Why climate change matters to Latinos » Yale Climate Connections

Even after 24 years, Onys Sierra’s voice still breaks as she remembers the night Hurricane Mitch began to ravage her home country of Honduras. “I remember thinking, ‘I have to sleep next to my daughter, because if we die, we’ll be together,’” she said.*

After the storm finally subsided, homes, workplaces, and lives were destroyed. “Removed from the map,” Sierra said of her country. “Whole families died, bodies of people floated, children.”

“That experience was the hardest I’ve ever had in my life,” he added.

Hurricane Mitch was the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record. More than 11,000 people died and 3 million were left homeless in the storms in Honduras and Nicaragua. Mitch landed in 1998, where he slowed down and sat over Central America, shedding rain for days.

Left: Rio Lampa swells near the town of Nueva Ocotepeque during Hurricane Mitch. (Photo credit: Leonora (Ellie) Enking / CC BY 2.0). Right: Flood damage along the Choluteca River caused by Hurricane Mitch (Photo credit: NOAA/CC BY 2.0).

In the decades that followed, climate change has made storms with long periods of heavy rain more frequent. Hurricane Harvey produced a record-breaking 51 inches of rain near Houston in 2017, and in November 2020, two category four hurricanes dropped catastrophic rains over Central America.

After the storm, Sierra and many others made the difficult decision to immigrate to the United States.

“No job. My workplace no longer exists — it exists, that place, but it no longer works. It was full of mud and trees,” Sierra said. “It was difficult because I had to leave my daughter. It means leaving one’s life — leaving a child, it means leaving one’s life.”

Sierra now lives in Durham, North Carolina, where she does two jobs. His daughter eventually joined him in the US and had two children of her own. And while Sierra isn’t too worried about hurricanes anymore, signs of climate change are everywhere. The summer, he said, was very hot, and a heavy rainstorm caused flooding and trees toppled over.

“The environment, we don’t take care of it. It’s the most precious and beautiful thing we have and we don’t take care of it,” he said. “What will happen in 2030? What will my grandchildren experience when they grow up?”

Sierra’s story is just one of many complex and varied stories about Latinos living in the United States amid climate change. And while climate change affects everyone, it doesn’t affect everyone equally. From North Carolina to New Jersey to California to Puerto Rico, both causes and effects of climate change disproportionately threaten Latinos across the United States.

Burning fossil fuels creates air pollution, causes climate change and endangers health

The main cause of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas — which releases gases that trap heat. Burning fossil fuels also produces other pollutants that are detrimental to society in the United States. Fine particulates, known as PM 2.5, enter the human lungs and cause short-term health problems, such as coughing, shortness of breath, and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Long-term exposure can lead to increased rates of chronic bronchitis, decreased lung function, and an increased risk of death from lung cancer and heart disease.

The Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, is home to many immigrants from Latin America. Maria Lopez-Nuñez, deputy director of organizing and advocacy for Ironbound Community Corporation, described the neighborhood as “four square miles surrounded by industry.”

The Ironbound neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo credit: Paul Sableman / CC BY 2.0)

Several industries in the vicinity, including waste incinerators and the largest port on the East Coast, emit a lot of PM 2.5. Lopez-Nuñez says that one in four children, or 25%, in the neighborhood has asthma. That compares to 7% of children across the country.

Poor air quality is one of the main risk factors for death worldwide. A Harvard study found that in 2018, one in five premature deaths was due to fossil fuel pollution. In the US, air pollution disproportionately affects marginalized groups.

“There are times when we wake up and we can smell the pollution in the air,” Lopez-Nuñez said. “I don’t think it’s an experience that everyone in this country has to go through, but it’s an experience that has a huge impact on you.”

In the US, blacks and Hispanics are much more likely to live in areas with unhealthy air than non-Hispanic whites. A 2019 study led by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Minnesota calculated a “pollution inequality” metric that measures the amount of PM 2.5 pollution a group faces compared to the group’s role in causing pollution.

They found that, on average, non-Hispanic whites experienced a 17% less “pollution gain” from their exposure to air pollution than they did. Blacks and Hispanics experienced 56% and 63% more “pollution burden” respectively than they caused.

Because eliminating the burning of these fossil fuels is critical to reducing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other air pollutants, climate action can improve public health in Latino neighborhoods.

Extreme weather and heat disproportionately harm Latinos

In addition to bearing the brunt of fossil fuel pollution, Latinos in the US are facing the effects of climate change through extreme weather, wildfires, heat, and rising sea levels.

“The majority of Latinos, from mainland Latin to Puerto Rico, live on the front lines of climate change. They are the first and hardest hit,” said Michael Méndez, assistant professor of environmental policy and planning at the University of California, Irvine.

Many Latinos live in areas exposed to extreme heat. Méndez says Latino-dominated neighborhoods often lack shade trees and green spaces, which can help keep neighborhoods cool. Researchers have found that the Los Angeles neighborhoods with the highest percentages of Latinos are 6.5°F hotter on very hot days than the neighborhoods with the least Latinos.

Immigrants make up the majority of strawberry pickers in California.

Similarly, researchers from the University of Arizona and the University of Kentucky have shown that Latino neighborhoods are more prone to flooding. Large Latino populations live in coastal cities such as Miami and Houston which are experiencing rising sea levels and the threat of hurricanes.

“Because of racism and other social inequalities, structural inequalities, most of these communities had old infrastructure that collapsed even before the disaster hit,” Méndez said.

Watch: Hot days endanger farm workers


In the workplace, Latinos are overrepresented in outdoor industries such as agriculture and construction. One-fifth of the national workforce is Hispanic, but Hispanics make up more than half of hired farm workers. Méndez says that in California, many farm laborers are forced to work in extremely hot weather and on days when fire smoke fills the sky.

Latin climate action leader

Latinos in the United States believe, worry, and are willing to act on climate change at a much higher level than the general US population.** Méndez says these differences are likely the result of many Latinos’ life experiences with climate change.

And Latino leaders demand climate solutions from the workplace to state buildings and beyond. Méndez says migrant rights groups in California are being forced to get involved in climate change as workers start experiencing more wildfires and extreme heat.

“These people have become sort of a de facto experts on disaster and climate change and are now slowly starting to work regionally and statewide as a disaster response network,” he said.

Lopez-Nuñez and Ironbound Community Corporation have successfully championed environmental justice in their communities by starting at the city level. They are working to pass legislation that requires existing community pollution loads to be considered before allowing new polluter facilities. The ordinances were adopted first in Newark and then, after 12 years of work, in New Jersey as a whole.

“It’s about making our case over and over again,” Lopez-Nuñez said.

When Onys Sierra moves to Durham, she faces discrimination from a boss who knows she desperately needs a job. So he joined the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) to advocate for more worker protection. In her own life, she tries to use less plastic and save water. “It is the environment that gives us life,” he said. “So destroying it is the same as destroying ourselves.”

While more than willing to do what she can to fight climate change, Sierra is also frustrated by the inaction of those with real power to implement solutions, she said: “It would be great if they could try to use the power they have. , so that our grandchildren will not be exposed to such a damaged environment.”

*All quotes attributed to Onys Sierra are direct translations from the original Spanish. Maria Ponce with the International Service Workers Union and Lisa Fernandez with Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) provide interpretation and translation support.

**The findings of this study were produced by YPCCC, the publisher of this site.

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