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ecoAmerica in Paris - Day 2: How Higher Ed Can Make Climate Action Accessible to Everyone

By Peggy Knudson
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The grand postmodern hall in the “Order of the Architects of the Isle of France,” a stately building near the gare de l'est train station in Paris, is abuzz with a language that is not French. This is a gathering to celebrate U.S. Latino and Latin American leadership on climate change at the Paris climate talks. Spanish rules.

Sipping wine and sharing notes on the wonderful “el Papa Francisco” (Pope Francis), among other topics, are luminaries like Felipe Calderon, former president of Mexico; Adrianna Quintero, Director of Partner Engagement for National Resources Defense Council and Director of Voces Verdes; and Kevin de Leon, President Pro Tempore of the California State Senate.

“Our mission is to amplify and broaden the voices that are weighing in for climate action,” says Quintero. “We all have a role to play, and we need to engage everyone — Latinos, African Americans, young, old, moms, people of faith, students. Whatever your background or your socio-economic status might be, you have an important role to play in this fight.”

Latinos, especially, are disproportionately affected by poor air quality and climate impacts, says Quintero. “Many Latinos work in agriculture, in construction or in landscaping, jobs that put them at greater risk for breathing poor-quality air, for suffering on hot days.”

De Leon agrees that communities of color can be marginalized when it comes to the climate conversation. One common theme that de Leon says he has found throughout his meetings in Paris is the need to democratize climate change policies, so that “not only one segment of our society has access. We can’t all afford Teslas.” 

Solutions to these challenges that disproportionately affect such coomunities can be as modest as planting trees in areas that are mostly concrete. Or they can be as ambitious as what the state of California is doing: using a portion of revenues from the state's cap-and-trade policies to help Latino communities purchase solar panels, as State Senator de Leon describes passionately. De Leon states that “the number one reason for absenteeism in our California school system is asthma. California is 40% Latino, and Latinos are among the most marginalized and vulnerable, right down to the criteria pollutants our children are breathing into their lungs.”

There are grounds for optimism, deLeon says, as more Latinos are taking action. “We Latinos have a very interesting troika with regards to climate change,” he says. “We have (former speaker of the California State Assembly) Fabian Nunez, who was a lead author of AB32 (California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006). We have Latino pontiff, the Holy Sea, el Papa Francisco, from Argentina, who talks forcefully about the issue of climate change. No other pontiff has ever done this before. And I am the lead author for Senate Bill 350, which I think surpasses the Global Warming Solutions Act. So we have three Latinos on the forefront throughout the world when it comes to climate change. I think this is really important because Latinos are not just focused on environmental justice, but we are at the forefront of climate change as a whole.”

In addition to the troika de Leon describes, there are Latino climate leaders at every level of society, says Quintero. “It’s important that we all believe in our ability to lead, that we carry that on to our networks. That’s where the energy lies. We can make leaders of our friends like our local barber, who may speak to hundreds who come through his doors. We need to communicate and motivate people. We need to simplify issues to the point where we just know that it’s good for us, for our communities and for the world if we act on climate change.”

Latino leadership on climate will be the focus of an ecoAmerica summit in 2016, thanks to a recent grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. If Paris is any indication, there will be a deep well of talent from which to draw. Additionally, Solution Generation's partnership with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, which represents almost 500 institutions of higher ed that are home to more than two-thirds of all Hispanic students, is an important way to spread climate action among these communities. By communicating at a local, personal level, higher ed can educate and outreach to communities that do not have the same access to climate information and action. Solution Generation is committed to ensuring that all college campuses, and every student, is equipped to meet our climate challenge.