Latinos Are Suffering the First Effects of Climate Change, Their Voices Need to Be Heard

The director of the Smithsonian Latino Center weighs in on the disproportionate burden that climate change brings to Latino populations

Red Hook Hurricane Sandy
Latino populations like those in Red Hook, Brooklyn, suffered greatly during Hurricane Sandy Annabel Symington/Demotix/Corbis

“Climate change is a defining issue of our time and there is no time to lose. There is no Plan B because we do not have Planet B,” said the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon while participating in New York City’s People’s Climate March on September 21. The Secretary-General was one of nearly 400,000 marchers intent on sounding the alarm in advance of the UN’s own Climate Change Summit. Several Latino and Latino-serving organizations collaborated with march organizers, among them Construyendo Puentes, meaning Building Bridges.

The Americas Latino Eco Festival, a recent six-day event in Boulder, Colorado, offered a wide range of workshops with climatologists and other expert, paid homage to environmentalists Chico Mendes and César Chávez, and scheduled diverse cultural presentations, including a performance by Grammy award winning band La Santa Cecilia. The band's remake of John Lennon’s 1967 classic, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” shed light on the lives of migrant harvesters of the fruit. The festival was organized by Americas for Conservation and the Arts, a group founded with the mission to highlight the arts and peoples of the Americas and to enhance understanding and respect across cultures and ecosystems.

La Santa Cecilia - Strawberry Fields Forever

As the Smithsonian unveils its new programing around the theme of the "Anthropocene: Earth in the Age of Humans," it is important to not only underscore that Latinos are actively involved in this issue, but to also understand why too many in the Latino community are negatively impacted by the effects of climate change and to think more deeply about the role of cultural workers and organizations, large and small, in responsibly and creatively addressing this concern.

While poor and minority communities are more likely to be impacted by the consequences of climate change, they are also less likely to contribute to its underlying causes. Their carbon footprint is smaller—they purchase fewer goods, drive and fly less, and reside in smaller housing units, among other considerations. Not long after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, I visited cousins in Red Hook, a Brooklyn neighborhood devastated by the storm. Red Hook has one of the largest low-income housing projects in New York, containing a significant number of Latino households. What I saw was emergency fencing, temporary facilities and other signs of displacement. I can only imagine the resulting social, economic and health challenges. Impoverished communities have limited access to health care, making inhabitants more susceptible to infectious diseases, malnutrition, psychological disorders and other public health challenges caused by disasters.

Over the years we have witnessed numerous heat waves. Due to rising energy costs, working-class Latinos may have limited access to air conditioning and because many live in urban areas, their residences are impacted by the “heat island” effect. They have less mobility, limited access to warning systems and language barriers may result in a slower response to looming dangers. Because many Latinos do not have homeowners' insurance or depend on inefficient public housing authorities, their period of recovery is typically longer. Experts are noticing increasing numbers of Latinos among the class of “environmental migrants,” sure signs of displacement and attendant economic decline and social stress.

In his article, “Community-Driven Research in the Anthropocene,”  Rajul E. Pandya notes, “In the Anthropocene, the gulf between scientific understanding and civic decision-making simultaneously increases the likelihood of disaster, our vulnerability to natural hazards, and the inequity of their impact.” Pandya notes the need to “better integrate scientific knowledge into cultural, ethical and aesthetic frameworks,” which is what the Americas Latino Eco Festival strived to accomplish. It is clear that environmentally challenged Latino communities must continue to inform a more collaborative, solutions-oriented science driven by community-directed research.

Active community participation in scientific research can produce better solutions to address public health challenges and to manage natural resources during disasters. It can also create new employment opportunities for community members, strengthen social networks and build lasting, functional partnerships between research institutions and impacted communities. These approaches and outcomes are key in creating the resilience needed to withstand and thrive in the face of natural and human-induced disasters.

The goal of the UN’s Climate Summit was to develop strategies to reduce emissions, strengthen climate resilience and mobilize political support for a global agreement that reduces global temperature by 2-degrees Celsius. I do not think I am alone in imploring the convened leaders to listen to the organized, informed voices of the most affected by anthropogenic climate change in developing solutions and implementing actionable agendas.

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