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Press Release · July 29, 2019

Record-High Share of Californians Concerned About Global Warming Making Wildfires More Severe


SAN FRANCISCO, July 29, 2019—Asked about the possible effects of global warming, a record-high share of Californians are very concerned about wildfires becoming more severe. With the California presidential primary seven months away, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden are frontrunners in the Democratic primary. These are among the key findings of a statewide survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

In the wake of devastating wildfires over the past few years, seven in ten Californians (71%) say they are very concerned about wildfires becoming more severe as a result of global warming. This view is most widely held in the San Francisco Bay Area (75%), followed by the Inland Empire (74%), Los Angeles (72%), and the Central Valley and Orange/San Diego (both 69%).

Governor Newsom recently signed legislation that will provide investor-owned utilities with at least $21 billion, paid for by utility investors and ratepayers, to cover future wildfire damages. This plan is favored by 57 percent of adults (50% of likely voters). Support is highest in the San Francisco Bay Area (67%), followed by Orange/San Diego (57%), the Inland Empire and Los Angeles (both 55%), and the Central Valley (51%).

“A record-high 71 percent of Californians are very concerned about more-severe wildfires from global warming, and majorities across the state’s regions favor the new wildfire insurance fund,” said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO.

Californians express less concern about other possible impacts of global warming, with 49 percent saying they are very concerned about more-severe heat waves and 42 percent saying they are very concerned about rising sea levels.

Environmental Issues Will Be Important in 2020 Presidential Election

Looking ahead to the 2020 presidential race, the survey asks likely voters identifying as registered Democrats or as independents who lean Democratic about the candidate they would choose if the Democratic primary were held today. Based on an open-ended question, the frontrunners are Kamala Harris (19%), Elizabeth Warren (15%), Bernie Sanders (12%), and Joe Biden (11%). Pete Buttigieg (5%) is the only other candidate supported by at least 5 percent, while 25 percent say they don’t know. Among those age 18 to 44, Sanders (21%), Warren (19%), and Harris (13%) have greater support than Biden (4%) and Buttigieg (1%). Support among those age 45 and older is greatest for Harris (22%), Biden (14%), and Warren (13%), followed by Sanders (8%) and Buttigieg (7%). Men are less likely to say they don’t know (18%) than women (31%).

Among all likely voters, and especially among Democrats, the environment will be an important issue in next year’s election. Eight in ten likely voters say candidates’ positions on the environment are important (44% very, 36% somewhat) in determining their vote for president, with Democrats (64%) far more likely than independents (34%) and Republicans (20%) to say very important.

Californians give federal policymakers low marks for their overall performance and for their handling of environmental issues in particular. About one-third of adults (32%), and slightly more likely voters (38%), approve of how Donald Trump is handling his job as president, with 62 percent of adults and 60 percent of likely voters disapproving. Approval is somewhat lower for how the president is handling environmental issues: 26 percent of adults and 31 percent of likely voters approve, while 66 percent of adults and 65 percent of likely voters disapprove.

Overall approval ratings are lower for Congress, with 25 percent of adults and 17 percent of likely voters approving. Strong majorities (65% adults, 79% likely voters) disapprove of how Congress is handling its job. Approval ratings for Congress were similar in May, when 30 percent of adults and 22 percent of likely voters approved. On environmental issues, 25 percent of adults and 17 percent of likely voters approve of how Congress is doing, while solid majorities (63% adults, 76% likely voters) disapprove.

“With high disapproval ratings for President Trump and Congress, many California likely voters say that environmental positions are very important in choosing a presidential candidate,” Baldassare said.

Most Support State’s Efforts to Address Global Warming

Majorities of Californians say the effects of global warming have already started (63% adults, 64% likely voters) and that global warming is a very serious threat to California’s future economy and quality of life (57% adults, 56% likely voters). Major state legislation enacted in 2016 (Senate Bill 32) calls for California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Strong majorities (67% adults, 63% likely voters) approve of this law. Strong majorities (71% adults, 66% likely voters) also approve of legislation enacted last year (Senate Bill 100) that requires all of the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2045. Support is lower (53% adults) for California’s “cap and trade” system, which aims to provide an incentive for companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

At a time when California’s political leaders have pursued environmental policies that are at odds with those of the federal government, solid majorities (64% adults, 61% likely voters) favor the California state government creating its own policies to address global warming.

“With most Californians believing that global warming has already begun, there is strong support for the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move toward renewable energy,” Baldassare said.

