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Press Release · July 10, 2003

Special Survey On Californians And The Environment: Not In My Driveway: Air Pollution Top Concern, But State Residents Don’t See Themselves As Part Of Problem

Yet, Willing to Make Economic, Personal Sacrifices for Environment; Unsatisfied With Federal, State Environmental Leadership

SAN FRANCISCO, California, July 10, 2003 — Are Californians asleep at the wheel? Although they express deep concern about the health effects of air pollution and view vehicle emissions as a major factor, few state residents see their own auto habits as part of the problem, according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and the Hewlett, Irvine, and Packard Foundations. But overall, Californians remain “greener” than residents nationally and reveal a willingness to make lifestyle changes that could help protect and improve the environment.

A solid majority of Californians (58%) believe that air pollution is a serious health threat to themselves and their immediate family, and 37 percent say they or a family member suffers from asthma or other respiratory problems. Accordingly, state residents rate air pollution (30%) as the most important environmental issue, followed distantly by water pollution (10%), growth and sprawl (7%), water supply (7%), and pollution in general (6%). Many Californians (68%) also say that there has been only some or no progress in dealing with air pollution over the past 20 years. And they are not hopeful about the future: 49 percent say they have only some optimism that California will have better air quality two decades from now, and 22 percent express little or no hope for improvement.

While air pollution is the top issue across the state — and most Californians call it a big problem (31%) or somewhat of a problem (45%) in their region — concern about air pollution has grown most substantially in the Central Valley. Residents of the Valley (42%) are now as likely as Los Angeles residents (43%) to view air pollution as a big problem in their part of the state. In 2000, only 28 percent of Central Valley residents felt that air quality was a big problem, compared to 40 percent of Angelenos. The explanation? Valley residents are by far the most likely to report that air quality in their region has worsened in the past decade (60%), while Los Angeles residents are the most likely to report improvements (41%). In general, concern about air pollution and its consequences is higher among Latinos and younger and lower-income residents.

California Drivin’: Despite Awareness About Emissions, Residents Devoted to Cars …

By a wide margin, residents say vehicle emissions (47%) are the primary cause of air pollution in their region, while lower percentages blame population growth (16%), industrial and agricultural activities (13%), and pollution from outside their area (11%). However, Californians express only modest concern about how much their own driving contributes to poor air quality: Fewer than half of adults report being very concerned (13%) or somewhat concerned (31%) that their vehicle pollutes too much. Most are also very (28%) or somewhat satisfied (50%) with the fuel economy of their primary vehicle. Surprisingly, while owners of compact cars (87%) are more likely than van, pickup, or SUV owners (64%) to be satisfied with their vehicle’s fuel economy, they are also as likely to be concerned about their vehicle’s emissions (46% to 44%).

Why the disconnect between root cause and personal responsibility? Californians are dependent on — and attached to — their automobiles. Two in three adults (67%) report having two or more licensed vehicles in their household; only 7 percent say they don’t drive. Most employed residents in the state report that they commute to work by driving alone (73%); many fewer commute by carpool (13%) or public transit (5%). Half of Californians — and 58 percent of Los Angeles area residents — say they spend a great deal (18%) or fair amount (32%) of time on the road each day. And most enjoy driving: 58 percent say they like to drive a great deal (23%) or fair amount (35%). Finally, emissions and miles per gallon are not the primary factors that most residents consider when buying a car: Many say safety (41%) is what matters most, 23 percent say fuel efficiency, 19 percent performance, 6 percent appearance, and only 4 percent pollution.

… But Willing to Consider Lifestyle Changes, Economic Costs

“In many ways, California culture revolves around cars,” says PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. “But the growing alarm about air pollution and health may lead some to break the cycle.” Indeed, some residents appear willing to change their driving habits for the sake of the environment:

  • Although 62 percent of state residents say their ideal car would be the same size as the one they are now driving, 52 percent report that when it comes time to replace their current vehicle, they would seriously consider buying or leasing a smaller vehicle to reduce fuel use and air pollution.
  • Forty-five percent of state residents say they would seriously consider regularly commuting via public transportation as a way to reduce fuel use and air pollution. Most Latinos (58%) say they would consider using public transportation, while most whites (53%) say they would not.

