John Giles/PA Wire
Smart Republican strategists—yes, they do exist—acknowledge that their party’s loss of Latinos was critical to President Obama’s re-election. Alienated by Mitt Romney’s call for the “self-deportation” of undocumented immigrants, a whopping 75 percent of Latino voters backed Obama. And they turned out in large enough numbers—nearly 13 million voted, roughly 10 percent of all ballots cast—to make a decisive difference in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, according to the website Latino Decisions, which tracks Latino politics.
What hasn’t been recognized is Latinos’ potential to play a similar role on climate change: providing the electoral muscle to compel politicians to get serious, finally, about the crisis. Just as Latinos overwhelmingly supported Obama over Romney, they also—along with African-Americans, Asian-Americans and youth of all races—demonstrate the highest levels of support for action against climate change and air pollution, according to extensive polling data.
In one sense, this should come as no surprise. Minorities are more likely to live in areas burdened by extreme pollution, and young people are the ones fated to spend the rest of their lives coping with worsening climate change. Of the 6 million people living within three miles of America’s coal-fired power plants, 39 percent are minorities, according to a report by the NAACP, “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People.”
Nevertheless, the notion that Latinos, blacks and Asian-Americans are the nation’s most fervent greens contradicts the stereotype of environmentalists as white, upper-middle-class Prius drivers. And that stereotype contains enough truth that the emergence of a super-green constituency of minorities and youth—a constituency likely to grow as America’s demographic transition unfolds—presents enormous but challenging opportunities for mainstream environmental groups. In most cases, those groups rhetorically affirm the value of diversity even as their operations remain dominated by white, middle-aged staffers and funders and the strategies and tactics they pursue.
“It’s a little like how the Republican Party ran away from demographic realities for years, and then realized after the 2012 election that they had made a gigantic mistake,” says Manuel Pastor, director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California. “The mainstream environmental groups have to realize that working with Latinos and African-Americans and Asian-Americans and youth is not just the morally right thing to do—it’s the politically effective thing to do. And it will only become more so over time.”
The need couldn’t be greater. Last summer’s record heat is over, but 60 percent of the Lower 48 still suffer from extreme dryness. Ominously, global temperatures have been high enough that a chunk of Arctic ice larger than the United States has melted. A recent string of reports from impeccable mainstream institutions—the International Energy Agency, the World Bank, the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers—have warned that the Earth is on a trajectory to warm by at least 4 degrees Celsius in this century, which would likely be incompatible with continued human survival. Nevertheless, Obama persists with his “all of the above” energy strategy of increasing coal, oil and natural gas production while boosting support for renewables. In his first post-election climate-related action, Obama sided with Senator James Inhofe, the leading climate change denier in Congress, and signed a bill exempting US airlines from carbon restrictions imposed by the European Union. More damaging still, his administration then approved the sale of 20 million acres of new oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, US negotiators at the latest round of UN climate negotiations in Doha, Qatar, are once again proposing disastrously slow progress on emission reductions.