Member Highlight - Rural Action

Tuesday, February 14, 2017
As an organization based in Appalachia, what are some of the unique climate challenges your organization and your region are facing?

Climate change is a key issue in Central Appalachia; the ways the environment intersects with communities in our region are many and varied. Perhaps the most obvious is non-renewable energy development and production, which is tied to greenhouse gas emissions and directly impacts local air quality. U.S. EPA models predict warmer and wetter winters as well as hotter and drier summers. Concentrated precipitation during winter and spring puts the region at risk for more intense rain events as well as flooding. In recent years, some areas have already seen annual precipitation increase more than 20%, and this trend is expected to continue across the region. Warmer temperatures and increased moisture will likely generate more smog and related health issues, which is a concern with an increasingly aging population within the region.

Because of this variability, the region will experience additional pressure on agricultural crops and changes in the composition of species (flora and fauna). In fact, sugar maple, an agricultural crop used to produce maple syrup, may be pushed entirely out of Ohio. Warmer winters also mean increased agricultural and forest pests along with the spread of non-native invasive species. These additional pressures on the land are likely to negatively impact agricultural productivity and timber production in the region.

There is a great sense of urgency for sustainability work in Central Appalachia. As the United States continues to shift away from coal, while at the same time investing in new and expanded shale production, we continue to experience job losses across the region in an area which is already economically distressed. The trend away from coal demands a transition to new economic options and new investments to deploy them. 

With a long term vision and focus on building sectors that will outlive coal and shale and reduce the effects of unchecked climate change, we can ensure a resilient economy for the future. Sectors Rural Action has identified for Appalachian Ohio include forestry, agriculture, restoration, energy efficiency and renewables, materials management and recycling, and heritage and ecotourism. We also look to the next generation, our children who are now growing up in a time of uncertainty with regard to the impacts of climate change, by educating them on the importance of resource conservation, development of green energy, and climate change mitigation and adaptation.

 

Speaking of the “next generation,” Rural Action’s Environmental Education program is working to address climate change in Appalachian Ohio. Can you tell us about this work?

Rural Action works with schools to deliver Environmental Education (EE) projects and lessons that connect teachers and students to local environmental issues and stewardship actions related to energy and climate change. In Appalachian Ohio, climate change and water are closely tied due to a legacy of abandoned coal mines that still pollute streams with Acid Mine Drainage. While water is plentiful, there are 1,300 miles of degraded waterways from pre-regulation coal mining in the region. Coal-affected water is a teaching tool that, in our experience, leads young people to ask about coal mining, climate change, alternative energy, and personal action.

Our EE projects are a model for creating behavioral change because they use standard curricula made regionally appropriate by incorporating regional environmental issues like climate change and the legacy of resource extraction on waterways in the lower Ohio River basin. We use the "Environment as Integrated Curriculum" model which serves as a replicable model for other rural and resource-extractive communities for whom environmental education may be viewed as a luxury.

Our collaboration with schools focuses on building a foundation of energy literacy through hands-on lessons appropriate to each grade level that bring an understanding of these historical issues, how they impact climate, and what steps we can take to be active stewards of our climate and air quality.

Through our Environmental Education work we also produce an annual Inquiry-Based Education Conference providing teachers with hands-on experiences and tested lessons covering energy and climate. Our 2017 conference will take place in early November.

Finally, our Youth Climate Action Team trains high-school students from seven school districts on the science of climate change, as well as environmental education techniques and action steps they can take to lower their schools’ ecological footprints. These high-schoolers are supported to take action in their home schools.

 

What policies (state or federal) would Rural Action like to see to address climate change?

As a leading partner in finding and building the critical paths for sustainable regional development in Central Appalachia, Rural Action's role is to focus on asset-based sectors, promote policies of reinvestment (including the RECLAIM Act), and establish participatory efforts to help create a vision for community health and economic opportunity. We pay close attention to local, state, and federal policy issues which affect rural people and places including agricultural policy, watershed restoration and protection, energy and efficiency standards, and public lands.

Additionally, Rural Action, with other Central Appalachian Network (CAN) partners, are actively building capacity to address the unique set of challenges to growing a new, diversified, energy economy in the heart of coal country. The region has been especially hard hit by the global decline in demand for coal due to the cost- and labor-intensive nature of mining operations. Furthermore, Appalachia’s residents and small business owners pay more than average to meet their heating and cooling needs, reflecting the inefficiency of existing building stock. Communities across the country have recognized that investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy can strengthen local economies by lowering operating costs for homes and businesses, strengthen infrastructure, and improve the value of building stock and create new employment opportunities.

With our partners, we have identified several core needs to developing a framework for making investment decisions and enabling a supportive policy environment: 1) Data on the economic impacts and potential of energy efficiency and diverse renewable energy technology; 2) advocacy tools for organizations pursuing and supporting policy change; and 3) peer learning focused on driving investment and on-going collaboration. For policy, we intend to benchmark the existing regional policy landscape and identify potential public and institutional policies that would remove barriers or otherwise promote investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. We also plan to assess opportunities to promote identified policies, crafting advocacy toolkits, policy models, and action plans for stakeholders across the region.