Winona Post - Winona County picked for rural climate talk

Chris Rogers
Monday, January 18, 2016

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As issues go, climate change is about as big and controversial as it gets. Scientists say it is affecting the entire globe and could change many aspects of life on earth. High-powered heads of state from nearly every country on the planet convened in Paris this winter to make a plan to save the world from it. This March, a small group of ordinary Winona County citizens will gather to talk turkey about whether and how climate change and extreme weather will affect local communities and what, if anything, should be done. Organizers are seeking regular people to join the talks.

The Jefferson Center and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) are hosting the talks, titled Rural Climate Dialogues. Winona County was picked as one of few locales around Minnesota where the discussions will take place. One was held in Morris in western Minnesota last summer, and another is underway in the North Woods of Itasca County. The Jefferson Center is a Minnesota- and Ohio-based nonpartisan nonprofit organization focused on civic engagement. The IATP is a Minneapolis-based environmental organization that advocates for sustainable agriculture and trade. The two organizations teamed up to get input on climate change from Greater Minnesota because they believe metropolitans have dominated American discussions of the issue and because they believe rural communities have a special role to play. Rural communities are both especially at-risk to be affected by climate change, the IATP and Jefferson Center say, and especially valuable in any efforts to stop or adapt to climate change. IATP Program Associate Tara Ritter gave examples of what her organization means. Urbanites have talked about taxing gasoline or investing in public transit as possible solutions to climate change, but that might not work so well for people spread out in rural areas where the nearest grocery store is 10 miles away, she explained. In Morris — where, like Winona, agriculture is a huge part of the local economy — citizens were worried that changing climate might hit the agricultural economy especially hard and they recommended diversifying crops. At the same time, IATP and Jefferson Center organizers think that rural communities may hold some of the solutions to climate change: the space to develop renewable energy and the farmland that will continue to feed society even as the climate shifts.

Here is how the talks work: IATP and the Jefferson Center will select 18 people to sit on a "citizen jury" to listen to testimony from experts, ask questions, and call "witnesses" to speak to the group about climate change. Organizers said University of Minnesota Climatologist Mark Seeley will present a 100-year history of the county's weather, for example. In Morris, jurors also listened to an insurance industry representative among other speakers. Over the course of three days, the Winona County citizen jury will discuss how and whether climate change may affect Winona County and what, if anything, the community should do in response. The jury will prepare a report on its conclusions and lay out an action plan for what to do going forward.

"The idea behind a citizens jury is to bring together a microcosm of the community to talk about something that people are not generally talking about with people who disagree with them," Ritter explained.

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