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Why do religious people of color care so much about climate change?

The Rev. Charlotte Keys breathlessly talks about her involvement in climate change initiatives, both because of her passion for the issue and because of her busy afternoon driving around delivering free meals to volunteers.

Her predominantly black Protestant congregation in Columbia, Mississippi, is helping clean up fallen tree limbs and damaged properties in the wake of a recent tornado — an event she said is directly linked to climate change.

She said air and water pollution is affecting public health and property values throughout her county, and the Rev. Keys considers it her personal mission to empower her congregants and community members to speak up about the ways climate change is affecting them.

"This is a major issue of justice and concern for us because we are living it," said the Rev. Keys, the pastor in the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World denomination and founder and executive director of Jesus People Against Pollution, a grassroots environmental justice organization. "Our community is vulnerable."

Contrary to the prevailing perception that climate change is primarily a cause for upper-middle-class, highly educated white liberals, a 2014 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute shows the highest levels of concern for the issue can be found among black Protestants like the Rev. Keys, as well as Hispanic Catholics.

Compared with 50 percent of all Americans, 73 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 58 percent of black Protestants said they were "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about climate change, far surpassing the anxiety expressed by white mainline Protestants (43 percent), white evangelical Protestants (35 percent) and white Catholics (41 percent), PRRI reported.

Researchers, academics and members of each of the faith groups said the disparity in responses reveals how exposure to the affects of climate change through work, in everyday living conditions and from the lectern influences one's views on the issue.

Laurel Kearns, an associate professor of sociology, religion and environmental studies at Drew University, said heightened awareness among black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics is to be expected in a world where nonwhite communities bear a majority of climate change's burden.

"People of color and people who are poor are disproportionately affected" by this issue, she said.

A personal problem

Concerns about climate change within the Hispanic Catholic and black Protestant communities are inspired, in part, by a global consciousness, Kearns said.

Droughts in Africa or floods and hurricanes in South America "catch their attention," adding to the sense that climate change will impact people of color first and hit them the hardest, Kearns said.

As a map of 2012 disaster-induced displacement worldwide from The Guardian illustrates, extreme weather events like hurricanes and droughts are a part of life in countries like Cuba, the Philippines and Nigeria. Even tragedies like Hurricane Sandy in the U.S. tend to have a more lasting impact on minority communities, both financially and psychologically, Kearns said.

There's a prevailing sense among racial minorities that people in power aren't protecting their communities, noted Timothy Matovina, executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

"It doesn't surprise me that (these groups) would very much see that they're at a large disadvantage and that rich countries don't really care about that," he said.

But the major thrust of PRRI's survey was how Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants consider climate change a personal problem, said Daniel Cox, the organization's research director.

The survey showed that "Hispanic Catholics (43 percent) and black Protestants (36 percent) … are more likely than white mainline Protestants (17 percent), white evangelical Protestants (16 percent), white Catholics (13 percent) and Jewish Americans (14 percent) to predict that they will personally experience substantial harm because of climate change."

These personal impacts result from the types of jobs held by Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants, as well as the places they live, Cox noted.

"They live in communities that are more likely to be adversely affected by climate change, places like Brooklyn or Red Hook that were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy," he said.

They are often in the neighborhoods known for environmental pollution, living by trash dumps or near factories.

Additionally, Latinos in particular tend to have agrarian-related jobs, experiencing firsthand the harms associated with soil pollution and drought, Cox said.

Correcting assumptions

Matovina said he was surprised by the PRRI data because Hispanic Catholics generally aren't associated with a strong stance on climate change.

"I more often hear (sermons) on immigration, the need to serve the poor in the community or moral issues during my visits to their parishes," he said.

Matovina thought the same struggles that Kearns and Cox credit with getting Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants interested in addressing climate change could actually prevent them from joining the movement.

"Many Spanish-speaking immigrants are worried about surviving from one week to the next. Going to the latest rally on climate change or writing letters to their local chamber of commerce about some environmental issue … that sounds to me more like something a middle-class person would do with time on their hands," he said.

Although not doubting that Hispanic Catholics in particular feel strongly about the plight of men and women of color and the poor around the world, Matovina said he wasn't aware they associated those conditions with climate change or that they were conversing about it at an ideological or political level.

"People in local communities tend to think about local cause and effect, not the global problem," he noted.

Cox said that climate change means "a little something different to everyone" and noted that the survey was designed so people could let their own understanding of the issue drive their responses. He sensed that members of racial minority groups view climate change in broader terms than the more academic, ideological definition.

"Latinos are much more likely to see a connection between climate change and a whole host of environmental problems, such as droughts, severe wildfires and water shortages," he said. "Some of those same issues apply to the black community, who are much more likely to live in places with air pollution."

Skepticism about high levels of concern among racial minorities is likely a common reaction, Kearns said, because people rarely associate members of this group with the environmentalist movement in the United States.

"So many people, in the past, would say that environmentalism is a white issue," she said, referencing stereotypical labels such as "tree-huggers."

But when Kearns attends climate-related rallies, people of color passionately carry protest signs and chant alongside white, liberal activists.

Centered in the church

Cox and Kearns highlighted how central faith is to the climate concerns of black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics, noting that the groups reported they regularly hear about environmental issues from the pulpit.

As they did in measures of overall concern for climate change, Hispanic Catholics led the pack of religious groups in frequency of a clergy member discussing the issue. Seventy percent of Hispanic Catholics said that they "often" or "sometimes" heard about climate change in a church service, compared with just 20 percent of white Catholics, the survey reported.

Black Protestants also stood out, especially compared to other Protestants, with 51 percent of the group reporting they heard about climate change from clergy members "often" or "sometimes." Only 30 percent of both white mainline Protestants and white evangelical Protestants could say the same, according to PRRI.

Kearns called the variations in frequency between religious groups "striking" because shared theological claims seemed to have no impact on the likelihood of a clergy member addressing climate change.

"Black Protestants look a lot like white evangelical Protestants, and so do Hispanic Catholics, on measures that many analysts have said are connected to evangelicals' position as climate change deniers or skeptics," she said, citing factors like belief in biblical literalism and the sense that science and religion are in conflict.

And yet racial differences inspire radically different responses to climate change.

As Deseret News National reported in October, pastors have a powerful role to play in increasing awareness about environmental issues. Climate change activists have said that the movement would be more successful if skeptics heard about it from church leaders on a regular basis.

But clergy members must be prepared to have their messages shaped by the needs of their communities, the Rev. Keys said, an idea that both explains why Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants are more likely to hear about climate change in church and illustrates the importance of ongoing discussions.

"The people in my church are receptive to (hearing messages about climate change) because they live it," she said. "And we have to keep talking about it until God blesses the people in power to understand what's going on."


Twitter: kelsey_dallas