Violeta Maya lives on the west side of Brooklyn, along a busy highway, in a neighborhood spare of trees and green spaces. Now 80, Maya emigrated from Puerto Rico when she was a child. In the intervening decades, she watched pollution from cars and factories cloud the skies above her home.
“We have a lot of pollution, and this has caused a lot of asthma,” said Maya, who suffers from asthma herself. “They bring more stuff into this community than they do into Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, anywhere else. We can’t breathe.”
“This is climate change. It’s going to get worse.”
For Maya, the hazards extend beyond the noxious fumes seeping from tailpipes and smokestacks. Planet-warming carbon pollution is fueling record-breaking heat around the country and in New York, and she can feel it.
“The heat is so bad that my doctor said to me, ‘You cannot go out in the heat,’” she said. “I see older people with umbrellas. I see people who have to hold onto the gate for a while to catch their breath. This is climate change. It’s going to get worse.”
Maya isn’t alone. Poll after poll after poll after poll after poll finds Hispanics and Latinos are more likely to acknowledge the climate is changing, worry about the threat, and support policy to slow the rise in temperature — even though they are less likely to identify as environmentalists. Why?
One possibility is that Latinos tend to lean left and vote for Democrats. But even among Democrats, people of color are more likely to believe climate change should be a top priority for policymakers. And even among Americans of color, Hispanics and Latinos stand out. Several polls — see here, here and here — find they are more likely to support pro-climate policy than African-Americans, even though they are less likely to identify as liberal or Democrat.
There a few guesses as to why this is the case. Foreign-born Latinos may care more because they have strong ties to countries that are threatened by climate change. Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico are acutely vulnerable to heat, drought and coastal flooding. Severe heat is worsening pollution in Mexico City, making the air almost unbreathable.
Analysis from Pew suggests the lurking variable is age. “With a median age of 27 years, Hispanics are significantly younger than whites (42), blacks (33) and the nation as a whole (37). Overall, younger Americans are more likely than older Americans to say the Earth is warming because of human activity.”
But it is difficult to tease the signal from the noise. The more you slice and dice the numbers, the harder it becomes to make inferences about any particular group. In surveys of American adults, Latinos typically make a up a small subset of the data.
The key variable may not be age or country of origin, but rather who stands on the front lines of climate change and — more importantly — who doesn’t.
Feeling the brunt of climate change
In a recent study, Maryland residents were asked about their perceptions of climate risks. Vulnerable groups, including people of color, felt more threatened by climate change.
“Historically socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, such as Hispanics, Latinos and African Americans, may face higher exposure to environmental risks and have less capacity to adapt,” said Karen Akerlof, a George Mason University social scientist and the study’s lead author.
Even when controlling for ideology and acceptance of climate change, Akerlof explained, “we find that Hispanics and Latinos are significantly more likely [than whites] to think that they themselves and their households are at risk from the health effects of climate change.”
Hispanics are more likely to live in cities, near polluting factories, power plants and refineries. According to a report from the National Hispanic Medical Association, they are more likely to suffer from asthma or other bronchial maladies as a result. Owing to the urban heat island effect, Hispanics are also more vulnerable to heat waves — a threat compounded, oftentimes, by limited access to air conditioning or medical care.
“In many cases, we’re talking about people who are in lower income brackets and live in urban areas that are potentially prone to high heat indexes,” said Akerlof. “These are obviously populations of concern.”
“What you’re seeing there is that basically everybody else is normal. White males are abnormal.”
Just as relevant as the statistics regarding who feels vulnerable to climate change is who doesn’t. Akerlof pointed to a series of studies highlighting the “white male effect.” Again and again, studies find that white men are more likely to dismiss the risks of climate change. White men tend to earn more money. They tend to be more conservative. In general, they feel less vulnerable to environmental risks and are less likely to support environmental regulation. Research suggests that white men oppose changing a system that largely benefits white men.
“What you’re seeing there is that basically everybody else is normal. White males are abnormal,” said Akerlof. “They’re not recognizing the true risks because they’re so invested in the system that they do not want to see anything that would threaten the current status quo.”
What social scientists find in the data, many Latinos have long felt. Mexican-American labor leader Cesar Chavez gave voice to this concerns of Latinos in a 1970 essay for Playboy magazine.
“It’s amazing how people can get so excited about a rocket to the moon and not give a damn about smog, oil leaks, the devastation of the environment with pesticides, hunger, disease,” Chavez wrote. “When the poor share some of the power that the affluent now monopolize, we will give a damn.”
Climate change will be a defining issue for the next generation of Latinos. As the demographics shift and Latinos make up a larger portion of American society, expect public opinion to follow suit. What some people have referred to as “the browning of America” may also be its greening.