By Mark Baldassare, president and CEO, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Fresno Bee on August 2, 2007
The San Joaquin Valley has recently been at the center of a political storm with state and regional officials clashing over plans to reduce air pollution. While most policymakers agree on the need for much cleaner air, they disagree over how and when it will be possible to meet this goal. Meanwhile, San Joaquin Valley residents are unequivocal in expressing a sense of urgency about air pollution, and politically united in their desire to enact policies that will improve the quality of the air they breathe.
When the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Statewide Survey interviewed 1,001 adults in the San Joaquin Valley recently, it found a grim mood when it comes to air quality. More Valley residents name air pollution as the state's top environmental issue than any other high-profile topic such as global warming, drought, forest fires and energy.
Nearly half say the state government is not doing enough to tackle environmental issues, while only 10% complain that the state government is doing too much. A bare 50% of residents in the eight-county region that voted heavily for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year now say they approve of the job the governor is doing in handling environmental issues.
Today, the Valley distinguishes itself in an unflattering way in the PPIC Statewide Survey. Compared to other areas of California -- including Los Angeles and the Inland Empire, which are notorious for their low standing in U.S. air quality rankings -- Valley residents are much more likely to worry about regional air pollution and its effects.
When asked about the region they live in, two in three reported that the air quality is worse than it was 10 years ago, while just 12% think it has improved in the past decade. Eight in 10 say that air pollution is a problem, with 56% describing it as a "big problem." Just 11% of Valley residents say they are "very satisfied" with the air quality in their region, while 55% say they are dissatisfied.
Even closer to home, nearly three in four believe air pollution in the region is a very serious (35%) or a somewhat serious (37%) threat to them and their family's health. Moreover, half say that they or family members currently suffer from asthma or other respiratory problems.
Importantly, within the Valley region, perceptions of the effect of air pollution vary dramatically. For example, those in the Fresno-to-Bakersfield area express even more unhappiness about their air quality than those living in the San Joaquin Valley communities that are farther to the north.
The severity of the air pollution problems expressed by Valley residents today has an important political repercussion in that it leads residents to throw their support toward more government intervention. While residents have a unique political and economic profile compared to the rest of the state, their policy preferences mirror those of all Californians when it comes to a desire to increase government efforts to improve the environment. And though Democrats and Republicans in the Valley disagree on many political issues, such as taxes and spending, there is a considerable amount of bipartisan consensus about the types of government policies needed to improve air quality in the region.
Some of these public opinion trends may seem surprising for one of the more conservative and less affluent regions of the state, until we factor in the degree of concern about air pollution.
For instance, seven in 10 Valley residents want to see tougher air pollution standards on commercial and industrial activities. A similar proportion call for tougher air pollution standards on the vehicles that transport goods, and about half want to see tougher air pollution standards placed on agriculture and farm activities.
Moreover, public support for tougher air pollution regulations on commerce, industry, goods movement, farms and agriculture does not waver much when residents are reminded that such policies could lead to higher costs for businesses to operate.
Valley residents list a multitude of factors when asked what contributes the most to the problem of poor air quality -- personal and commercial vehicles, industry and agriculture, growth and development, and even weather and pollution from outside the region. Such varied explanations point to the need for state and regional bodies to work together to reduce the mobile and stationary sources of air pollution they oversee.
While weighing their next policy move, state and local officials should recognize that Valley residents are growing impatient with their progress to date -- and are looking for decisive actions to protect their own health and improve the region's economic vitality.