SAN FRANCISCO, California, July 25, 2007 — Californians are unhappy about the level of government effort – federal and state – to protect the environment, according to a survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Ironically, the highly publicized moves that Governor Schwarzenegger and the legislature are making to counter air pollution and global warming may be fueling these escalating expectations about what government could and should be doing.
Today, about half (49%) of all Californians say the state government is not doing enough to protect the environment – the highest share of residents to hold this view in recent years of the PPIC Statewide Survey (46% in 2006, 42% in 2004, 46% in 2003). A similar percentage of likely voters (48%) shares this perception today.
Despite the “green” image the governor is working to project, he has recently lost popular ground when it comes to handling environmental issues: Today, fewer than half (47%) of all residents approve of the job he’s doing on the environment – an 8-point drop since January when approval stood at 55 percent. Approval among likely voters has similarly dropped, from 57 percent in January to 51 percent today. Although still in positive territory, Schwarzenegger’s overall job performance ratings have also dipped in the last six months (all adults 58% to 52%, likely voters 61% to 59%).
“Considering all the attention state leaders are paying to environmental issues and the unprecedented protections they have enacted, it’s amazing how little credit – and slack – Californians are giving them,” says Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of PPIC. “Green expectations are staying way ahead of government ability to deliver.”
If the state government is on the hot seat over the environment, the federal government is being scorched. Two-thirds (67%) of Californians say the federal government is not doing enough to protect the nation’s environment – a perception that has risen appreciably over time (52% in 2003, 56% in 2004, 61% in 2006).
The burn is even hotter for President Bush. His approval ratings have fallen to historic lows this month among all Californians – for both his overall job performance (26%) and his handling of the environment (25%). Likely voters are equally critical, with only one-quarter (25%) approving his job overall and 23 percent approving on environmental issues. And while there are unsurprising partisan divisions, Republicans’ disapproval of the president’s overall performance is considerable (42%), having jumped by 18 points since last July. Overwhelming majorities of Democrats (87%) and independents (76%) disapprove of the job he is doing overall.
THE ‘08 ELECTION “ENVIRONMENT”
Given the critical mood, candidates running for their party’s presidential nomination may want to give environmental issues a second – and third – look. A majority of the state’s likely voters (54%) say that candidates’ positions on the environment will be very important in determining how they cast their vote; another 29 percent say these views will be somewhat important, while only 16 percent say they will not be too important. Voter interest in the environment has increased significantly from before the 2004 presidential elections: Fewer than four in 10 likely voters called environmental positions very important in July 2004 (37%) or July 2003 (39%).
THE AIR WE BREATHE…HEALTHY OR NOT?
Californians’ dissatisfaction with government action reflects their continuing – and in some cases rising – environmental anxieties. For the seventh year of PPIC surveys on the environment, residents name air pollution as the state’s most important environmental problem (29%). That concern holds across political parties, all regions of the state, and all racial and ethnic groups. Most residents describe air pollution in their own region of the state as either a big problem (35%) or somewhat of a problem (37%). Less than a quarter (20%) say their regional air quality has improved over the past 10 years, while about half (48%) say it has grown worse. However, there are major regional differences in these air quality perceptions, with Central Valley, Inland Empire, and Los Angeles area residents generally far more critical.
Even more disturbing is that 25 percent of residents now say air pollution poses a very serious health threat to themselves and their families, up from 18 percent in 2003. Again, there are sharp regional differences, with residents of the Inland Empire (34%), the Los Angeles area (32%), and the Central Valley (30%) far more likely than residents of the San Francisco Bay Area or Orange/San Diego Counties (19% each) to believe air pollution is a serious threat.
There are also stark differences among racial and ethnic groups: Blacks (40%) and Latinos (35%) are far more likely than Asians (19%) or whites (16%) to say air pollution is a very serious threat. On specific aspects of the health threat, 40 percent of all residents say they or a family member suffer from asthma or other respiratory problems. However, the share is significantly higher among blacks (51%) than among any other racial or ethnic group (Latinos 41%, whites 38%, Asians 27%).
HEATING UP: GLOBAL WARMING, DROUGHT WORRIES ESCALATE
Although air pollution continues to top the list of environmental problems, residents are becoming much more aware of global warming. Today, 11 percent identify global warming as the biggest environmental problem facing the state – a 3-point increase over last year (8%) and a substantial jump since 2002 and 2000 when fewer than 1 percent mentioned global warming. Even more striking, for the first time a majority of Californians (54%) say that global warming poses a very serious threat to the state’s future economy and quality of life. This marks a 5-point increase since last July and a 15-point increase since July 2005.
Californians’ sense of urgency reflects a belief that the effects of global warming are already being felt – two-thirds of residents (66%) hold this view, up 3 points from last July and 9 points from July 2005. And 81 percent believe steps should be taken right away to counter these effects. Only 1 in 6 think immediate action is not necessary. Moreover, the urgency crosses party lines. There may be significant partisan differences on other questions related to global warming, but when it comes to counteracting the effects of global warming, majorities of Democrats (92%), independents (82%), and Republicans (60%) say something should be done right away.
