While travelling with my dad from Little Rock to Springdale, Arkansas, we took the scenic route through the Ozark National Forest. My lungs, eyes and ears were refreshed by the clean air, bright blue skies and green trees, and the sounds of animals and insects. As someone who has lived in cities for the past seven years, I was reminded of the beauty of the natural environment.
To fully enjoy the scenery, we decided to stop at a local kayak business. With classic southern hospitality, the store owner insisted that he would keep the store open for an extra two hours for us to ride down the Mulberry River. As his colleague drove us up the mountain to our mini adventure, the typical small talk arose.
The driver noted how extraordinarily hot the summer had been (“less rain, more heat”). Before hopping out of the truck, he reminded us that our kayaks would most likely become stuck in beds of rocks due to the unusually shallow water. The conversation, as you may have guessed, drifted onto climate change with agreement that global warming had something to do with the changing environment our Arkansan host was experiencing.
Speaking on behalf of the rural population, Kylah Johnston, an environmental justice advocate from Michigan, says, “They are farmers, hunters, fishers, and good ol’ country boys. They care because they are practical – and like climate activists and scientists, they realise that our lives depend on [the environment].” Yet, despite their first-hand experience of the effects of climate change, there is no clear call from these rural communities for action.
Cross-party and in-party polarisation on climate legislation over issues like the Green New Deal, corporate lobbying and oil dependency, as well as restricted funding for disaster prevention and the protection of natural wonders, are only a handful of the many ways in which the US has shown its disregard for the natural environment.
Unlike the US, UK government policy is not stumped by climate scepticism, but change is still slow to come. And, like the rural south of the US, the UK’s farmers and landowners are deeply connected to the earth in a way that many urbanites are not. They too are directly seeing the effects of climate change on their surrounding environment and their livelihoods. So why aren’t they loudly (and proudly) demanding climate action?
Perhaps we can learn something from Kylah Johnston’s views in the US. She has cited three reasons for the lack of action in America’s rural communities, and they can be related to the UK context:
- The need for short term profit. As Chris Clark of Nethergill Farm has highlighted on this blog, the economic challenges farmers face along with Brexit unknowns, climate change and inadequate government support, has made sustainable farming a difficult choice for most farmers. New business models and fundamental changes to land management are necessary to help farmers and landowners take better control of their businesses and make managing land profitable in a post-Brexit world. Balancing high quality production and business without overexploiting natural resources is achievable, but the current market is designed to maximise production for short term profit rather than to protect land assets for sustainable productivity over the long term.
- Climate action and climate justice issues are seen as urban. Rural politics are a direct result of social and economic relationships with the natural environment. If we are to maintain the beauty and the utility of the UK’s land, the demands put on UK farmers and landowners and the returns they receive for looking after the land and all it provides must be fair. The UK’s source of locally grown, fresh, healthy food is cared for and produced by those who live in the countryside. This heritage should be respected and validated. Instead of pointing the finger at farmers for being slow off the mark, we should be appealing to them and their concerns, and building greater trust between urban and rural communities, so a just transition to a low carbon economy can be achieved right across the UK.
- Political decisions are made in urban areas. A considerable fraction of UK carbon emissions come from agriculture and related land uses, and the sector is predicted to become one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the UK by 2050 without further action. However, political debates about carbon emissions and climate change don’t happen in rural areas, limiting the participation of farmers whose agriculture and livestock depend on decisions made.
A collective voice representing both urban and rural interests will be crucial to convince the government to take the bigger, necessary steps to a clean economy and a greener Britain. We are all experiencing the outcomes of climate change, so whether rural, urban or in between, no-one should be left out of the discussion about how to solve it.