In addition, most residents — and majorities of Democrats and Republicans — appear willing to ante up and support incentives for reducing emissions and improving fuel efficiency:

  • Many residents (65%) say they would be willing to support tougher air pollution standards on new cars, trucks, and SUVs, even if it raises the cost of buying a vehicle.
  • Three-quarters (75%) of Californians favor requiring automakers to significantly improve the fuel efficiency of cars sold in the United States, even if it increases the cost of a new car.
  • A large majority (79%) — including 69 percent of SUV owners — also say they favor changing federal regulations on SUVs to match existing fuel economy standards for passenger cars.
  • Finally, 81 percent of Californians support giving tax breaks to encourage consumers to purchase hybrid gas and electric vehicles.

Compared to Nation, Californians More Eco-Friendly

Despite difficult economic times, Californians remain solid supporters of environmental protection. Asked whether the environment should be given priority, even if it meant curbing economic growth, or whether economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment might suffer, 65 percent of state residents — and majorities of Democrats and Republicans — chose environmental protection. Nationally, 47 percent of Americans favor environmental protection and 42 percent economic growth. Californians are also steadfast in their views on other national and international environmental concerns:

  • Oil Drilling in California, Alaska – More than half of Californians say they do not support proposals to lessen dependence on foreign oil by drilling off California’s coast (54%) or in federally-protected wilderness areas such as the National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska (55%). Opinions on these proposals are sharply divided along partisan lines, with a majority of Republicans in support and a majority of Democrats opposed.
  • Global Warming – Two in three Californians (68%) believe that increased carbon dioxide and other gases released into the atmosphere will, if unchecked, lead to global warming. Forty-five percent of state residents — and 54 percent of those ages 18-34 — believe that global warming will pose a serious threat to them in their lifetime. Nearly three in four (73%) believe that immediate steps should be taken to counter the effects of global climate change. What are they willing to do about it? Majorities say they are willing to make major lifestyle changes to address the problem (69%), believe that the federal government should set new legally-binding industrial standards to limit emissions thought to cause global warming (66%), and think the federal government should work with other nations to set standards for the reduction of greenhouse gases (52%). Again, there are strong partisan differences: Democrats (77%) are more likely than Republicans (49%) to believe that global warming exists.

Other key findings

  • More Car Talk — Page 7
    Thirty percent of Californians — and 34 percent of San Francisco Bay Area residents — drive a compact car. Twenty-nine percent of state residents — and 34 percent of Central Valley residents — drive a van, pickup, or SUV. Twenty-one percent of Californians report owning or leasing an SUV.
  • Tougher Pollution Regulations for Business and Agriculture — Page 10
    A majority of state residents say they would be willing to see tougher air pollution regulations on manufacturing and commercial activities in their region, even if it jeopardized job creation. Nearly half (47%) support tougher regulations for agriculture and farm activities, even if they created greater operational costs.
  • State Environmental Ratings — Pages 15, 29, and 30
    Approval ratings for Governor Gray Davis on environmental issues (30%) mirror his overall approval rating (28%). More Californians would support a recall (48%) than oppose it (42%); 51 percent say that removing the governor from office would not affect environmental policy.
  • State Budget Cuts — Pages 15 and 16
    In spite of the state’s red ink, only 38 percent of residents think funding for environmental programs should be cut in order to reduce the deficit and free up funds for other programs. Nearly half (46%) of residents think the state is not doing enough to protect the environment.
  • Federal Environmental Ratings — Page 17
    While 53 percent of Californians approve of President George W. Bush’s overall performance, far fewer (37%) give him positive ratings for his handling of environmental concerns. A majority of residents (52%) think that the federal government is not doing enough to protect the environment.
  • Election 2004 — Pages 16 and 18
    Most Californians (86%) say that where presidential candidates stand on environmental issues will be a very important (41%) or somewhat important (45%) factor in determining their vote. While most residents say that their political party represents their own views on environmental policy most closely, 20 percent name the Green Party. Currently, 65 percent of state residents say they would support the Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act scheduled to appear on the November 2004 ballot.

About the survey

The Californians and the Environment survey is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. It is the fifth 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. Findings of the current survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,002 California adult residents interviewed from June 4 to June 15, 2003. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2% and for the 1,088 likely voters +/- 3%. For more information on survey methodology, see page 19. Dr. Mark Baldassare is Research Director at PPIC, where he also 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. His most recent book, A California State of Mind: The Conflicted Voter in a Changing World, is available at

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. ###