Blacks, Latinos and Indians Think About Climate Change in Ways that Most Other Americans Do Not

Joseph Bullington

September 21, 2014—The first People's Climate March is held in New York City.

In March, when the Yale Pro­gram on Cli­mate Com­mu­ni­ca­tion released a detailed study of U.S. pub­lic opin­ion about glob­al warm­ing, the New York Times looked at the data and drew some inter­est­ing con­clu­sions. Among them: Most peo­ple think cli­mate change will harm Amer­i­cans, but they don’t think it will hap­pen to them.” They have a point.

But, as it turns out, not all Amer­i­cans feel the same way. A clos­er exam­i­na­tion of the data reveals that peo­ple who live in cer­tain places tend to feel more vul­ner­a­ble to cli­mate change than others.

Below are a series of maps that illus­trate this disconnect.

Glob­al warm­ing will harm peo­ple in the U.S.”

Map 1 - Edited.png

(Source: Yale Pro­gram on Cli­mate Change Communication)

Glob­al warm­ing will harm me personally”

Map 2 - edited.png.png

(Source: Yale Pro­gram on Cli­mate Change Communication)

At first glance, it might appear that Amer­i­cans are cav­a­lier and unre­flec­tive: they think cli­mate change will only hurt some­one else.” It is impor­tant to note, how­ev­er, that the per­ceived risk of cli­mate change is not divid­ed equal­ly — or ran­dom­ly. If you look close­ly at the maps, a sin­is­ter pat­tern emerges.

Adults per coun­ty who think glob­al warm­ing will harm me per­son­al­ly,” dif­fer­ence from nation­al average

Map 3-Edited.png

(Source: Yale Pro­gram on Cli­mate Change Communication)

What accounts for these stand-out patch­es of green in Alas­ka, the four-cor­ners area, Mon­tana and the Dako­tas? Maybe this next map will help.

Native Amer­i­can and Alas­ka Native pop­u­la­tion by county

Map 4 - Edited.png

(Source: Rur­al Health Infor­ma­tion Hub)

In the pur­ple states of Mon­tana, North Dako­ta, and South Dako­ta, a map of per­ceived risk from cli­mate change turns out to be a near­ly per­fect map of indi­an reser­va­tion coun­ties. This just might have some­thing to do with the col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of the tribes in those areas. The Black­feet, whose reser­va­tion is in the north­west cor­ner of present-day Mon­tana, the North­ern Cheyenne, whose reser­va­tion is at Lame Deer in the south­west cor­ner of the state, and the var­i­ous bands of the Lako­ta, whose reser­va­tions are scat­tered through­out present-day North and South Dako­ta, among oth­ers, are tribes of the plains who shaped their ways of life around the migra­tion of the buf­fa­lo herds. In the 1860s and 1870s, when these tribes refused to go qui­et­ly and mount­ed a fierce resis­tance to white set­tle­ment, the Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment set about destroy­ing the buf­fa­lo. In a mat­ter of years, the natives saw the ecol­o­gy of the entire region dras­ti­cal­ly altered, their way of life dri­ven to near extinc­tion, and them­selves forced onto bar­ren, ever-shrink­ing reser­va­tions — scraps of land seen as unprof­itable by white set­tlers, busi­ness­es and the gov­ern­ment. Since the dis­cov­ery of ura­ni­um, coal, oil and gas ren­dered these lands not so val­ue­less after all, these peo­ples have been sub­ject­ed to the brunt of the envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion wreaked on the region by the min­ing and oil com­pa­nies. In short, Native Amer­i­cans gen­er­al­ly have rea­son to think envi­ron­men­tal dam­age done by white civ­i­liza­tion will hurt them, first.

How­ev­er, this leaves some of the green patch­es in the glob­al warm­ing will harm me per­son­al­ly” map unac­count­ed for. What do we make of the belt of green that con­tours the south­ern bor­der in Texas? And the string of green that runs along the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er and east through Alabama?

Let’s look at some more maps.

His­pan­ic and Lati­no pop­u­la­tion by county

Map 5 - Edited.png

(Source: Rur­al Health Infor­ma­tion Hub)

Black or African Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion by county

Map 6 - Edited.png

(Source: Rur­al Health Infor­ma­tion Hub)

Though the exact num­bers are dif­fi­cult to mea­sure, cli­mate change is a major dri­ver of increased human migra­tion. It makes sense, then, that aware­ness of the harm caused by glob­al warm­ing would be height­ened along the bor­der between the Unit­ed States and the coun­tries to the south that will suf­fer, and are suf­fer­ing, most of the change — and among the peo­ple who have con­nec­tions to those places.

It also makes sense that black com­mu­ni­ties would be wary of the threats posed by envi­ron­men­tal dam­age. Accord­ing to Vann Newkirk, a staff writer at The Atlantic, more than half of peo­ple who live close to haz­ardous waste are peo­ple of col­or. Black chil­dren, he points out, are twice as like­ly to suf­fer from lead poi­son­ing as white chil­dren. Newkirk con­cludes that this is no acci­dent: pol­lu­tion and the risk of dis­as­ter are assigned to black and brown com­mu­ni­ties through gen­er­a­tions of discrimination.”

Accord­ing to the Yale study, 70 per­cent of Amer­i­cans believe glob­al warm­ing is hap­pen­ing, 53 per­cent believe it is most­ly human-caused, and 75 per­cent favor reg­u­lat­ing C02 as a pol­lu­tant. Trump ignored that pub­lic opin­ion when he jus­ti­fied pulling out of the Paris cli­mate agree­ment by pit­ting eco­nom­ic growth against mit­i­gat­ing the effects of cli­mate change. He was speak­ing clear­ly to the only audi­ence with whom that argu­ment could pos­si­bly make sense: those Amer­i­cans who don’t think cli­mate change will hurt them.

Joseph Bulling­ton grew up in the Smith Riv­er water­shed near White Sul­phur Springs, Mon­tana. He lives now in Liv­ingston, where he works as an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, part-time ranch hand and the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times.
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