming and West Virginia – have become leaders in renewable energy and energy storage, according to the report. Meanwhile, Kansas, Iowa, and North Dakota now generate enough renewable energy to meet more than half of their electricity demand. Oklahoma is close to that mark at 45 percent, while Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota are also on the top 10 list.

The report’s authors – Tony Dutzik and Jamie Friedman of Frontier Group and Emma Searson of Environment America’s Research & Policy Center – stress that proactive environmental policies are not limited to certain geographic regions.

“There are clean energy leaders in big states and small states, red states and blue states, states on the coasts and states in the heartland,” they said.

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