Most Californians approve of specific policy proposals to address climate change. Strong majorities (74% adults, 68% likely voters) support encouraging local governments to change land use and transportation planning to reduce reliance on driving. Overwhelming majorities (75% adults, 76% likely voters) favor requiring automakers to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new cars. Notably, four major auto manufacturers and the state announced on July 25 that they had reached an agreement on higher fuel-efficiency standards for new cars, countering efforts by the Trump administration to restrict the state’s ability to set such standards.

When asked about the potential impacts of state climate change policies, nearly half of Californians (48% adults, 45% likely voters) say these policies would create more jobs for people around the state. One in five say these policies would lead to fewer jobs (19% adults, 23% likely voters) or wouldn’t affect the number of jobs (21% adults, 23% likely voters). Regarding other economic impacts, most Californians (58% adults, 60% likely voters) expect gasoline prices to increase due to state action on climate change. Also, half of adults (51%) and likely voters (50%) say they would be willing to pay more for electricity generated by renewable sources.

Access to Clean Drinking Water in Low-Income Areas Raises Concern

Earlier this year, California was declared drought free for the first time since 2011 by the US Drought Monitor. While 30 percent of Californians say water supply is a big problem, this is down 18 percentage points from just a year ago and 40 percentage points from the record high in September 2015.

When it comes to water quality, however, most Californians are concerned about the supply of clean drinking water in lower-income communities in their part of the state: 58 percent say polluted drinking water poses a more serious health threat in lower-income areas. This view is most prevalent in Los Angeles (70%), followed by the Central Valley (59%), the San Francisco Bay Area (55%), Orange/San Diego (51%), and the Inland Empire (49%). African Americans (82%) and Latinos (70%) are more likely to hold this view than Asian Americans (59%) and whites (48%).

The recently enacted state budget allocates $130 million from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (the state’s cap-and-trade revenues) to support a clean drinking water fund. An overwhelming majority of adults (71%) favor this spending plan. Support is higher among African Americans (87%), Asian Americans (81%), and Latinos (81%) than among whites (61%).

“Majorities of Californians view pollution of drinking water as a more serious problem in low-income communities and support the recent state law creating a clean drinking water fund,” Baldassare said.

Only about a quarter of Californians (27% adults, 24% likely voters) say that air pollution is a big problem in their part of California. However, there is wide variation across regions. This view is most common in Los Angeles (43% of adults), the Central Valley (36%), and the Inland Empire (33%); it is far less common in the San Francisco Bay Area (14%) and Orange/San Diego (11%).

Californians Value the Coast, Worry about Debris, Oppose Drilling

An overwhelming majority of Californians (77%) say the condition of the ocean and beaches is very important to the economy and quality of life for California’s future. A similar share (72%) say that plastics and marine debris are a big problem in the part of the California coast that is closest to them, with this view held by overwhelming majorities across the north and central coast (73%), the south coast (72%), and inland (70%).

“Seven in ten Californians say that ocean and beach conditions are very important to California’s future and report that plastics and marine debris are a big problem on the coast near them,” Baldassare said.

A strong majority of Californians (67%) oppose allowing more oil drilling off the California coast, while an overwhelming majority (72%) support allowing coastal wind power and wave energy projects. These shares are generally consistent across regions.

Approval of State Elected Officials Is Steady

Approval ratings for Governor Newsom and the legislature have been stable during the first months of the new administration. Just under half of Californians (45% adults, 47% likely voters) approve of how the governor is handling his job, while smaller shares (31% adults, 39% likely voters) disapprove. These are similar to his approval levels in May and January. On the governor’s handling of environmental issues in California, 45 percent of adults and 46 percent of likely voters approve.

Californians have similar ratings of the state legislature, with 42 percent of adults and 40 percent of likely voters approving of how the legislature is handling its job (41% adults, 48% likely voters disapprove). These approval levels are similar to those in May and last July. On the legislature’s handling of environmental issues, 45 percent of adults and 43 percent of likely voters approve.

About the Survey

The PPIC Statewide Survey is supported with funding from the Arjay and Frances F. Miller Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation, and the Flora Family Foundation.

Findings in this report are based on a survey of 1,706 California adult residents, including 1,194 interviewed on cell phones and 512 interviewed on landline telephones. Interviews took place from July 14–23, 2019. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish, according to respondents’ preferences.

The sampling error, taking design effects from weighting into consideration, is ±3.4 percent for all adults, ±5.1% for the 766 adults asked question 41 (regarding the Democratic primary) and question 44 (regarding the Green New Deal), ±3.9 percent for the 1,400 registered voters, and ±4.4 percent for the 1,085 likely voters. For more information on methodology, see page 22.

Mark Baldassare is president and CEO of PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Public Policy. He is founder of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has directed since 1998.

The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. We are a public charity. We do not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor do we endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Research publications reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funders or of the staff, officers, advisory councils, or board of directors of the Public Policy Institute of California.