As we celebrate the 46th anniversary of Earth Day, we are reminded of the urgent need for action to address the environmental challenges facing our nation and our world. Latinos have an important role to play given the impact environmental degradation has on our community. We can and should ensure that environmental issues are part of the national Latino policy agenda.
Earth Day was started by US Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), a leading figure in the environmental movement who enlisted the help of Congressman Pete McCloskey, a Republican from California. Together they launched the first Earth Day in 1970, when millions of Americans took to the streets calling for a sustainable environment. Their activism translated into action, and by the end of that year, the Environmental Protection Agency was created and was soon accompanied by stronger versions of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts, the cornerstones of US environmental policy.
Today, we find ourselves at a moment when that type of environmental commitment and energy is needed once again. Over the years, growing populations and increasing development have taken a toll on our planet. Each year, we are using more resources than the Earth can provide. Combined with the far-growing impacts of climate change, more heat waves and extreme weather events are changing our way of life -- and the ecosystems on which we all rely.
As is often the case, the most vulnerable communities feel the greatest impacts. Consider the following: 28 million Latinos live in California, Texas, and Florida, states that are experiencing the most dramatic impacts of droughts, heat waves, and sea level rise. Almost 40% of Latinos live within 30 miles of a power plant, potentially exposing them to higher levels of pollution. Even worse, the Centers for Disease Control reports that Latino children have higher levels of mercury in their bodies and are more likely to die from asthma.
Extreme weather impacts not only our health, but also our jobs: in 2014, California’s drought fallowed 400,000 acres of farmland in the Central Valley leading to the loss of more than 17,000 jobs in the agriculture sector, a key source of employment for Latinos.
As the second largest community in the US, Latinos need to rally together and demand that our leaders take action to protect our valuable natural resources and our well-being. While it is true that Latinos are at the forefront of the impacts, we are also leading in support of real solutions. Polls show that Latinos strongly support our nation’s transition to clean energy, want stronger efforts to reduce pollution, and would like to see the US take a leading role the global fight against climate change.
Now more than ever, our planet needs our help. 2016 is shaping up to be the warmest on record in 136 years; the Greenland ice sheet is melting at rates never before witnessed, accelerating sea level rise; and, record-warm ocean temperature are bleaching corals, causing majestic reefs to turn into underwater graveyards.
Yet, there are signs of hope. Today, in New York City, representatives from over 160 countries will come together to sign the global accord aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing climate change. While by itself this accord is not enough, it is an important step in what must be a more aggressive and urgent effort to reduce global emissions.
Back in 1970, Republicans and Democrats, city dwellers and farmers, labor and business leaders, came together in a rare political moment to protect our Earth. Today’s environmental movement needs that again. And the voices, stories and power of the Latino community can create another window of opportunity for action for the sake of our generation, and for generations to come.