Californians and the Climate Gap

By Sonja Petek, research associate, Public Policy Institute of California

December 3, 2013

Climate change will have an especially negative impact on racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income Californians, according to The Climate Gap, an important report by a team of university researchers. The effects of global warming—such as heat waves and increased air pollution—will have greater effects on disadvantaged communities. These communities may not have the resources to adapt to changing conditions and are likely to have fewer job opportunities if employment in agriculture and tourism diminishes. The findings from this 2009 report resonate today.

It might seem that the immediate material concerns of disadvantaged Californians would make them less inclined to worry about environmental issues. PPIC Statewide Surveys have found the opposite to be true: racial/ethnic minorities and lower-income residents are overwhelmingly concerned about global warming and among the most ardent supporters of policies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

PPIC’s latest survey on the environment found little doubt about the existence of global warming among Asians, blacks, Latinos, and lower-income residents. Majorities say the effects have already begun, and fewer than one in ten say they will never happen. Latinos, blacks, and lower-income Californians are more likely than Asians, whites, and those with higher incomes to express concern about impacts of global warming such as increased flooding and wildfires, droughts, and storms that are more severe. And they are far more likely to perceive global warming as a very serious threat to California’s future economy and quality of life.

The high level of concern among racial/ethnic minorities and lower-income Californians goes hand in hand with their awareness of the climate gap. Among the state’s communities of color, Latinos and blacks in particular are mindful of environmental disparities. They are twice as likely as Asians and whites to consider regional air pollution a big problem, and far more likely to say that air pollution is an especially serious health threat in lower-income areas. Overwhelming majorities of blacks and Latinos say it is very important to spend some of the state’s cap-and-trade revenue to improve environmental conditions in disadvantaged communities, as state law now requires. (Far fewer Asians and whites hold this view.)

These concerns and perceptions translate into overwhelming support for policy intervention. Latinos (88%) and blacks (83%)—along with Asians (78%)—are more likely than whites (65%) to say it is necessary to take action right away to counter the effects of global warming. There is strong support across all groups for California’s landmark legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020: more than seven in ten Latinos and Asians are in favor, as are about six in ten blacks and whites. And overwhelming majorities of lower-income residents and racial/ethnic minorities support a variety of policies to reduce emissions—such as requiring industrial plants, oil refineries, and commercial facilities to reduce their emissions, or requiring oil companies to produce cleaner transportation fuels. Large percentages of whites are also supportive.

California’s lower-income residents and communities of color have traditionally lacked a strong voice in statewide policymaking. But that may be changing. Now that whites are a minority of the state’s adult population, the environmental priorities of racial and ethnic communities could influence future policy in a way that helps close the climate gap.

Related Publication

PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and the Environment, July 2013

Related Policy Areas

Climate Change/Energy

Other Work By

Sonja Petek