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Minority voters think greener, statewide poll shows

SF Public Press
 — Aug 6 2010 - 12:10pm

Twice as many African-American Californians as whites say air pollution is a very serious health threat to themselves or their immediate families, pollsters have found in a new survey that takes into account the ethnicity and language of its respondents. 

Ethnic minority groups are also more supportive of the state government’s climate change policy and the need for immediate action.

A poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that 27 percent of blacks and 24 percent of Latinos are seriously concerned about the threat of air pollution to their and their family’s health, compared with 10 percent of Asians and 13 percent of whites.

The statewide survey, “Californians and the Environment,” polled 2,502 adults across five regions, four ethnic groups, and in six languages. Respondents were able to choose whether they wanted to be interviewed in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese or Korean, the six most commonly spoken languages in the state.

“Ethnic Californians are ahead of the mainstream in their concerns about global warming and the environment,” said Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media, an organization that aggregates the ethnic press and co-presented the survey.

The disparity has been attributed to geographic and economic issues, with ethnic minorities more likely to inhabitant urban areas that suffer most from the impact of pollution.

The survey shows that ethnic minority voters fully understand the importance of environmental issues, said Alfredo Gonzalez, associate director of external affairs for the Nature Conservancy of California.

“Communities of color are the sections of the population most willing to pay for conservation of natural resources, but least able to pay for it, Gonzalez said.

The survey also highlighted a contrast in perception of disparities. Only 29 percent of whites responded that air pollution was a more serious health threat in lower-income areas than in other areas in their region. On the same question, 62 percent of Latinos answered yes.

“The communities understand, and this is reflected in PPIC’s poll,” said Nile Malloy, the Northern California program director for Communities for a Better Environment, an Oakland-based environmental group.

The organization recently worked with residents of Richmond, which has large African-American and Latino populations, to successfully challenge Chevron’s oil refinery expansion in the area.

“People are upset,” Malloy said. “Communities are frustrated that there have not been more regulations.”

“We have an opportunity to move an agenda that reflects this survey,” he said.

Asians, blacks and Latinos also view the onset of global warming more seriously, with 59, 59 and 60 percent, respectively, saying its effects have already begun. Only 48 percent of white Californians agree.

A majority of all ethnic groups, including whites, favored AB 32, the state law that requires California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. But the three ethnic minority groups that were the focus of this poll turned out to be more likely to favor it.

The Public Policy Institute also asked respondents whether they thought California should wait until the economy and job situation improved before taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That is the change that Proposition 23 will ask of voters on the November ballot (the wording had not been finalized at the time of the survey).

Statewide, a slim majority of all adults — 53 percent — said the government should take action right away. Only 46 percent of whites responded that way, but majorities of Asians, blacks and Latinos said the same.

“Proposition 23 will hurt people of color and low-income communities first,” said Ian Kim, director of the Green-Collar Jobs Campaign at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an Oakland-based nonprofit group. “When Californians choose the environments and the economy, that’s when we all win.”

“The poll shows us what the environmental movement should look like in California,” Kim said. “The environmental movement is yet to catch up with the shifting demographics of the state.”

Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute said that one theory of why support among white Californians for environmental policies has dwindled is that national politics have become increasingly partisan.

The survey was illuminating not just for the distinct reaction of minority respondents, but also the changing views of Californians overall.

The survey also reveals that 59 percent of Californians now oppose more oil drilling off the coast of California, compared with 43 percent last year.

But local reactions were even more pronounced. A strong majority of San Francisco Bay Area residents — 71 percent — are against more offshore oil drilling. The survey comes three months after a drilling rig began spilling millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

But there were some wrinkles in the state’s green trajectory, especially when consumer prices are affected, Baldassare said: “After consistently opposing more offshore oil drilling, residents began to waver as gas prices increased. But events in the Gulf appear to have renewed opposition to more drilling here.”

Of the five major regions of the state, the San Francisco Bay Area was the most willing to impose tougher air pollution standards for commercial and industrial activities, at a rate of 80 percent.

However, they were the least likely to view air pollution in their region as a very serious health threat to themselves and their immediate family, with only 9 percent holding this view.

The Field Poll released a statewide poll conducted in the same six languages two weeks ago.