Nov 2 1:45 PM

Climate change emerges as priority for black and Hispanic voters

Studies show dealing with climate change is a high priority for nonwhite voters.
Richard Drew / AP

It is a point noted with some morbid curiosity year after year — climate change ranks low on the list of Americans’ priorities. But this version of the story tends to exclude the concerns of those whose interests are often marginalized at the polls and left out of legislation: people of color. 

According to the number crunchers at FiveThirtyEight (using data from the Pew Research Center), in 2014, more than 40 percent of nonwhite Americans believe global warming should be a “top priority” for their government, while that number for their white counterparts barely tops 20 percent.

This discrepancy may factor in a number of elections this year, especially in some battleground states with significant minority populations where climate change has emerged as a major policy issue.

In Michigan, where Democrat Gary Peters and Republican Terri Lynn Land are vying for an open Senate seat, Peters has made climate change one of the central issues of his campaign. The Great Lakes, an economic engine for the state, is threatened by warming in number of ways, including reduced water levels due to evaporation.

“Michigan is on the front lines of climate change,” Peters told The Washington Post.

And while Florida’s incumbent governor, Republican Rick Scott, doubts the human contribution to climate change, his Democratic challenger, former Florida governor (and former Republican) Charlie Crist has promised to make the issue a focus of his administration. Crist has called the multi-coastal, multi-cultural, low-lying state, “the epicenter of this debate.”

As Democrats in swing states, both Peters and Crist will need strong support from minority voters. In the Sunshine State, where the race is neck-and-neck, black voters have been called Crist’s “most crucial” bloc. Peters, who recently polled 15 points ahead of Land, represents Michigan’s 14th congressional district, one of the state’s two majority-minority districts, in the U.S. House.

Ifeoma Ike, co-founder of grassroots organizing group Black & Brown People Vote, recalled the history of the environmental justice movement, pointing out that people of color are disproportionately hurt by climate change in many ways. Minority populations in dense, urban “heat zones,” she said, suffer most from climbing temperatures. As a result, what makes for good politics in minority communities is also changing.

"I think we're starting see more progressive and millennial groups of color target their resources and their energy towards [the climate] fight,” Ike said.

These races in Florida and Michigan are two of a handful in which California billionaire Tom Steyer’s organization, NextGen Climate, has focused its efforts to elect candidates who are strong on climate issues — as well as taking aim at those who are deemed “climate deniers.” This midterm cycle, NextGen has targeted “a million of what it calls ‘climate voters’ in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire,” according to The New York Times.

Though minority voters are still likely to favor Democrats regardless of a candidate’s climate stance, FiveThirtyEight found that even when controlling for party, nonwhites care more about the issue. Between 2007 and 2013, an average of 50 percent of nonwhite Democrats cited climate change as a top priority. Among white Democrats, that number is less than 40 percent.

Ike conceded that climate change might not yet be the single, determining factor in elections, but added, “I do think it's increasingly going to be a major issue.”

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