Nevadans of color worry about climate change, but will that change their primary votes?

People line up to vote in Sparks, Nev., in November 2020.
People line up to vote in Sparks, Nev., in November 2020.

Cheryl Ward has noticed more summer wildfires in her hometown of Elko, Nevada, than ever.

Last year, 610 fires burned 134,145 acres in Nevada. The number of acres burnt by wildfires in Nevada more than doubled from the 1980-to-1999 period to the stretch from 2000 to 2018.

“We’ve had more and more severe fires as we have the increase in the temperatures each year and less precipitation,” Ward told the Reno Gazette Journal, part of the Gannett network, in April. “But a lot of people here in Elko don’t realize that. They think it’s just change that’s happened throughout history.”

Ward is a Republican and a Latina – among the many voters of color who made up 36% of Nevada's electorate in 2020 and who will cast ballots Tuesday in the state's primary elections.

Droughts, extreme heat and raging fires have increased in recent years in the West, so climate change – and its effect on voters in Black, Latino and Indigenous communities – could play a deciding factor.

A poll in April by Suffolk University/Reno Gazette Journal found that a majority of Nevadans are worried about climate change.

Among Black respondents, 69% agreed that climate change impacts their daily lives, compared with 47% of white respondents.

"I think there's some things that transcend other issues, and climate change is one of them," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who serves as chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. "For me as a first-generation American, the legacy is, you know, your life is gonna be better than mine. Now, with Latino communities and communities of color, we see that opportunity closing in."

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Hitting voters where they live

Jollina Simpson, a Las Vegas resident and a home-birth midwife, was still researching whom she wants to vote for during Nevada's primary. She knew she wouldn't cast a ballot for any climate change deniers.

"When I look at politicians not talking about climate change as being something that is real, something that is here and something that would need radical addressing to keep us safe, I cannot brush that aside," Simpson said. "Because it affects every area of my life."

As a Black woman, Simpson said environmental problems affect her family personally on many levels – including her pocketbook.

"I have to pay more in energy costs because it's getting hotter and there aren't renewable sources that are affordable," Simpson said. "In the middle of summer in Nevada, my electric bill could be really high – $300 and $400 a month, which is untenable sometimes."

Other communities are feeling the pain.

"For Latinos, climate change is a personal issue," said Danielle Deiseroth, lead climate strategist for the Democratic group Data for Progress. "It's not only directly impacting the health and well-being of their families here in America but also the lives of their friends and their families abroad."

People of Mexican origin accounted for nearly 62%, a little more than 37 million, of the nation's overall Hispanic population as of 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. The United Nations Development Program calls Mexico "particularly vulnerable to the impacts of global climate change."

Latinos are more likely to live in rural areas where poor air quality is a problem – 24 million Latinos live in areas of the USA that are most polluted by ozone smog, according to the Latino Community Foundation.

This is why environmental issues matter to Latinos, who "live and breathe the consequences of climate change,” said Jacqueline Martinez Garcel, CEO of the Latino Community Foundation, a civic engagement group mobilizing Latinos in California.

Like Latinos, Black communities in the nation are one of the groups hit hardest by climate change.

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In 2021, an Environmental Protection Agency report found Black Americans were "40% more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in extreme temperature-related deaths."

Outlining six specific impacts of climate change, EPA researchers found Black people are more likely to face higher risks in all those categories.

Indigenous populations were historically displaced to areas affected by climate change.

Indigenous lands are more likely exposed to environmental risks such as extreme heat and less precipitation, according to a research article published in 2020 in the journal Science.

All too often, people of color are ignored in conversations about climate change, Martinez Garcel said.

"The whole climate justice movement has often left out the voices of Black and brown leaders, even though the impact of climate change has impacted our communities," she said.

Grijalva said the fight to protect the environment started decades ago during movements for social justice.

"The (environmental justice) movement began ... in response to what was seen as a pattern, a pattern of discrimination and racism in terms of society and a pattern of disproportionate harm," he said. "And a pattern of ignoring and neglecting these communities in terms of where they fit into this process."

Where climate could shift voters of color in Nevada

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., accuses acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock of insufficient regulation of opioids.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., accuses acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock of insufficient regulation of opioids.

According to NALEO, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Latinos make up 32.2% of the voting age population in Nevada's 1st Congressional District and 30.6% in the 4th Congressional District.

The 1st, 3rd and 4th districts are rated "toss-ups" by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, meaning they are expected to be some of the most competitive House races.

In the 1st District, incumbent Democratic Rep. Dina Titus faces a primary challenge from Amy Vilela, the co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign in Nevada in 2020.

Vilela is a liberal who was featured alongside Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Cori Bush, D-Mo., in the documentary "Knock Down the House."

Vilela has made the climate a central component of her campaign. According to her website, "Las Vegas should be at the forefront of developing the Green New Deal, which, like the original New Deal before it, is the only solution whose scope is ambitious and comprehensive enough to meet the scale of the crisis we face."

Titus, serving her sixth term, also prioritized the environment, working against the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. Her website touts her expertise on nuclear energy.

Republicans will compete Tuesday to determine their nominee for the general election. Carolina Serrano, one of the candidates, led the Hispanic outreach effort in Las Vegas for former President Donald Trump.

In the 4th Congressional District, Republicans are running to take on Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford in November.

The Senate race

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., was the first Latina elected to the Senate. Republicans Adam Laxalt and Sam Brown are competing Tuesday to challenge her in November.

"Cortez Masto has led efforts in the Senate to create clean energy jobs and address the impact of climate change," said Josh Marcus-Blank, a spokesman for her reelection campaign.

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Alexa Aispuro, national digital campaigns manager at Chispa Nevada, a Latino-focused offshoot of the League of Conservation Voters, said Cortez Masto and Horsford are climate champions.

"I don't think all of the candidates are perfect. But I think they've all done really good stuff," she said. 

Laxalt, the front-runner in the GOP Senate race, attacked President Joe Biden and Cortez Masto's climate and energy policies as "anti-American" in a statement to USA TODAY.

"Biden and Masto continue to be beholden to the far left radical green new deal instead of changing course and pushing policies that will bring down these prices for the Latino community," Laxalt said.

The Sierra Club opposed Laxalt's unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018, citing his connections to conservative megadonor Charles Koch and calling him an "environmental travesty for Nevada."

According to E&E News, "Laxalt has been openly skeptical of climate change science and the scientific consensus that humans are the main cause of global warming and its impacts."  

Republican Senate candidate from Nevada Adam Laxalt is running his campaign as a Trump-backed candidate.
Republican Senate candidate from Nevada Adam Laxalt is running his campaign as a Trump-backed candidate.

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Ángel Luis Molina, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University, said diverse coalitions are building around the issue of climate justice, and Cortez Masto and fellow Democrats have an opportunity to capture their votes.

"I think there could be an opportunity there to frame it as this bigger push for climate justice that affects all of these racial and ethnic minorities and Indigenous communities in ways that they simply don't affect other groups who have historically been more affluent or have had more access to environmental amenities," Molina said.

Regularly meeting with climate justice organizations in Nevada that know what communities of color need should be a priority, Molina said.

“Democrats need to send strong and clear messages to Latino voters, and the message has to say that Democrats are going to invest in the longer pursuit of climate justice well after election season has passed,” he said.

Contributing: Amy Alonzo, Reno Gazette Journal 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nevada primary: Voters of color want climate change action