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Inclusion could be key to mainstreaming the climate emergency

The sustainability movement has a language barrier: Spanish.

The Guardian gave the urgency of the climate crisis its due when it introduced new, more accurate language into its lexicon in May. Cutting down the jargon and telling it like it is may help wake up readers to human-caused "global heating." 

In the meantime, climate groups should focus on overcoming a different sort of language barrier: Spanish. 

Representing 18 percent of the U.S. population and 58 million people, the Latinx community holds great promise for the American environmental movement — if only it can succeed in engaging them.

In 2017, researchers at Yale conducted a representative survey of Latinos in the United States, in which they compared levels of concern about climate change among non-Latino Americans, English-language Latinos and Spanish-language Latinos. To assess sentiment on the issue, researchers used the same categories established in "Global Warming’s Six Americas," an ongoing study by the Yale program on climate change communication, which classifies Americans into six groups ranging from "alarmed" to "concerned" to "cautious" to "disengaged" to "doubtful" to "dismissive." The survey found that Latinos in the United States, particularly those whose language of choice is Spanish, were more alarmed and less dismissive of global warming than non-Latinos. 

The survey found that Latinos in the U.S., particularly those whose language of choice is Spanish, were more alarmed and less dismissive of global warming than non-Latinos.
The May 2017 study found that among English-language Latinos, 29 percent reported feeling alarmed and 37 were concerned. For Spanish-language Latinos, those numbers jumped even higher to 37 percent alarmed and 40 percent concerned. Those statistics are significantly higher than the numbers among non-Latinos, in which only 18 percent were classified as alarmed.

In total, about three in four Spanish-language Latinos (77 percent) identified as being either alarmed or concerned about climate change, as did two in three English-language Latinos (66 percent) in 2017. By comparison, only half of non-Latinos (50 percent) were either alarmed or concerned in 2017.

To appreciate the progress the U.S. population overall has made on this issue, stats I cited from a 2012 version of this study when I wrote on America’s miasma of misinformation on climate change for The Guardian classified only 13 percent of all Americans as alarmed. As of December, the number of alarmed Americans had risen to an all-time high of 29 percent. Looking at this recent increase in light of the higher levels of alarm and concern reported among Latinos in 2017, Latinos emerge as early recognizers of the climate emergency. Why, then, are they not more engaged in the environmental movement?

As the Yale study on Latinos found, despite the willingness of many alarmed Americans to join a campaign to reduce global warming, a large percentage of them never have been contacted by an organization working on the issue. About half of alarmed non-Latinos (53 percent), six in 10 alarmed English-language Latinos (63 percent) and nearly three in four alarmed Spanish-language Latinos (72 percent) never have been contacted by an organization working to reduce global warming.

Inclusion is imperative

Environmental groups can begin to heal this breach by becoming more inclusive, not only in whom they reach out to but also in whom they hire and promote. As this article on why the green movement is still so white maintains, environmental ills disproportionally harm people of color, yet they are woefully underrepresented in environmental advocacy — holding up progress for us all.

"We aren’t keeping up with climate change because the environmental movement is allowing a legacy of implicit bias to constrict its leadership and strategy," wrote Green 2.0 Executive Director Whitney Tome in Fusion. "It silences the very people who often feel the greatest impact of a warming planet, even though activists of color could make or break success for this work."

We aren’t keeping up with climate change because the environmental movement ... silences the very people who often feel the greatest impact of a warming planet.
The Green 2.0 report, "Beyond Diversity," indicates that while environmental groups vocalize the need for inclusion, many have failed to transform. The study, derived from interviews and surveys of nearly 100 high-ranking officials at NGOs and foundations, shows that more than 70 percent of respondents said increasing diversity would widen their reach, allow them to address green issues on multiple fronts and bring a greater focus on environmental justice. Yet nearly three-quarters of staffers are white, with only 15 percent of the leaders being people of color. 

The green movement must add diversity at all levels if it aims to reflect and recruit more members of the American population. After all, America is projected to become a "white minority" by 2045, and the Hispanic population is projected to number 138.2 million, or 30.2 percent of the nation’s total projected population, by 2050.

What’s the media got to do with it?

As for the media, climate change reporting in mainstream U.S. outlets continues to progress at a glacial pace. One exception: the reporting on the Green New Deal, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Sen. Ed. Markey (D-Massachusetts). While Ocasio-Cortez has done much to speak for the interests of (or at least uses the language of) Latino voters, coverage on the Green New Deal among mainstream outlets lags far behind coverage by far-right outlets. For example, Media Matters found that Fox News aired more than three times as many segments about the Green New Deal as CNN and MSNBC combined, yet often failed to mention climate change, and in some cases engaging in "straight up lying" about the contents of the policy.

Fox’s negative coverage of Ocasio-Cortez is a reminder of the dangers of overly politicizing climate change in the media. As Media Matters reported earlier this year, two big problems with climate change coverage in 2018 included too much coverage relating climate change to President Donald Trump and not enough tying climate change to extreme weather events.

If we truly aim to mainstream the discussion of climate change, we should not leave the task of reporting on the issue to political reporters. Journalists at all levels — along with writers and content marketers on science, business, technology, education and culture — can make the climate crisis more meaningful to readers from all backgrounds through more accessible language, and by contributing to outlets trusted by typically marginalized audience sectors.

Rebranding global warming to global heating may be a good start, but engaging Latinos, and Americans in general, on this issue takes more than a fancy new label — it takes engagement on a human level. Because as much as messages matter, so does meeting people where they are.

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