In 1970, President Nixon created the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), a big step forward in addressing the growing concern about the effects of pollution on personal health and the environment. In 1972, he nearly took us two steps back, but Congress overrode Nixon’s veto and made a law to protect our waterways. Environmental decline on a massive scale was still an abstract notion in the 70s, but enough localized communities would experience disastrous effects from industrial contamination. Tragedies like Love Canal helped crystallize the dire need for better environmental legislation.
The Endangered Species Act (1973) soon followed, then the Clean Air Act (1977), and then the 1980s and 90s brought about the regulation of waste disposal, safe drinking water for all, and clear protocols for the use and disposal of toxic and hazardous materials like asbestos, nuclear waste, and environmentally devastating accidents like oil spills. A century of hardcore industrialization and its aftermaths culminated in some basic steps designed to ease the environmental burden, at least domestically.
Air quality in the US has improved dramatically over the past several decades thanks to the #CleanAirAct, but our environmemt faces daily threats by the Trump admin. We must fight to ensure #HealthyAirForAll, especially underserved comunities of color. https://t.co/sOsQ8C0frt
— Rep. Gil Cisneros (@RepGilCisneros) January 23, 2019
Until almost the new millennium, nations typically cleaned up their mess — or not — on their own terms. As the year 2000 approached, our knowledge of the negative effects of humanity on the planet grew. Now we understood that environmental concerns are global problems and that ozone depletion, for example, touches us equally.
This universal mindset was bolstered within the U.S. by Presidents H.W. Bush and Clinton, who each lent support to pro-environmental initiatives during their terms. In 1997, the U.S. participated in the international meeting in Kyoto where the countries in attendance focussed on the biggest problem facing us all—global warming.
More than 150 countries sent delegations to discuss parameters for an international effort to reduce greenhouse emissions.The studies and musings that followed returned the incontrovertible fact —greenhouse emissions, those by-products of many of our industrial and agricultural processes, are causing the warming of our planet. This warming, they concluded, can likely bring a series of devastating consequences, like the melting of the polar ice caps, causing flooding and crop destruction.
Studies and negotiations went on for four years, and in 2001 the Kyoto Agreement was drafted and signed by industrialized countries who agreed to large efforts at carbon emission reduction. But the negotiations were like a game of chicken, with the largest producers of emissions (the U.S. and China) unwilling to make necessary concessions. Our domestic push to clean up our act did not translate and President George W. Bush declined to sign the treaty.
The U.S.’s initial lack of participation nearly sunk the agreement. The parameters of countries’ pledges were adjusted and eventually other countries, like Russia and Afghanistan, signed onto this global contract to do better. This was a relative victory — next came enforcing it. While this is agreement is arguably better than no agreement, nothing is perfect and currently it appears that of the 170 or so signatories, only about 16 of them are actively pursuing effective environmental plans.
Here in the U.S., we are not closer to officially joining the agreement or working toward international collaboration or ecological diplomacy. Our current administration has taken several steps back, distracting itself from pledging environmental improvements by instead questioning the science behind climate change itself.
Positive Change on the Horizon
All of this sounds like bad news so far. No, we are certainly not doing all we can in terms of relieving climate change conditions, but there are many reasons to remain optimistic about improving environmental conditions and our personal role in the process. Most notably, a heartening study by the Brookings Institution shows that the efforts of local governments and the private sector (those who pledged “We’re Still In It” when government refused the Paris agreement) are actually compensating for our federal government’s failure to back up the Paris Agreement.
That’s right — even without the support of our administrative and legislative bodies, Americans are now 6th in the world in terms of rapid reduction of carbon emissions. Local politicians and city- or town-wide ecological initiatives are big drops in the bucket. So, too, are the investment that private enterprise is making in alternative fuel research and development, for example. These individual or small-seeming actions are adding up to more than a sum of their parts. And it turns out that Latinos are responsible for an impressive portion of that progress.
It now appears that the fight to ensure the endurance of our planet is being fought by a whole army of soldiers without a general. A new study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication suggests that many of the soldiers on the front lines are Latinos. Latinos in the U.S. demonstrate clear understanding of climate change.
While only 70% of non-Latino Americans recognize the reality of climate change, 84% Latinos do, and while only about half of non-Latinos accept that global warming is mostly caused by humans, not naturally occurring conditions, 70% of Latinos assume responsibility for our role in creating this carbon footprint.
