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Democrats Discover Another Way to Win Latino Voters: Climate Change

Chris Hondros/Getty

Democrats have a head start on Republicans when it comes to courting Hispanic votes in 2016, and it has nothing to do with immigration reform or the economy. Hispanic voters tend to care a lot about climate change. While Republicans won’t acknowledge that climate change exists, congressional Democrats are planning to expand Latino outreach over environmental issues. 

House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raúl Grijalva is organizing a series of ad hoc hearings around the country this year, focusing on issues like climate change, public health, land preservation, and environmental justice in communities of color. The Arizona Democrat’s goal is to hear from constituencies that are not always considered part of the environmental base—with a particular focus on Hispanic, African-American, and Native Americans.

 “[The environment] hasn’t been seen as a diversity issue in the past,” Grijalva said in an interview last week. “Every community is affected by climate change. Some are affected more.” 

Grijalva says Latino, African-American, and Native American leaders outside of Congress are making public lands and conservation a priority, and that recent polling showing Hispanics care—a lot—about climate change is far from a revelation to him.

According to a January survey from New York Times, Stanford University, and Resources for the Future, 67 percent of Hispanics see themselves being hurt personally—from moderately to "a great deal"—if nothing is done, compared to 50 percent of whites. While 65 percent of Hispanics think the government should contribute money to poor countries to adapt to climate change, only 32 percent of whites think the same. Another 63 percent support "a lot" or "a great deal" of government action against climate change versus 49 percent of whites.

Pollution is a public health issue for Hispanics, who are 165 percent more likely than whites to live in counties with unhealthy levels of outdoor pollution and 51 percent more likely to live in counties with health levels of ozone, according to a 2011 report from the American Lung Association. Communities of color often live closer to polluting facilities, and have a higher risk of asthma, chronic diseases, and premature death, because of their exposure. A 2008 nationwide study by a Johns Hopkins biostatistician published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives surveyed deaths linked to air pollution and found low “socioeconomic status consistently increased the risk of premature death from fine particle pollution among 13.2 million Medicare recipients studied in the largest examination of mortality associated with particulate matter levels nationwide.” 

Hispanics are also particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. The 2014 National Climate Assessment concluded that rising seas and flooding hurt low-income, minority communities, because it’s difficult for them to relocate and they’re more likely to live in areas with poor infrastructure and transit. The problems compound for new immigrants. The National Climate Assessment notes a growth of Hispanics in rural regions in recent years, which are heavily reliant on water and other natural resources for agriculture. “New Hispanic immigrants are often highly segregated residentially and isolated from mainstream institutions, making them more vulnerable to changes in climate. Low wages, unstable work, language barriers, and inadequate housing are critical obstacles to managing climate risk.” When extreme weather or an unprecendented heat wave hits an isolated area, residents have limited access to the health services they need.

Democrats may be starting to embrace the disparate impacts of climate change on people of color and the poor, but Republicans aren’t yet swayed. “Most Republicans are going to find greater political advantage in promoting credible plans to strengthen the economy, improve education and make progress on a host of other issues, including immigration, rather than climate change,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres told the Times. Conservative pollsters often argue that climate change isn't an important electoral issue, and that voters care more about immigration. Before the 2014 midterms, Ayores said climate wouldn't move the needle for voters overall. “It vies with gay marriage and campaign finance reform as the least important issue. Most voters care about jobs, economic growth, health care and immigration.”

Grijalva says it's "offensive" to claim that Hispanics only care only about the economy or immigration: “We’re not a single issue community, and never have been.”