Climate Change to Have Disproportionate Impact on U.S. Latinos

At work is a variety of factors particular to the fastest-growing American demographic.

San Antonio, Texas, is one of two U.S. cities with a majority Latino population. (Photo: David Liu/Getty Images; enhancement: Lauren Wade)

Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

Although dramatic weather trends possibly related to climate change have been well documented across Latin America—Venezuela recently began rationing water, and precipitation and heavy storms caused flooding in the La Plata River Basin on the southern end of the continent—the effects of global warming on Latinos in the U.S. have been less explored.

Yet more than 50 percent of the population lives in California, Texas, and Florida, states expected to bear more than their share of climate change effects in the 21st century. That and other factors may make Latinos in the U.S. just as vulnerable to a warming planet as their counterparts in other countries.

Additionally, Latinos are disproportionately represented among those at lower income levels (one of four lives below the poverty level, compared with one in six overall), which makes people less resilient, and they are more likely to live in polluted environments or work outdoors, where they’re vulnerable to heat and air pollution (which has a high correlation to greenhouse gas emissions).       

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of U.S. Latinos live in areas where air quality is below acceptable levels, and the population is more likely to experience health effects such as asthma hospitalizations and asthma deaths, according to the Office of Minority Health. Preexisting medical conditions like these make them susceptible to the effects of heat waves, added Dr. Patricia Romero Lankao, a research scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and a member of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. Studies have also shown that low-income urban neighborhoods, such as Phoenix’s Urban Core, heat up more quickly than wealthier neighborhoods because there is less green space.

“We know that we’re already experiencing respiratory illnesses, heart illnesses, heart problems, and waterborne diseases as a result of climate change,” said Adrianna Quintero, a senior attorney for NRDC and the founder of Voces Verdes, a coalition of Latino leaders and organizations advocating for policies that address climate change and support renewable energy. “So it’s really about exposure, and by virtue of working in agriculture, landscaping, and construction in larger numbers than many other populations, it becomes a much greater risk.”

Guido Franco, a senior engineer at the California Energy Commission and a coauthor of the section of the 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment that focused on effects on California and the Southwest, outlined the cascading effects of high temperatures in the area, which he described as the driest and hottest area in the United States.

“High temperatures will result in higher levels of pollution, especially for ozone. Without climate change, without increased temperatures, the level of ozone will be not as high,” he said.

Higher temperatures “will also lead to shifts in the distribution of disease-transmitting mosquitoes,” the climate report stated. 

Two factors among Latinos that will help them adapt to these changing conditions, Lankao said, are their social networks and family support.

“[It’s] one of the key drivers of the capacities [these] populations have to adapt and to respond to these challenges,” she said.

Still, Quintero was resolute. “All of these hazards are going to continue to increase if we cannot take action right now to reduce carbon pollution that causes climate change,” she warned.

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