Real information and passion have fueled the message of environmentalism within the Latino community. The comprehensive study showed that Latinos are more certain that climate change is real (84%). Latinos are also more worried about it than non-Latino counterparts, and take the opportunity to discuss it more often. The majority of Latino respondents indicated their concern both for the ill effects of global warming happening right now and also fear for the future of the planet and their descendants.
All of this clarity of purpose reveals that Latinos feel they have skin in the game. Interestingly, all of these tendencies are evidently augmented within the subset of Latinos who speak Spanish. It’s as if the more time spent within Latino communities, speaking to other Latinos only doubles their concern and commitment.
Attitudes and Action Birthed from Personal Experience
The greatest influence on Latinos’ views on global warming is their own experiences. As the Yale study notes, more than fifty percent of Latinos have personally felt the effects of global warming. The majority of Latinos in the U.S. live in California, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida. Those who live in coastal cities have watched them flood, as have those who live by rivers. City dwellers have to bear the air pollution and, given the higher cost of living, might be even more at the mercy of the elements. And this is just the everyday kind of environmental strain.
Latinos in drought states have felt extreme heat waves, seen the fields shrivel, and watched the forest burn. The victims of tropical storms and hurricanes face significant losses — from lost wages, to property damage, to the sometimes unbearable burden of emergency evacuations. It should be noted that the places where Latinos dwell in the U.S. are also where climate change glitches cause very dramatic effects, reports Pew research. These weather events are not easy to navigate or to recover from.
Similarly, the most common occupations amongst Latinos are in construction and agriculture followed by other largely outdoor professions. While someone who works indoors throughout the seasons might be more disconnected from the natural world, a person whose job takes her outdoors daily will more likely perceive — and therefore believe — shifts in the normal patterns.
It is safe to say that climate change has a disproportionate impact on Latino communities and this has led Latinos to take the high road, expending greater-than-normal efforts in organizing and outreach, such as this organization in California with a dedicated climate change education branch. There are many more examples of strong Latino voices crying out for environmental reform.
We are receiving this message so clearly in the Latino community, how can we channel that back to the world? Latinos know and feel climate change, and we are willing to work to slow it down. But we will also hold our politicians accountable. We will organize and we will also act alone, expecting businesses to go green and will reward the ones who do with our patronage and punishing those who don’t through avoidance. We believe environmental education should be taught in schools and hope our country will do better in the future.
Other people of color face similar challenges that highlight global warming. They, too are organizing. Indeed, we will do our communities and our planet a great service when we realize that environmental concerns are rarely divorced from social justice iniquities. People of color more likely to experience direct and often times devastations effects from climate change and the path to recovery is often stacked against them.
A year and a half after #HurricaneMaria devastated Puerto Rico, many on the island are still in need. Team members from Mylan’s Caguas facility volunteered their time this morning with @SBPUSA to help. #MylanMakesAnImpact pic.twitter.com/3blaJ8pb7e
— Mylan (@MylanNews) March 7, 2019
Contaminated wells, landfills, and nuclear disasters tend to happen in less affluent areas, and these areas are more heavily populated by people of color than their white counterparts. Oil pipelines are built beneath Native American reservations and they have to go up against petroleum multinationals. The majority of victims of hurricanes Katrina and now Maria are people of color who still don’t have what they need.
We Must Persevere
Fortunately, to tackle one problem is to go after both in some measure. The fight to correct social injustices will also ease the disparity of how heavily felt climate change is in some communities, while completely invisible to others. Since these other communities lack experiential information, communities of color need to keep mobilizing and acting, picking up even more momentum as a force at the ballots and in government.
As we’ve seen with our national commitment to the environment, there is often the trade off between what is better in the moment and what is better in the long run, or what is best for one versus for the whole of society. We have been officially on the right side of that and also, now, on the wrong side. But we also see the power of a whole community and of the individuals within that community, in the face of even wrong choices by government. Latinos, for the record, largely feel that our government should.
However unintentionally, Latinos have become the most environmentally engaged population in the U.S. Latinos understand the concept of global warming and largely recognize that it exists and is having adverse effects on their lives and the lives of others in their community. Latinos consider global warming important (80%) and are more likely to talk to friends about climate change at a party, expressing concern (50%). The more Latinos keep talking, educating, and winning elections, the closer we will get to fulfilling our pledge to the environment.