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Tipping Point: Will Latinos Follow Pope Francis’s Lead on the Environment?

A recent survey shows Latinos overwhelming support the pope’s call to defend God’s creation, since nearly 80% say they are already experiencing the effects of climate change.

Green Latinos Festival 2014
A group shot of the attendees at the first national GreenLatinos Festival in 2014. (Mark Magaña)

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History was made this week. The first-ever address by a pope to Congress filled the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as tens of thousands gathered to watch it be live-broadcast around the world. Pope Francis spoke to our nation’s leaders on the moral responsibility for social action. Most notably for my work, the pontiff highlighted his call to defend God’s creation set forth in his historic papal encyclical, Laudato Si, released this summer.

In my work with GreenLatinos, I see firsthand how the Latino community is emerging as a powerful ally in protecting our planet and the health of our communities. I, like others in this community, am eager to see if this visit will be the tipping point for Latino engagement on climate change and the environmental movement.

The U.S. Hispanic population now stands at over 54.1 million, making us the nation’s second-largest racial or ethnic group. One in six Americans are Latino, and most of us (68%) are Catholic—the dominant religious tradition among Latinos. As an Argentinian-born pontiff who frequently communicates in Spanish, Pope Francis has a strong, unique bond with our growing community.

As a group, U.S. Latinos are disproportionately affected by environmental pollution. Almost 40% of the U.S. Latino population lives within 30 miles of a power plant. Nearly 80% of the Latino voters we surveyed said they are already experiencing the effects of climate change—whether in the form of deadly heat waves, more frequent and intense storms or flooding. 

According to recent polling undertaken by Latino Decisions in partnership with GreenLatinos and Earthjustice, Latinos are especially receptive to the pope’s recent call to defend God’s creation. The survey found:

  • Nearly nine out of ten (87%) are interested in what Pope Francis has to say about the environment.
  • More than three-quarters (76%) of Latino voters support Pope Francis’s theology on environmental conservation.
  • The pontiff’s environmental messages resonate even more with Latinas, immigrants and lower-income Latinos.

Latino concern for the environment matters.

The U.S. Latino population is growing and holds a lot of power to shape the future of our nation. Every 30 seconds, a Latino reaches voting age, and candidates for office at all levels of government are taking note and attempting to court the Latino vote.

The attitudes of U.S. Latinos about the environment are especially relevant to Pope Francis’s visit.  Catholicism remains an important source of Latino cultural and political values and many major Latino cultural practices and celebrations include elements of it.

The pontiff’s call matters especially for Latino workers that toil in the fields, at outdoor construction sites and on rooftops who will suffer from more heat-related illnesses, heatstroke and even death as the temperatures rise from climate change.

As a proud father of two young children, I understand even better the importance of Pope Francis’s call to protect God’s creations. It matters to Hispanic families whose children are 40% more likely to die from asthma than non-Hispanic whites.

And, I believe, it will matter to the overwhelming majority of Latinos who care about the environment.

As the Latino population grows and Latino voters wield increasing influence, it is important for the environmental community to embrace this natural ally and work to understand our common ground and common concerns.

Pope Francis’s visit is a vital opportunity for the world to better understand what our families and communities already know—Latinos care about the environment. More important, it is a tipping point for Latinos to heed this call to action and help shape the future of the environmental movement.

Latinos and the Environment Survey

Latino Decisions in partnership with GreenLatinos and Earthjustice conducted a national survey of Latino registered voters and their attitudes toward the environment. The survey, fielded between June 24 and July 8, is based on a national sample of 1,200 Latino registered voters who were interviewed by landline, cell and online in English and Spanish. The survey was initially released on Aug. 18, 2015. The remaining questions regarding Pope Francis and Latino environmental values are being released in conjunction with the Pontiff’s historic visit to the U.S. The survey has a nominal margin-of-error of +/- 2.8%. The full survey, including the polling memo and news release, can be found here.

This post is part of a series celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. Earthjustice is serving as a co-presenter at the 2015 Americas Latino Eco Festival, a multicultural event that aims to unite Latino leaders in the environmental movement. The festival will take place October 15 through 17 in Denver, Colorado.

Mark Magaña is the President and CEO of GreenLatinos, a national non-profit organization that convenes a broad coalition of Latino leaders committed to addressing national, regional and local environmental, natural resources and conservation issues that significantly affect the health and welfare of the Latino community in the United States.