By R. Bruce Hull*

Much of rural America is in crisis. Bleeding people and jobs, rural counties are suffering historic levels of addiction and despair. Less obviously, rural economies and environments are being eroded by climate change. In addition to the devastating fires we’ve seen on the nightly news last year, there is the less visible, more gradual decline of agriculture, water, soil, 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.

Change agents are leading the charge
Nancy Gilliam, 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, particularly in rural regions, is such a wicked problem,” she observes. Climate adaptation is wicked because the people who need to collaborate are distributed far and wide across different organizations and political jurisdictions—no one has overarching authority—and because the mere mention of “climate change” triggers tribal politics that polarize people along party lines. Further, confounding uncertainty provides an easy crutch to lean on when rationalizing inaction.

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: Framing the discussion
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 were having trouble making enough money even to pay property taxes. Climate change was making things worse. In response, Bryan collaborated with Climate Solutions University to conduct a regional climate adaptation effort emphasizing strategies that help landowners, like getting them paid for the carbon captured by their forests.

To achieve that goal, Bryan used a cognitive science strategy called “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.”

Bryan found it quite disorienting that using the same words conveyed very different meanings. 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 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: Listening with intent 
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 is the Director of the Menominee Conservation District (MCD) and its 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 formed a planning team composed of leaders, experts, and citizens from around the region, and they 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, Buechler encouraged stakeholders to think about how climate adaptation planning could add value to their own efforts.

Buechler also built a network. Assessing the community’s vulnerabilities, risks, and capacities—a key step in adaptation planning—proved difficult, in part, because many state agencies and other organizations are siloed in their activities. 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, North Carolina: Engaging the community  
Cumberland County, while mostly rural, is 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 was 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.

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 resilience to climate change. And Bryan, Buechler, and Polonkey all reported that their regions benefited in unanticipated ways as well (and these climate leaders personally benefited with promotions and job offers).

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, without which responding to regional challenges would be doubly difficult. “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 state and federal policies to support coordination among neighboring communities, but starting at the grassroots is one way to begin effective change. Even when confronted with a wicked problem, individuals can overcome differences and collaborate to change the world.

Bruce Hull headshot

Dr. Bruce Hull is a Senior Fellow at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability in Arlington and a professor at VT’s College of Natural Resources and Environment in Blacksburg. He writes and teaches about leadership for sustainable development and how to have influence in the cross-sector space where government, business, and civil society intersect. He advises organizations, communities, and professionals responding to the Anthropocene. He has authored and edited numerous publications, including books, "Infinite Nature" and "Restoring Nature." Currently, he serves as president of the Board of Directors of Climate Solutions University and on the advisory council for Virginia Tech’s Global Change Center. His most recent book, “Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems,” which he co-authored with CLiGS faculty Drs. Mortimer and Robertson, offers many other examples of sustainability professionals successfully at work. 

*This article was originally published by on December 11, 2020. Reprinted with minor revisions.