Family beats politics in shaping Latino environmental beliefs. Here’s why it matters.

Rainer Romero-Canyas

Editor's note: This post was updated March 9, 2022.

Sometimes when I try on new clothes, I hear the disapproving voice of my aunts and cousins telling me something that seems nice and trendy is just a fad and lacks refinement. In some settings, this Greek chorus seems to be making my decisions.

In fact, without realizing it, our brains look to cues from important people in our lives to help us make choices. We sort through memories of conversations, sermons or writings to guide our judgments. Even people we do not know but revere in some way can influence our judgments of what is important (like the pope).

Environmental issues like climate change are also influenced by the voices in our heads.

Some of our recent research with the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability explores support of climate change and policies to mitigate it has taught us that in some cultures in the U.S., a set of voices in our heads has a powerful influence in what we believe.

Known as familism to anthropologists, cross-cultural psychologists and other scholars, this influence refers to a set of values that prioritize family. Familism is very high in many cultures, including the Latino community in the U.S.

More certain than others about climate change

As our past work has shown, U.S. Latinos — Latinos who live in the United States, regardless of where they were born — on average express more concern for the environment and more support for environmental policies compared to non-Hispanic whites.

And while we did not find that U.S. Latinos scored higher on measures of familism than whites (all cultural groups showed equivalent levels), we did learn that for U.S. Latinos, these values about family had a special association with their environmental beliefs.

Specifically, stronger familism among U.S. Latinos predicted increased support for climate policies, including greater understanding of the scientific consensus on climate change (a "gateway" belief in supporting climate action).

It was also associated with stronger certainty that climate change is happening. This was not evident in the other groups, though with the small sample of Asian, Black and Indigenous Americans available in the dataset, we could not draw conclusions about these three groups.

For non-Hispanic whites, the best predictor of climate policy support, perception of scientific consensus and certainty about climate change was their political ideology. More liberal positions predict more climate policy support, understanding of scientific consensus and more certainty. Among U.S. Latinos, political ideology was unrelated to all these beliefs.

Why is this important?

U.S. Hispanics have been in most of the U.S. since the U.S. became the U.S., and as a cultural group, they are the second largest. If other communities that have been historically marginalized show a similar pattern, at least for 40% of the U.S. population political orientation is not as important of a factor in predicting perceptions of climate change as are values like familism.

This has implications for how groups like EDF communicate our work and build support for solutions that allow humans to live and prosper with the rest of nature.

For example, many activists feel older generations are a “lost cause” on climate. But, for people with strong familism values, seeing parents, children and peers of all ages protect nature can motivate their own action and support.

For the environment, let’s all be mindful and listen not only to our elders, but also the voices of our youth and think of the broader family that is this country.

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