Minorities Drive California Environmental Movement

Minorities Drive California Environmental Movement

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Ethnic Californians are at the forefront of support for environmental policies in the state, according to a new poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

The poll, which asks state residents their perspectives on a wide range of environmental issues, found that ethnic Californians were more likely than whites to perceive air pollution and climate change as serious threats, and favor a role for government in fixing the problems. The survey was conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Vietnamese and Korean.

While about two-thirds of state residents support AB 32, the state law that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, support for the law was more pronounced among Asians, blacks and Latinos (75 percent, 69 percent, 80 percent), as compared to support among whites of 59 percent.

Support for AB 32 tracks with ethnic residents’ perception that global warming is a threat to the California’s future.

Nearly three-fourths of Californians believe global warming is a very serious (44 percent) or somewhat serious (29 percent) threat to the state’s economy and qualify of life.

Concern about global warming was even higher among Asians, blacks and Latinos, with 81 percent of Asians, 78 percent of blacks, and 91 percent of Latinos saying it is a very serious or somewhat serious threat to the state’s overall health.

Overall, however, the perception of global warming’s negative effects has declined since 2007, when 54 percent of state residents viewed it as a very serious threat. Forty-four percent now view climate change as a very serious threat.

Alfredo Gonzalez, associate director of external affairs for The Nature Conservancy, notes the slight decline in support for some environmental issues, but said the poll findings show that ethnic residents of the state are deeply affected by and concerned about air pollution and climate change.

“What’s striking is that ethnic communities are still aggressive on climate change, energy, vehicle fuel standards … they don’t mind and in fact support a regulatory approach,” he said, during a news briefing for ethnic media organized by New America Media.

PPIC President and CEO Mark Baldassare says support for environmental policies, including those to address climate change, have eroded among whites, as a result of an increasingly “partisan atmosphere” in state and federal politics.

Ethnic communities also were more likely than whites to believe the state’s climate law, AB 32, would lead to job creation. Fifty percent of Asians, 61 percent of blacks, and 49 percent of Latinos held that view, compared to 41 percent of whites.

These findings dispel the myth that ethnic Californians would choose the economy over the environment.

“[They are told that] being green is too expensive…but communities of color don’t buy that,” said Gonzalez.

The poll results may come into play in November, when California voters will decide on the fate of Proposition 23, a contentious initiative on the ballot that is dividing state voters. Prop. 23 calls for the suspension of AB 32, California’s law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, until California’s jobless rate – now 12.4 percent -- drops to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. Supporters of Prop. 23 – which is mainly funded by out-of-state oil companies Tesoro and Valero – say implementing AB 32 will increase joblessness in the state.

Opponents of Prop. 23 say the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases will actually spur more investment in the clean tech sector and create green jobs.

The PPIC poll did not directly address the question of Prop. 23 because the ballot language has not been finalized, but it asked respondents if they wanted the state to take action right away to reduce greenhouse gases or hold off until the economy rebounds. A slim majority (53 percent) of Californians favored immediate action, with support for immediate action higher among Asian, blacks and Latinos (58 percent, 55 percent, and 64 percent).

A Field Poll released July 9, which asked likely California voters about their attitudes on Prop. 23, paints a different picture of support among ethnic Californians for the state’s climate law.

In that survey, a majority of whites -- 51 percent -- opposed Prop. 23. But, Asians, African Americans and Latino voters in the state were more likely to support efforts to roll back AB 32.

Parsing the differences in the results in the two polls, Ian Kim, director of the Green-Collar Jobs Campaign with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said that the populations polled are very different, and how questions are phrased makes a big difference.

“Prop. 23 is a moving target. As the campaign messages from both sides, yes and no, make their way into TV and radio, we will see the polling shift,” said Kim “What’s clear is that people of color are a swing constituency on Prop. 23.”

The significant finding of the PPIC poll, Kim added, is that it “shows consistently, not just this year, [that] people of color carry a greater concern for environmental issues.”

The survey of 2,502 Californians was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

 photo credit: Deirdre Ruscitti