Latinos and the Environment: Moving From Concern to Action
History will almost certainly mark the 2012 election as a turning point after which the Latino vote was one of the most powerful forces shaping the nation’s political landscape. With an average of 878,000 Latino citizen children reaching voting age every year for the next two decades, future candidates and policymakers ignore the priorities of this growing electorate at their own peril.
What do Latino voters care about? An Election Eve Poll by ImpreMedia/Latino Decisions 2012 made clear that jobs and the economy are top of mind for Latinos, as they are for all Americans. Immigration was a close second, and actually surpassed the economy in states like Arizona, where a hostile anti-immigrant, anti-Latino climate pervades. The National Council of La Raza (NCLR)—the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States—has also uncovered tremendous support among Latinos for policies that help the U.S. transition to a clean-energy economy, improving the health and economic security of our communities.
What do we make of these results? Surely the popular pastime of post-election poll analysis is important for shaping the priorities of the next Congress and President Obama’s second term. But we should also take a moment to go beyond the issues themselves to understand what motivates concerned citizens—especially Latinos—to vote. After all, we cannot hope to advance policies that are good for our communities without their authentic participation along the way. A broad base of engaged, active, and knowledgeable Latino voters is absolutely essential for progress. President Obama emphasized this sentiment in his acceptance speech: “The role of citizens in our Democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government.”
When it comes to engaging Latinos in the challenging and complex problems that affect the health and economic well-being of our communities, there is a lot of work to do to transform concern into action. Daniel Yankelovich, chairman and co-founder of the nonprofit nonpartisan organization Public Agenda, illustrates the path to action on his Energy Learning Curve (see below). From what NCLR has learned by listening to Latinos throughout the country, being “green” is second-nature. Latinos see the connection between pollution and public health, they favor government investment in clean energy, and they say that are willing to take action. For instance, 44% of Hispanic voters say they are willing to pay $20 or more each month on their electric bill to have their home’s electricity come from clean energy sources.
But the obstacles to policy solutions are very real. Of the barriers Yankelovich lays out, lack of understanding, mistrust, and lack of practical choices are among the most prevalent among the Latino public. In town hall meetings held by NCLR
in Nevada and Colorado this year, we learned that there is still a lack of knowledge about the tangible job opportunities in clean energy. People want more information and control over their personal impact on their environment, such as the sources of the electricity they use. Community leaders expressed wariness toward traditional actors in the environmental space who have made promises that went unfulfilled. There is a strong desire for more trusted messengers, such as the Honorable Federico Peña—the first Hispanic mayor of Denver and the U.S. Secretary of Energy and Secretary of Transportation under President Clinton.
Latino voter turnout in the 2012 election was a watershed moment. Now it is time to take the next steps. Equipping Latino communities with the information, tools, and resources is essential to transforming electoral power into policy change.