Bipartisan discussion: let’s talk about climate change

The Center for Rural Affairs strives to advocate for pragmatic, well-researched solutions to problems that impact rural areas. As such, we employ a politically diverse staff and work with rural people from all over the political spectrum.

Climate change is an issue that deeply impacts rural areas, but is often difficult to discuss in rural communities. Two of our policy staff who come from different political perspectives recently sat down to have a congenial conversation about this topic, and see where their beliefs and values intersect.

Q: How would you describe your political leanings or identity, and how do your values shape that identity?

Glen Ready: I’d consider myself a moderate Republican. Issues I care most about include the economy, specifically incentive structures, and agriculture. I value allowing a free market to function as it should while ensuring a level playing field for all involved in economic decision-making on a daily basis. I value common good and allowing people to act as they wish so long as it does not bring harm to another. This is an underpinning of why I am so passionate about climate change.

Stephanie Enloe: I consider myself progressive and usually lean Democrat. I care most deeply about issues of social and environmental justice, including equal access to economic opportunity, quality education and health care, and a healthy, resilient, and productive environment. I was raised to value the inherent worth and dignity of every person, including future generations. I love what Glen said about valuing the “common good and allowing people to act as they wish so long as it does not bring harm to another.” I would add that too much consolidation of power and wealth tends to bring harm to others, and when considering a policy idea one question I often ask is, “Who benefits most from this plan – those who already have power, or those who have been left on the sidelines?”

Q: Where do you stand on the debate around the reality and causes of climate change?

Stephanie: Although this trend is shifting, many media outlets have attempted to provide unbiased coverage by treating climate change as if it is still a scientific debate – it isn’t. More than 97 percent of climate scientists around the world agree 1) the climate is changing, 2) human actions are responsible for a large amount of that change, and 3) if left unchecked, climate change will have devastating consequences for our communities and the ecosystems on which we rely. Further, when you consider who benefits from the myth that “climate change is a hoax,” it isn’t your everyday person. You and I benefit when we make our homes and vehicles more efficient, gain the opportunity to invest in locally owned renewable energy, and enjoy safe, healthy air, water, and soil.

Glen: Like Stephanie said, there is incontrovertible evidence that the earth’s climate is changing. I care about facts, and it is a fact that man-made climate change exists and is ongoing. The science exists, and much like the debate around GMOs (genetically-modified organisms), people doubt the science that specifically shows the impact humans have had on the climate, and how devastating this will be as it persists.

Q: Do you remember why you first became concerned by climate change?

Glen: I first became concerned about climate change in high school. I’m from a farm family, and my dad teaches biology at the local high school. What he cares about is science, and he passed that respect for science to me. What I enjoy is arguments, debate, and public discourse. I see a distinct disconnect between public discourse around climate change and the science behind man-made climate change. These two interests collided around this subject. People ignoring the science my father gave me a reverence for, and people arguing about the very existence of climate change. I decided to learn as much as I could about the subject, to research, and understand both sides of the subject. I found there can be no doubt that we as humans are having a negative impact on our climate, and that something needs to be done.

Stephanie: I’ve always been concerned by social justice issues such as food security and poverty. Toward the end of high school and beginning of college I started to understand that any progress toward greater social justice is likely to be undermined by climate change. Take the current conflict in Syria as an example. While the situation is incredibly complex, much of the unrest leading up to the civil war was exacerbated by a catastrophic drought, and research suggests climate change is driving worsening drought cycles in the region.

Q: What role should the U.S. play in leading action on a global scale against climate change?

Glen: No solution to climate change is going to work without the involvement of just about every country on the planet. The U.S. has, for better or worse, long been the leader in size and strength on a global scale. As such, we have to participate and lead the global discussion of climate change. While it may not be “fair” or right, some countries have chosen to opt out of any discussion on climate change and what they plan to do to address it. We have to start somewhere, and we can start here, and in the other countries that have agreed to address the problem. A unified front can and should bring this forward to countries that have chosen to stay out of the discussion, and bring them to the table or face economic consequences.

Stephanie: Like Glen, I’m skeptical that the rest of the world can achieve the necessary carbon reductions without U.S. participation and leadership. As the largest economy in the world, we have a great deal of power and responsibility to influence global policy. We also have one of the largest carbon footprints (only China surpasses us – and our per capita emissions are much higher than China’s). Many countries are ready to step up here, but if we continue to hang back we legitimize slow action by other countries. We also miss opportunities to lead the way in developing emerging technologies such as battery storage and electric vehicles.

Q: Why do you feel it’s important that rural communities engage in the debate on (what to do about) climate change?

Glen: Coming from a rural community, too often I’ve seen the “fly-over states” get overlooked in a discussion of anything relating to our country. Not only that, but climate change is going to most certainly have a massive, direct impact on farming and the nature of agriculture. We need to have a seat at the table to show we are willing to work together to find a solution, and that rural America cares about this issue and will lead the way in finding workable solutions that won’t completely shut down the economy and business of rural America. By refusing a seat at the table, all we do is restrict our own voice, and decisions will continue to be made without rural America’s input.

Stephanie: Can I just give Glen a standing ovation as my response? I’m tired of seeing rural communities, and especially rural Midwestern communities, left out and forgotten. Rural and agricultural communities will be some of the most badly impacted by climate change, so they absolutely need to have a leading role in creating solutions that simultaneously mitigate climate change and re-invigorate rural economies. Those solutions exist – they just require some creativity and political will.

Q: Why do you think it is important to have open, congenial, and bipartisan discussions about issues such as climate change?

Stephanie: When you get down to the level of values, we are likely to have more in common than we think. And we need to do a better job of acknowledging that it is OK to have different value sets, so long as we can agree to a baseline of treating each other with kindness and respect. I think Glen and I can agree on some basic goals for where we would like to see this country go. Sometimes we have different ideas on how to get there, but we respect each other enough to have a conversation about how our different perspectives can add up to something stronger. A few very powerful individuals might benefit when the country remains this divided, but most of us do not. I hope we can all work on practicing some humility and empathy so we can remember how to celebrate the differences that have made this country stronger.

Glen: I think climate change has been so frustrating to discuss because many aren’t willing to even accept it as an issue, and that has to happen before we can even start to find solutions. Stephanie referenced this idea, as well – time and again we’ve seen the best solutions to the problems we face come from open, honest discussion that everyone is taking part in. So far, many Republicans, and yes a few Democrats, I’m sure, have refused to even discuss the issue of climate change. We are all at fault for this, but if we want solutions that are going to work for everyone, we need to join the conversation.