My mother’s side of the family immigrated to the United States from Venezuela twenty-six years ago. Being raised by an immigrant has influenced me in countless ways, not the least of which has been how it has informed my political views. My Latinx identity has affected my views on things like immigration and racial equity, given that it’s hard to demonize immigrants and people of color when my closest family members are immigrants and people of color. However, I never clearly connected my Latinx identity to my commitment to climate justice. I always perceived myself as a climate activist who also happened to be Latinx. And yet, digging deeper into the data makes it clear that Latinx young people, like myself, are one of the demographic groups most supportive of climate action.
Research by the GenForward Project at the University of Chicago, a nationally representative survey of young adults that pays special attention to how race and ethnicity shape how people experience and think about the world, shows that 87 percent of Latinx and Asian-American young people personally care “a great deal” or “some” about climate change. This is a higher rate than African Americans (79 percent) and white (80 percent) young people, who were also surveyed. The research did not include data for Arab-American nor indigenous young people. High levels of support are also found among older Latinx people, with 40 percent of Latinx adults believing that climate change will hurt them personally versus only 29 percent of non-Hispanic white adults. Furthermore, GenForward’s data finds that 85 percent of Latinx youth are in favor of support for displaced fossil fuel workers. Additionally, polling conducted by Unidos US (formerly the National Council of La Raza) found that 87 percent of Latinxs would prefer working in clean energy than the fossil fuel industry, assuming wages and benefits stayed the same.
So why are Latinx young people so on board for climate action? My hunch is that it has something to do with geography, jobs, and justice. To start with, over half of Latinx people are clustered in three states that are already experiencing the devastating effects of climate change in visible, dramatic ways: California, Texas, and my home state of Florida. It’s hard to deny climate change when you live in California and see wildfires wreak havoc across your state, or experience record-breaking heat in Texas, or climate-fueled sea-level rise in Florida. I know firsthand what a profound impact growing up in a place already experiencing the climate crisis can have on a young person. There’s something about seeing the place you call home on the brink of destruction that changes the way you approach things, that brings clarity and urgency to trends others might not see yet.
There’s something about seeing the place you call home on the brink of destruction that changes the way you approach things, that brings clarity and urgency to trends others might not see yet.
Furthermore, Latinx people disproportionately work in industries, like agriculture, manufacturing, and construction, that are deeply vulnerable to changes in the climate. For instance, 80 percent of farmworkers in the United States are Latinx; and more than 27 percent of workers in the natural resource field, including agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting, are Latinx. Take, for example, farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, who are already experiencing the impacts of the climate crisis in their work every day. All of this means that climate-fueled changes, like increased temperatures, droughts, and wildfires, disproportionately affect Latinx workers. Such disproportionate exposure to the impacts of climate change might lead Latinx young people to support climate action and green jobs, given that their communities are uniquely exposed to the harms of climate change and and the challenges faced by climate-vulnerable industries.
Lastly, Latinx support for climate action also likely has to do with their disproportionate exposure to environmental injustice. For instance, Latinx people are 165 percent more likely to live in counties with unhealthy amounts of pollution than are non-Hispanic white people. Additionally, almost 1 in 2 Latinx people in the United States live in counties whose air quality violates basic health standards, exacerbating asthma and other respiratory problems. The injustice of these trends is exacerbated by the fact that Latinx people are often the least responsible for contributing to the pollution that harms them: Latinx people inhale 63 percent more air pollution than what is caused by their consumption. These are dramatic—and disturbing—numbers.
Missed Political Opportunity
Despite these substantial exposures to the climate crisis and support for climate action, a Yale study found that 70 percent of Latinx people report never having been contacted by a climate-focused organization. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the stunning lack of racial diversity in environmental organizations themselves: people of color occupy less than 12 percent of the leadership positions in major U.S. environmental organizations. We must do better. Furthermore, almost 75 percent of Latinx people report never having been asked or guided to talk with their elected officials about climate change. Given the changing demographics of this country and the increasing importance of the Latinx vote, this is a stunning missed political opportunity. Reaching out to and organizing Latinx communities around climate justice could help sway elections, and could very well be the difference between climate deniers or climate champions winning in states heavily populated by Latinx people, like Texas and Florida. In addition to influencing elections, failure to empower to Latinx people in the climate movement also limits our ability to come up with truly intersectional climate solutions that meet the needs of frontline communities. In order to ensure we are prioritizing the right challenges and solutions, we need to include all voices in the conversation, especially the voices of Latinx young people.
With our democracy increasingly under threat and our planet quickly spiraling into climate chaos, it’s essential that we in the climate movement do everything we can to build people and political power for climate action. It’s clear that the path to successfully building this power must include reaching out to and mobilizing Latinx people broadly, and Latinx young people specifically. We already overwhelmingly agree that climate change is an urgent issue and support large-scale federal action to address climate change. That we haven’t been centered in the climate movement is a critical missed opportunity. The climate movement’s success in the coming years could be significantly impacted by our ability to change this dynamic.
header source: People’s Climate/Flickr
Editor’s Note: Some of the demographic data has been corrected and updated on March 9, 2020.