It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that Latinos are more concerned about environmental and climate issues than the average American, as indicated in a recent survey we featured last week. After all, when your community has soaring asthma rates or endures increasingly scorching working conditions, it’s hard to ignore that humanity’s relationship with the Earth is out of balance. To find out how to turn such concern into action—a la the significant role Latinos played two years ago in defeating California’s Prop 23—I spoke with representatives from National Council of La Raza and the Sierra Club, the two groups that commissioned the survey.
According to Javier Sierra, a media consultant and columnist for the Sierra Club, people are beginning to realize that “Hispanics are way ahead of the curve in recognizing the challenges ahead of us with pollution and climate change and that the solution involves a green energy economy.” He explains why this is so.
“The toxic bombardment that many Latinos are subjected to on a daily basis that results in frequent nose bleeds, asthma and other health ailments is what raises environmental awareness. Latinos see how an unhealthy environment affects the health of their community.” Sierra says. He adds that it’s easy for Latinos to connect the dots between extreme weather and climate change because their professional activities—from construction to agriculture—tend to keep them in constant touch with a changing environment, and because they tend to keep close relationships with their home countries where climate change is a reality (in part because there aren’t “deniers polluting the public debate”).
Catherine Singley, senior policy analyst of National Council of La Raza (and recently featured Climate Access member), points out that Latinos have been green in their behavior for a while, from commuting via bicycle to creatively reusing materials.
She also cites an additional factor for the high levels of concern indicated in the survey: the values strongly held by the Latino community. These include personal responsibility, a strong sense of faith, entrepreneurship, the importance of family and community, and doing the right thing “because it’s the right thing to do.”
Indeed, 92% of Latino voters surveyed agree that they “have a moral responsibility to take care of God’s creations on this earth - the wilderness and forests, the oceans, lakes and rivers.”
On questions specific to climate, the survey found a high level of recognition that climate change is already happening (77 percent—plus an additional 15 percent of whom think it will happen in the future) and an issue of concern (76 percent are at least somewhat concerned, with another 13 percent “a little concerned”). When asked about what issue comes to mind first about the environment, climate change was a very close second to pollution, though almost twice as many consider pollution a top priority. On energy issues, respondents indicated strong support for investment in renewables (86 percent) over fossil fuels, and a majority—including a slim majority of Republican voters—indicated a willingness to pay more for electricity from clean energy sources. Compared to the same poll given four years ago, Latino voters have become willing to make certain behavior changes such as buying energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs (71 vs. 40 percent), buying cars with better mileages (59 vs. 31 percent) and using clean sources of energy (42 vs. 22 percent).
This is in spite of the fact that the survey indicates that there has been a decrease in Latino voters who have received a lot of information about global climate change (from 28 to 22 percent).
The survey also found that most Latino would opt for working in a clean energy industry than a fossil fuel industry (87 vs. 7 percent), if given the choice. The problem, Singley says, is that this choice is rarely happening in the real world. “At the local level, you hear people say ‘I’d love to get a solar job or get into the wind stuff, but I don’t know a guy’--there is a gap between the reality of skills and the supply of jobs and people’s aspiration to build a clean energy economy….We’ve got our work cut out for us to move people from concern to action.”
Sierra refers to this as an “extreme chasm.” He says that while the message is loud and clear that Latinos want to live in a clean community, the job opportunities are not there because they are up against powerful industries opposed to clean energy initiatives.
Singley says that there is an information gap that is exacerbated by Latinos not feeling included in higher-level discussions of policy. She explains that when people don’t feel like they are part of conversation, they are easily turned off. She cites a need for more validators (such as former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena) who are trusted and at a high enough level to bring Latino environmental and climate concerns to the table. And she notes that it has to be done in authentic way.
Singley notes how during the climate debate in Congress, efforts by Latino groups and traditional environmental groups to engage the Latino community were too little and too late. This is unfortunate, she says, because “a lack of political will is really a lack of public will.” She says that NCLR has been focusing on engagement at the state and local level.
Sierra says that the Sierra Club has been working since 2002 to dialogue with Latinos about the health of their communities, and that the organization has had a successful diversity drive, increasing the involvement of youth and members of various ethnicities. He says that the increased recognition that Latinos care deeply about the environment and climate should help. “It’s a matter of access; we will keep fighting for it.”