What effect of global warming worries Californians the most? “More Californians are associating global warming with a greater variety of environmental threats,” says Baldassare. “It’s not just air pollution – concern over increased droughts and flooding is becoming more evident in Californians’ thinking on the issue.” In fact, the greatest number of residents (60%) are now very concerned about severe droughts. This is a 19-point surge in concern over droughts since July 2005 and includes majorities in every region of the state. A potentially related finding is that the share of residents who say the state’s diminishing water supply is California’s most important environmental problem has doubled from 4 percent last July to 8 percent today.
APPLAUDING AB 32, OTHER EMISSIONS LAWS; READY FOR REGULATION?
Despite their underwhelming response to government efforts, Californians overwhelmingly support recent laws the state has passed to lower auto emissions. AB 32, the law requiring California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020, is an ingredient in the political controversy over environmental policy in Sacramento at the moment, but it gets enthusiastic support from 3 in 4 residents (78%) and likely voters (76%). That’s a significant jump since last July when 2 in 3 residents (65%) and likely voters (66%) favored the legislation, which was then in the proposal stage. Support for the law includes strong majorities across political parties.
Residents (84%) and likely voters (81%) are even more supportive of a 2002 law that requires automakers to reduce emissions from new cars in California, starting in 2009. Backing for the law has been extremely high every time this question has been asked in the past five years but is currently at its highest point among all residents. Once again, support is high across partisan lines (Democrats 92%, independents 84%, and Republicans 71%). An executive order Governor Schwarzenegger issued in January to reduce the carbon intensity of the state’s transportation fuels is also solidly favored by residents and likely voters (77% each).
Honing in on air pollution specifically, Californians are also largely willing to toughen pollution standards on many activities, even if it costs more. For example, a strong majority (68%) would be willing to see tougher air pollution standards on commercial and industrial activities even if it cost these businesses more to operate. An equal share (68%) would support tougher standards on the ships, trucks, and trains that transport goods in California, despite increased costs. When it comes to support for toughening air pollution standards on agriculture and farm activities, half of Californians (50%) favor the idea even if it costs more, 34 percent don’t favor it in any case, 5 percent favor it but not if it increases costs, and 11 percent don’t know.
WHO’S IN CHARGE OF THE AIR? WHO SHOULD BE?
Given residents’ concern over air pollution, which level of government do they want to set and enforce air quality standards? State government gets the biggest nod from both residents (37%) and likely voters (42%). Federal and local governments trail significantly. Regional air districts – which are responsible for stationary sources of air pollution – are the choice of very few residents (16%) and likely voters (18%). Moreover, the share of residents who say regional districts should set air quality standards in their region has dropped 10 points since 2003. Baldassare notes, “We find that 7 in 10 residents do not know enough about their regional air district to rate their handling of air quality, yet when told these boards are typically composed of local elected officials, 8 in 10 favor the idea of including professionals with knowledge of health and environmental issues.”
THE ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGE OF THE SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY
In this survey, additional interviews were conducted to provide an in-depth analysis of attitudes in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley – home to some of the worst air pollution in the nation. Compared to residents in the rest of the state, far more San Joaquin Valley residents say air pollution is a big problem in their region (35% to 56%, respectively). Thirty percent of people in the San Joaquin Valley say they are very dissatisfied with air quality in their regions, compared to 14 percent of all Californians. But perhaps most troubling, significantly more San Joaquin Valley residents (35%) than residents statewide (25%) identify air pollution as a very serious health threat to them and their families.
Other San Joaquin Valley findings are presented on pages 17, 19, 21, and 23 of the survey. All the San Joaquin Valley survey questions and responses are available on pages 41-46.
MORE KEY FINDINGS
- Better fuel efficiency or more oil drilling? No contest — Page 12
To reduce dependency on foreign oil, residents are decidedly in favor of requiring automakers to improve fuel efficiency on cars (75%), but not of allowing more oil drilling off California’s coast (52% oppose, 41% favor).
- Renewable energy, yes; nuclear power, probably not — Page 13
Californians (84%) heartily support spending more government money to develop solar, geothermal, and wind power. Far fewer (37%) support the idea of building more nuclear power plants; however, likely voters are closely divided on the issue (44% favor, 47% oppose).
- A solitary commute — Page 29
The number of Californians who drive alone to work (66%) dwarfs the number who carpool (13%) or take public transit (7%). Among likely voters, the drive-alone share jumps even higher (72%).
- Pain at the pump pressuring preferences? — Page 31
Two-thirds of residents (65%) say gas prices have caused them financial hardship – and 69 percent say they would now seriously consider buying a more fuel-efficient car… even if it cost more.
ABOUT THE SURVEY
This edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey is part of a three-year series that is supported by funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The intent of this survey series is to raise public awareness, inform decisionmakers, and stimulate public discussions about Californians’ attitudes toward environment, education, and population issues.
Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,500 California adult residents interviewed between June 28 and July 15, 2007. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese), Vietnamese, and Korean. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for the 1,814 registered voters is +/-2.5%, and for the 1,238 likely voters it is +/- 3%. Findings are also based on a telephone survey of an additional 766 San Joaquin Valley residents interviewed between July 11 and July 18, 2007. These interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The total sample for the San Joaquin Valley region is 1,001 adult residents. The sampling error is +/-3%. For more information on methodology, see pages 33 and 34.
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 on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.