Climate Adaptation in Rural America

December 11, 2020

Much of rural America is in crisis. Bleeding people and jobs, rural counties are suffering historic levels of addiction and despair.  Less obviously, both the economy and environment of rural America are being eroded by climate change. In addition to the devastating fires seen on the nightly news, there is the less visible, more gradual decline of agriculture, water, and forest resources.

Many rural communities lack the political will and resources to respond. You could argue that people in these communities should abandon their hometowns to pursue opportunities elsewhere. You could blame the climate skeptics, who are prevalent in rural politics, for getting what they deserve: climate chaos.  Or you could see an opportunity to help.

Nancy Gillain, Executive Director of Climate Solutions University, has chosen the latter. But it’s a difficult path: “Helping communities adapt to climate change is not easy because adaptation is such a wicked problem,” she observes.

The wicked problem of climate adaptation is compounded in rural areas because the people who need to collaborate are distributed far and wide across different organizations and political jurisdictions; no one has overarching authority. The mere mention of “climate change” triggers tribal politics that polarize people along party lines.  And inaction is easily rationalized because of confounding uncertainty and unpredictability.

These challenges make it tempting to feel helpless and do nothing. But strategies exist for tackling wicked problems.  In a time when positive stories are in short supply, here are a few people and organizations leading the charge and making good progress.

Leslie Bryan, Northern California

Leslie Bryan wore many hats at the Western Shasta Resource Conservation District (WSRCD), including project manager for on-the-ground restoration projects and education and outreach, as well as watershed and climate stewardship coordinator. “We’re a small group so we all do pretty much whatever needs doing,” she says. As part of her job, she looked for ways to make the watershed more resilient, support landowners and the forest-based economy, and find ways to reduce fuel for wildfires–all climate-related challenges.

Because of changes in the forest industry, some landowners in the region were having trouble making enough money even to pay property taxes. In response, Bryan devised a strategy to reimburse landowners for capturing and sequestering carbon in their forests.

To achieve that goal, Bryan used framing to make public discussions about climate policy less contentious. She explains: “The word ‘climate’ triggers some people. So I had to be very careful with how I approached it.”  She intentionally framed the planning project using economic development language, emphasizing “opportunity for landowners and the forestry industry,” reducing the “risk of fire damage for property owners,” and “increasing quality of life through a healthy environment and economy.”

She had a different problem with environmental activists who were enthusiastic as soon as the word “climate” was mentioned. Bryan explained that “some of those individuals were skeptical of me, assuming that I was working for industry and developers. That was strange because some people in the business community were skeptical of me because they thought I was working for the environmental activists.”

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

Bryan found it quite disorienting that the same words conveyed very different messages depending on how people interpreted them. As a result, she became very deliberate in her conversations: “I learned to be open and to listen more than I spoke.” She worked hard in her initial meetings with local residents–who would eventually become engaged stakeholders in the process–to get them to see past their preconceptions of her and of “climate change” and to realize that multiple shared goals exist. “Once we sat down and talked, we usually understood that we were both working toward the same goals and values.”

Another strategy Bryan used was a holding space. Such spaces, which need not be physical, are where people feel safe to share ideas, confident they will be respected, and optimistic that the organizers will follow-through, hold participants accountable, and turn talk into commitments and action.  Bryan was very deliberate about creating and managing opportunities for stakeholders to talk and be heard. “My outlook on all of this is to get people talking and let them set the agenda,” she says.

Holding spaces are needed to work through wicked challenges, such as community responses to climate change, because the stakeholders must define the problem and the solution themselves: a leader can’t do it for them.  Only if stakeholders co-construct the problem and the solution will they then compromise, adjust, and commit to collaborating on strategies that turn challenges into opportunities.

Donna Buechler, Northern Michigan

Menominee County is typical of rural America: its population is small and declining; the economy is highly dependent upon forestry and agriculture; and climate change complicates the challenges of a shifting economic landscape.  Buechler directs – and staffs — the Menominee Conservation District (MCD): as she says, “I’m it, the only employee.”  When asked about the key to Menominee’s success in producing a climate adaptation plan for the region, she replied, “we didn’t do anything special, we just listened and asked questions.”

