A year ago, Alexa Aispuro could care less about politics. She was 17 years old, barely into her senior year of high school, and though she knew she’d soon be able to vote, Aispuro was like, “whatever about it.”
Fast-forward to now, and the college freshman is hooked. “Finally my word can be heard, and I can actually take action,” said Aispuro, who lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.
But Aispuro isn’t just engaged in politics to vote for a presidential candidate she declined to disclose. (Her Facebook page suggests she isn’t very fond of the Republican presidential nominee.) Aispuro has also been canvassing and getting young Latinos like herself registered to vote as a volunteer with the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group.
Just a couple of weeks ago, she asked some of her professors for class time to get other students registered. That’s how serious she is about this election and the environmental issues now driving her activism.
“I’m worried, I notice so much pollution. I think we all deserve a healthy planet,” she said.
Aispuro is one of more than 27 million Latinos eligible to vote this November, and she’s not alone in prioritizing the environment. In fact, two-thirds of Latino voters consider the environment “a very important issue,” according to the Pew Research Center, which notes among the rest of voters polled, only about half of them feel the same.
The Latino population in the United States has been growing at a much faster rate than other groups that have either stagnated or declined in numbers, giving Latinos more power to make or break a campaign during a close election.
There is already a precedent: The Latino vote was key to Democrats winning the White House in the past two elections. This time, they could help Democrats retain the presidency and retake the Senate in a pivotal time for enacting policies to combat human-caused global warming — both in the United States, the planet’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter, and abroad.
“Over the past eight years, there are only two issues in which we have consistently found over 80 percent of Latino voters are in agreement: these issues are comprehensive immigration reform, and combating climate change,” said Edward Vargas, senior analyst at the think tank Latino Decisions. “So [environmental policy] can be a motivating issue if the candidates emphasize it in Latino communities.”
The 2016 election has been nothing if not unpredictable, meaning the ultimate impact of the Latino vote on races throughout the country remains to be seen. But experts emphasize that the Republican presidential candidate’s incendiary rhetoric — particularly in regard to Mexicans and immigrants — coupled with his climate denial, will likely do him no favors with the majority of Latino voters. That’s especially true for Millenials, who make up 44 percent of Latino eligible voters and have a demonstrated interest in the environment.
“Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Florida are essentially the key battleground states for Latino voters. And that’s where young Latino Millennials, if they turn out in reasonable numbers, can absolutely have an influence on the outcome,” Gabriel Sánchez, professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico, said of the presidential election. “A lot of the data there suggest that Latino enthusiasm to vote is actually higher at this point in the election than we had it back in 2012.”
While it’s dominated headlines, the fight for the White House is only one aspect of this election. Control of the Senate is also at stake with 34 seats up for grabs — most of them held by Republicans.
Taking back the Senate would put Democrats in a better position to influence the climate change laws they tend to favor and, critically, who will fill a key vacancy on the Supreme Court. The balance of the court is particularly relevant to climate change action as the Clean Power Plan, a landmark rule calling for massive reductions in carbon emissions from the electricity sector, is expected to reach the nation’s highest court. The Clean Power Plan isn’t just important for national air pollution, it is also considered a vital tool to cut enough greenhouse gas emissions to meet the targets set in the Paris climate accord.
What’s driving Latinos’ heightened environmental concern? Vargas said one factor may be strong family connections. “Latinos have families across Latin America, and know the effects of climate change on communities in Mexico, Central and South America,” he said.
However, the bigger influencing factor may lie closer to home. “Latinos often live in communities here in the U.S. that are plagued by pollution in major cities,” Vargas said.
More than 60 percent of Latinos live in California, Texas, Florida, and New York — states that are among the most vulnerable to severe heat, air pollution, and flooding, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council report published this month. They are also 21 percent more likely than non-Hispanic whites to live in the hottest parts of cities, and 51 percent more likely to live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone. To top that off, Latinos are three times more likely to die from asthma, a disease strongly linked to air pollution, when compared to other ethnic groups.
“This is an issue that does not get enough attention — but Latinos are really, very, very strong environmentalists, perhaps the strongest of any demographic group in the U.S.,” Vargas said.
That lack of attention towards the environment is bound to change in swing states like Nevada, and elsewhere, as the effects of climate change intensify, said David F. Damore, professor of political science at the University of Nevada.
“At some point, everybody will have to become an environmental voter to the degree that climate change keeps affecting us,” Damore said. “It will be one of those things… once you start getting other people participating more in the reality of what the potential climate disasters that are facing us, it will become a broader issue that politicians will no longer be able to ignore. The question is: Will it then be too late?”