As policymakers gear for a new year of climate action and climate disasters, it is important for decision-makers to recognize that not everyone suffers the impacts of climate change equally. Latinos are twice as likely to be affected by wildfires, three times more likely to die from heat on the job, more likely to live in hotter neighborhoods, more likely to live in areas exposed to flood risks, less likely to have their neighborhoods protected from sea level rise, as well as more likely to suffer health problems after a flood. Recognizing these facts, 71 percent of Latinos say climate change is affecting their local community.
Facing the demographics of climate change
Environmental racism is also evident at the source of climate change. Almost 2 million Latinos live in a place where air pollution from the oil and gas industry is so high that the cancer risk from this source alone exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) level of concern for air toxics exposure. In addition, air pollution from fossil fuel emissions increases asthma risk and severity — and Latino children are twice as likely to die from asthma as white children. Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately located near fracking wells that contaminate the local area with toxic pollutants, leading to heart defects, infant mortality and childhood cancer.
Other socio-economic factors add up to turn climate risks into full-blown disasters for Latinos and other communities of color. For example, Latino and Black communities receive disproportionately less aid following natural disasters and are the hardest hit in terms of property and income losses. Latinos have the highest uninsured rates in the United States, preventing access to health care following a disaster or smoke inhalation. Latinos have a higher poverty rate, with 1-in-6 Latinos lacking economic resources to handle losses associated with climate hazards.
Beyond simply surviving disasters, these communities also lack access to the tools to thrive. Latinos are more likely to lack access to a car, rely on public transportation and live in multigenerational households with vulnerable family members, limiting their ability to respond to natural disasters. Also, 30 percent of Hispanic households do not have air-conditioning, while over 40 percent of Latino households are energy insecure, meaning they cannot afford the energy required to heat and cool their homes, refrigerate food and medicine. Too many Latinos must make the impossible decision between paying their electric bill or paying for food, medical care and other basic necessities. Moreover, Latinos and other communities of color also face the nature gap — a disproportionate lack of access to parks, waterfronts and other green and blue spaces that provide public health, economic, educational and climate resilience benefits to the communities that have them.
The climate transition must be just
Without action, not only will Earth continue to heat up and degrade, but existing inequities will only be etched deeper into society.
The solution to this is a comprehensive, just transition to a climate-safe society. Not only must we move away from sources of greenhouse gases, we must protect and restore the nature, waterways and ocean that surrounds us. We must do so in a way that shares the benefits of these investments with communities and remediates the harms caused by such a transition — as well as the harms that have been done by past and present pollution.
This differs in important ways from a climate transition that does not take environmental racism and justice considerations into account. For example, an unjust transition that brings the U.S. from coal, oil, and gas-powered energy to renewable energy would leave behind communities dependent on the fossil fuel industry in terms of jobs and the tax revenue that funds schools, libraries and other essential infrastructure. It would also continue to perpetuate existing inequities such as the ones described above.
There is already evidence that this is occurring. One recent study found that emissions reductions in mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states, while showing gains in the aggregate, did not reach the communities most burdened by pollution. In addition, communities of color are being left behind in the growth of the renewable energy industry, despite 83 percent support among Latinos for a 100 percent clean energy transition. Black and Latino neighborhoods have disproportionately fewer rooftop solar installations compared to white neighborhoods, even controlling for income and home ownership. Moreover, among senior executives at solar companies, only 2 percent are Black and 6 percent are Hispanic.
The time for action
The response to this must be multifold, but it must boil down to one principle – invite Latinos and other disinvested communities to the tables of power, from environmental policy to disaster planning to corporate clean energy investments.
As a matter of principle, in the creation, negotiation and movement of these types of policies and initiatives, we must listen, absorb and act on the concerns of environmental justice communities. In 2023, with a new Congress and strengthened methane emissions commitments from the Biden administration, it will be crucial to put this principle into action and demonstrate America’s commitment to climate justice.
Without diverse community voices and intimate knowledge of conditions on the ground, the best-meaning policies and initiatives can leave out or even harm the people they were meant to serve. A climate transition without justice is not a transition, it is merely an extension of the status quo.