But active listening is special. Buechler and her planning team conducted “listening sessions” and “community interviews.”  When they met with stakeholders, they asked how climate change might affect them: “We asked them–we didn’t tell them so much as ask them–if they had any concerns or thoughts about what would happen…” to things they cared about due to changing weather patterns, river floods, or other likely changes.  By asking questions and listening, Beuchler encouraged stakeholders to think about how climate adaptation planning could add value to their own work.

Buechler also built a network.  Assessing the community’s vulnerabilities, risks, and capacities–a key step in resiliency planning–proved difficult, in part, because many state agencies and other organizations are siloed in what they do. Buechler explains that she would “make a call [to an agency] and they would say, ‘Oh there should be someone that can help you’ and transfer me to someone else. And then after about 15 people, I’d be referred to the person I started with.”  Thus, it took a lot of persistence and networking by Buechler and the planning team to establish relationships with experts and actors across the region who could then advise and assist the community’s planning efforts.  That network remains in place and provides capacity for solving future problems.

Alba Polonkey, Cape Fear Watershed, North Carolina

Cumberland County is mostly rural but home to a major military base, Fort Bragg, and a mid-sized city, Fayetteville.  There, Polonkey worked at Sustainable Sandhills, a nonprofit organization providing administrative support to a regional climate planning effort.  “Stakeholders and trust are two things I wanted to get right,” says Polonkey.

Polonkey identified three types of stakeholders: core actors, key partners, and general stakeholders. Core actors represented organizations that needed to be at the table if the resulting plan is to have any hope of being comprehensive and implementable. Key partners formed the second tier; they wrote support letters, used their networks to make introductions, and/or contributed specific expertise. The third tier, general stakeholders, were less active and Polonkey’s goal was to keep them informed. All stakeholders were given the opportunity to participate in a web-based survey that solicited input about planning options and priorities.

Getting the right people engaged only gets you so far. Participants must also trust the process. That, in turn, requires a process that is fair, accountable, transparent, and enforceable. Polonkey notes that letting stakeholders define and drive the process is key to promoting trust. They want a plan that “fits our community” rather than one predetermined and imposed by experts or outsiders. That’s why Polonkey solicited “input at every stage so that the stakeholders knew they were part of the process and in control of whatever information we used and decisions we reached.”

Benefits of Climate Action Planning

All the communities discussed above benefited from increased resiliency to climate change. And Bryan, Buechler and Polonkey all reported that their regions benefited in unanticipated ways as well.

Polonkey’s organization, Sustainable Sandhills, benefited by leading the process. It cemented its reputation as a key environmental NGO in the region and renewed partnerships with other organizations, which then created opportunities to contribute and collaborate on other fronts, including advising other regional planning efforts and jointly submitting proposals for funding.

Buechler has this advice for other communities that might be wondering whether climate planning is worth the effort: “They, like us, might not initially see clear, immediate benefits of participation because they don’t have an immediate goal they are trying to achieve or a specific project they are trying to plan or fund.”  But the planning process “was beneficial in ways I could not have imagined,” said Buechler. “In hindsight, I can see how we benefited because more of our people and organizations have more awareness about climate, because we have increased awareness about other organizations in the region, and because we have better networks that we can use to access resources and expertise that have already benefited us.”

Bryan described how the planning process built relationships with neighboring communities that they must rely on to successfully respond to climate change and other regional challenges. “I was able to encourage neighboring counties to engage in similar efforts, which is when it became really exciting,” she says. “Success becomes amplified when you build upon various spatial scales.  You personally can take responsibility, and then your family can take responsibility. From there you move it out bigger and bigger…get your organization involved…and go out broader into the city and the county. Working with neighboring communities on a regional level allows you to really have some impact because you are able to give input to the state and perhaps federal level policy.”

Bryan acknowledges that success will still require some state and federal policies to support coordination, but starting at the grassroots is how effective change begins. Even when confronted with a wicked problem, individuals can overcome differences and collaborate as a community to change the world.


Teaser photo credit: By U.S. Department of Agriculture – Flickr: 20130817-FS-UNK-0004, Public Domain,

R Bruce Hull

R. Bruce Hull is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability at Virginia Tech, which provides graduate education and professional development opportunities for sustainability professionals working at the intersection of business, government, and civil society. He has authored and edited numerous publications, including two books, Infinite Nature (University of Chicago Press) and Restoring Nature (Island Press)

Tags: climate adaptation, rural communities, rural resilience