by CHRIS ROGERS
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.
Making sure that different kinds of people that hold different points of view are included and that those 18 jurors provide a fair representation of the community is key to the whole idea. To get a fair cross-section of Winona County in their 18-member jury, Ritter and her colleagues sent out 5,000 postcards to a random selection of Winona County residents — including residents of cities like St. Charles and Winona — asking them to apply to participate. The Jefferson Center and IATP are also seeking applications from anyone and everyone else who lives in Winona County and is interested. The organizers ask applicants about their gender, race, political party affiliation, education, and whether they live within city limits or rural parts of the county. The Jefferson Center will also ask applicants about their opinions on climate change in order to make sure that they get a representative sample of citizens' views on the issue, not just gung-ho environmentalists. Then, organizers will select a group of 18 that best represent the actual demographics of the county, as measured by the U.S. Census, the Census Bureau's American Community Surveys, and a Yale University study on public views on climate change.
"It'll never be perfectly represented, but [the goal is] that it's as close to representative of the county as possible," Ritter said.
Getting working parents to participate is one of the hardest demographics to reach, so the project will pay jurors $375 and compensate them for travel and childcare expenses in an effort to remove barriers to participation as best as possible, Jefferson Center Program Director Andrew Rockway added.
What about people who do not believe in Climate Change with capitol Cs, who are skeptical of apocalyptic climate projections, who are skeptical that climate change is being caused by human activity, or who do not think that sweeping change is needed in response to climate change? There is no predetermined answer the IATP and Jefferson Center are looking for, Ritter said. If the jury's conclusion is that the community does not need to do anything to respond to climate change, that is fine, she added. "We have had some people come on the first day and think that we're trying to sell something or sell a particular ideology and we're not," Ritter explained. "We're trying to have a difficult conversation in a safe space."
"You don't need to be an expert to participate and all beliefs and opinions are valid," Rockway said.
This is not the first citizens jury the Jefferson Center has held in Winona. Back in 1994, the Jefferson Center organized a citizens jury focused on welfare reform. The jury met in Winona, and Minnesota City resident Bill Coleman reluctantly agreed to participate. "When I was first contacted, I didn't want to do this," he said in an interview. "To this day, I really don't get involved in government or politics and all of that." He remembered telling Jefferson Center organizers, " Nah, not interested." Why not? they pressed. "It's just not my thing," Coleman remembered responding. "That's why we need people like you," they replied. "We need people who aren't interested in this thing." When Coleman learned that his employer was behind it and would treat the program like court-ordered jury duty — that he would get paid leave — Coleman was finally sold.
"Going into it my opinion was, like most people, that something should be done to get a handle on the welfare [spending] situation because I felt, as most people do, that we paid too much toward welfare and there's so many people scamming it and living high on the hog," Coleman said. During the program, he listened to experts, including state and federal officials, who testified about how much of each individual's taxes go toward welfare. "It was an eye opener for me," he said. "It surprised me how very little money from taxes actually goes to paying for what most people consider as welfare, at least back then," he explained.
"Anyone contacted to sit in on one of the citizens juries by the Jefferson Center, go for it, do it. It's quite the experience," Coleman stated. "Especially people like me who are kind of ignorant of the political process. They really should do it. They'll learn something."
Winona County residents may apply to be citizen jurors online at jefferson-center.org/winona or by calling the organization at 651-209-7672. More information about the center is available on its website, along with links to all of its past juries, including the Morris Area Rural Climate Dialogue and the 1994 welfare reform project in Winona.
The Winona Post contacted Coleman unannounced and did not speak to anyone at the Jefferson Center or IATP about him or the 1994 jury prior to contacting him.