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Press Release · July 22, 2004

The Green State: Californians Want Environnmental Protection Despite Economic, Financial Costs

Gas Prices, Air Pollution Could Change Vehicle Preferences; High Speed Rail, Hybrid Vehicles Get Boost From Pro-Environment Attitudes

SAN FRANCISCO, California, July 22, 2004 — Californians’ priorities are clear… even if their air isn’t. Growing concerns over air pollution and related health dangers have led residents to place environmental protection and improvement above many other policy issues – including economic growth – according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) in collaboration with the Hewlett, Irvine, and Packard Foundations.

The survey’s large sample size (2,505) and multilingual interviews (conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese) make this the most comprehensive – and in some ways surprising – survey on state environmental conditions and policies to date. Despite California’s fiscal woes, majorities of Californians (55%) and likely voters (54%) say that the environment should be the top policy priority – even at the expense of economic growth. Moreover, by a two-to-one margin (55% to 28%), likely voters want the state to continue funding environmental programs at current levels.

Still, the percentage of residents who think the state is not doing enough to protect the environment has dropped from 50 percent to 42 percent since 2000. The reason? Four years ago, 40 percent of Republicans said the state government was not doing enough for the environment; today just 24 percent say the same. “As it has with many issues, the partisan divide over environmental protection and regulation has widened dramatically in recent years,” says PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare.

Spare the Air

Air pollution tops the list of most important environmental issues facing the state, surpassing the next most important issue – pollution in general – by 25 points (33% to 8%). Since 2000, the percentage of Californians who say air pollution is a big problem in their own region has increased by 7 points (28% to 35%). The concern about air pollution is most strongly held by blacks (43%), Asians (41%), and Latinos (39%). A majority (59%) of residents also believe air pollution is at least a somewhat serious health threat to themselves or their families, and very few (23%) have high optimism that the state will have better air quality 20 years from now.

Attention Detroit! Californians Give Thumbs Up to Fuel Efficiency, Lower Emissions

The growing perception that California’s air is polluted – and that air pollution poses a serious health threat – may be part of the impetus behind a willingness to spend more money on technologies and programs to help alleviate the problem. Nearly three-fourths (73%) of state residents believe automakers should be required to significantly improve fuel efficiency in new vehicles sold in the U.S. – even if it increases consumers’ costs. An even higher percentage (81%) say they would back a state law requiring automakers to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases from new cars by the year 2009. Support for such a law is high across the political spectrum (Democrats 88%, independents 86%, Republicans 71%) and among SUV owners (77%).

Californians also appear willing to pay higher taxes and fees in the name of cleaner air: A majority of state residents (66%) and likely voters (62%) support increasing the vehicle license fee for new cars by six dollars to pay for a program to put cleaner engines in older diesel buses, trucks, and equipment.

Ironically, rising costs are the stimulus behind changing consumer behavior and preferences: Nearly half (47%) of residents say they have already cut back on their driving due to high gas prices – even more (56%) believe higher fuel prices are here to stay – and two-thirds say that rising gasoline prices will make them think about purchasing a more fuel efficient car. Indeed, 63 percent say they would seriously consider buying or leasing a hybrid car (gas-electric). A large majority of the public (67%) also favors rewarding drivers of hybrid vehicles by allowing them to use carpool lanes when driving alone.

“The degree of willingness people have to dig deeper into their wallets and to readily embrace new technologies show just how deeply environmental concerns resonate with Californians,” says Baldassare. These views also reflect anxiety about the dangers of greenhouse gases and a strong belief in the theory of global warming: 71 percent of Californians believe that unchecked amounts of carbon dioxide and other gases released into the atmosphere will lead to global warming. Consistent with this concern, 76 percent believe immediate steps should be taken to counter the effects of this phenomenon.

Governor Gets High Ratings Overall; Lower Ratings on Environment

Although they have dropped modestly since May, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approval ratings remain high among residents (from 64% in May to 57% today), and likely voters (from 69% in May to 64% today). However, Californians are not as glowing when it comes to the governor’s handling of environmental issues: 39 percent approve and 27 percent disapprove.

Despite their caution about Schwarzenegger’s environmental record, residents like his ideas for developing alternative energy sources. A solid majority of residents approve of the administration’s plan to encourage the development of hydrogen fuel cell technology – a proposal that calls for the construction of a “hydrogen highway” comprised of 200 hydrogen fueling stations by 2010. In a political twist, fewer Republicans (50%) than Democrats (59%) and independents (64%) support the idea. “On many environmental issues, the governor may end up drawing his most significant support from outside his own political party,” says Baldassare.

An overwhelming majority (82%) of residents also endorse the goal of having 15 percent of new homes in California run partly on solar power starting in 2006. On this issue, there is majority support from across the political spectrum (Democrats 86%, independents 83%, Republicans 75%).

Environment To Play a Role in November and Beyond

Eighty-two percent of California’s likely voters say the environmental positions of presidential candidates are at least somewhat important to them – and 37 percent say they are very important – as they think about the upcoming election. When asked which candidate they trust more to handle environmental issues, voters choose Kerry over Bush by a wide margin (56% to 30%). Only about one-third of the public (32%) and likely voters (33%) approve of the way President Bush is currently handling environmental issues. Interestingly, when Ralph Nader’s name is included in the question about which candidate voters trust most on environmental issues, 31 percent choose Nader, considerably narrowing Kerry’s advantage over Bush (34% to 27%) on the issue.

The president’s overall performance also receives less than majority support from residents (40%) and likely voters (42%). Not surprisingly, then, fewer likely voters support the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney ticket (38%) than support John Kerry/John Edwards (49%). Five percent say they would vote for the Ralph Nader/Peter Camejo independent ticket.

Beyond November, two pieces of proposed “pro-environment” legislation could find success if and when they appear on the ballot. A nearly ten billion dollar state bond proposal to construct a high-speed train between San Francisco and Los Angeles currently enjoys majority support (57%) among likely voters. A majority of likely voters (59%) also support a proposed five billion dollar bond to fund air quality programs and reduce emissions. This measure has far more support among Latinos (70%), Asians (66%), and blacks (63%) than it does among whites (56%).

More Key Findings

  • Dubious Distinction for Central Valley — Page 3
    The Central Valley ties Los Angeles (both 47%) as the region where the highest proportion of residents say air pollution is a big problem in their area.
  • Truckin’ — Page 10
    Most residents (90%) think trucks delivering goods – including those from Mexico – should meet federal air pollution standards.
  • Boxer Leads Jones in Senate Race — Page 16
    Senator Barbara Boxer has a 15-point lead among likely voters (52% to 37%) over Republican candidate Bill Jones.

About the Survey

The Californians and the environment survey – a collaborative effort of the Public Policy Institute of California, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation – is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. This is the seventh in a four-year series intended to raise public awareness, inform decisionmakers, and stimulate public discussions about growth, land use, and the environment. Findings of this survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,505 California adult residents interviewed between June 30 and July 14, 2004. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for subgroups is larger. For more information on methodology, see page 19.

Mark Baldassare is research director at 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. 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 on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.