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Press Release · June 27, 2002

Pessimism About State’s Environmental Prospects Generates Resolve, Not Apathy

Californians Willing to Make Major Lifestyle Changes to Improve Environment; Most Believe Environmental Justice Concerns Are Real

SAN FRANCISCO, California, June 27, 2002 – Despite a budget crisis and deep doubts that environmental progress can be achieved, Californians remain steadfast in their concern about the state’s environment and their commitment to improving it, according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and the Hewlett, Irvine, and Packard Foundations. Residents have little faith that government can solve environmental problems, but most residents are willing to make significant personal sacrifices to improve California’s air, water, and land.

The survey of 2,029 Californians finds that most residents believe little progress has been made in solving environmental problems over the past twenty years, and they are pessimistic about improvement in the future. Seventy-eight percent believe there has been only some (58%) or hardly any (20%) progress since the early 1980s, and 79 percent have only some (51%) or hardly any (28%) optimism that environmental problems will be under control 20 years from now. While 72 percent of residents say they are currently somewhat (49%) or very (23%) satisfied with the quality of the environment in their region of the state, over half (51%) say it is getting worse; only 27 percent believe it is improving.

Little faith in government

Pessimism about the state’s environmental future is consistent with Californians’ well-known distrust of government: Half of state residents say they have at least some confidence in government to understand and solve today’s environmental problems, but only 9 percent say they have a great deal of confidence and almost half (49%) have little or none. Although residents say they trust state government (32%) more than county (20%), federal (19%), or city (16%) government to deal with environmental problems, a majority (51%) say that the state is not doing enough.

Californians also give President George W. Bush and Governor Gray Davis low marks on environmental performance. Only 39 percent of Californians say they approve of the way the president is handling environmental issues; only 35 percent approve of the governor’s environmental performance. Despite their cynicism about the role of government, most voters (88%) say that the candidates’ positions on environmental issues will be very (39%) or somewhat (49%) important in determining their vote for governor in November. Currently, 43 percent say that Democrat Davis would do a better job of handling environmental issues in California; 31 percent give Republican challenger Bill Simon the nod.

“Californians today feel profound concern about the environment, but they have little faith that government can resolve serious problems like air pollution,” says PPIC Statewide Survey director Mark Baldassare. “They are willing to take personal responsibility to a large degree, which is remarkable given the state’s anemic economic circumstances.”

Air pollution top issue; Public willing to make tradeoffs to help environment

Air pollution (34%) is the most important environmental issue facing the state today according to residents, followed distantly by growth and development (13%), water, ocean, and beach pollution (12%), and the water supply (9%). While air pollution is the top issue in every region, Central Valley residents are more likely than residents of other regions to mention it.

A majority of all Californians see specific regional concerns as at least somewhat of a problem, from ocean and beach pollution along the coast (84%), to growth and air pollution damaging the Sierra mountains (76%), to the loss of farmlands due to urban sprawl in the Central Valley (70%). Southern California residents are far more likely to view pollution along the coast as a big problem, while Central Valley residents are more likely to say that the loss of farmlands is a big problem. A majority of residents of every region except the Central Valley see traffic congestion as a big problem in their area.

Given their broad concerns, state residents are willing to make a variety of economic and lifestyle tradeoffs in order to see environmental improvements:

  • Economy: Sixty-four percent of Californians say stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the tradeoff, but 31 percent believe such restrictions cost too many jobs and hurt the economy.
  • Lifestyle: Fifty-three percent of state residents say they will have to make major lifestyle changes to solve today’s environmental problems. Eighty percent recycle regularly and over half (52%) buy organic foods at least some of the time. Despite their love of the outdoors, 55 percent believe that open space should mostly be designated as protected land for natural habitat preservation, rather than developed for recreational use (38%).
  • Energy: Sixty-five percent of Californians – compared to 52 percent of Americans – say the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of limiting energy production and supplies. And 85 percent favor a state policy that requires doubling the use of renewable energy over the next decade.
  • Energy/Oil Drilling: Fifty-nine percent say policymakers should not allow more oil drilling off the California coast, even if this means higher gasoline prices for California drivers.

“The state is at a critical juncture in terms of our awareness of environmental challenges and our willingness to do something about them,” says Richard Schlosberg, President and CEO of The David and Lucile Packard Foundation. “It is encouraging that Californians accept that they are both part of the problem and a key part of the solution.”

Environmental inequities a reality for low-income, minority communities

Californians are clear about where they stand in the debate over environmental justice: Most believe there are environmental inequities between more and less affluent communities in the state. A majority of residents (58%) agree that compared to wealthier neighborhoods, lower-income and minority neighborhoods have more than their fair share of toxic waste and polluting facilities. And 64 percent of Californians also say that poorer communities have less than their fair share of well-maintained parks and recreational facilities. Latinos are far more likely than non-Hispanic whites (72% to 60%) to say that poorer communities do not receive their fair share of parks and recreational facilities.

More key findings

  • Water pollution and supply – Pages 4, 18, and 24
    Most Californians view the pollution of water sources by urban and agricultural runoff (80%) and by toxic substances such as MTBE (74%) as at least somewhat of a problem. Residents are divided about ways to help California meet its future water needs: 47 percent favor building dams and reservoirs, while 45 percent prefer conservation. Fifty-nine percent of voters today say they would support the $3.44 billion water bond measure on the November ballot.
  • Bottled vs. tap water – Page 7
    Only 24 percent of Californians say they drink straight tap water; 35 percent drink it filtered and 39 percent prefer bottled water. Latinos are far more likely than non-Hispanic whites (55% to 30%) to drink bottled water and Los Angeles residents drink bottled water more than residents of other regions.
  • SUV ownership – Page 7
    Consistent with national rates, 23 percent of Californians say they own or lease a sport utility vehicle. Families with children and those at higher income levels are more likely to own an SUV.
  • Global warming – Page 16
    A solid majority of Californians (62%) believe that there is enough evidence that global climate change is real and that some action is warranted. Eighty-one percent favor a state law requiring all automakers to further reduce emission and greenhouse gases from new cars in the state by 2009.
  • Growth controls – Pages 17 and 18
    Fewer Californians today (49%) than in May 2001 (51%) would vote for a local initiative to slow down the pace of growth in their community, even if it meant having less economic activity. A solid majority (58%) favor using taxpayer money to buy undeveloped land to keep it free of development.
  • Overall approval ratings for Bush, Davis – Pages 20 and 21
    Sixty-five percent of Californians say they approve of the way President Bush is handling his job, down from 76 percent in February, but still far higher than his environmental rating. Support for the president among Democrats and independents has dropped substantially. Governor Davis’ approval ratings have fallen as well: Thirty-nine percent say they approve of the way he is handling his job, compared to 51 percent in February. A significant number of Democrats (41%) say they disapprove of his performance.

About the survey

The Californians and the Environment survey is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. It is the third in a four-year, multisurvey series on growth, land use, and the environment, produced in collaboration with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The purpose of this series is to inform policymakers, encourage discussion, and raise public awareness about the critical growth, development, and environmental challenges facing the state. Findings of the current survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,029 California adult residents interviewed from May 28 to June 4, 2002. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. For more information on survey methodology, see page 25.

Dr. Mark Baldassare is a senior fellow at PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Public Policy. He is founder and director of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has conducted since 1998.

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy through objective, nonpartisan research on the economic, social, and political issues that affect Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or state and federal legislation nor does it endorse or support any political parties or candidates for public office.