The state of our overheated minds on the environment

Californians are crazy about the environment, even, and often especially, in LA. And we're not afraid to go our own way. More than two-thirds of Californians support the state in taking our own approach to combating climate change, regardless of what the rest of the country thinks.

A new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California provides a timely picture of what's on our minds when it comes to the environment today.

What's the most important environmental issue right now? Water and the drought. No surprise there. Followed by air pollution, water pollution, and climate change.

warpedsun.jpgWe've still got water at the top of our minds, even though the proportion of Californians naming water and drought the number one issue has dropped 20 percent, from 58 to 38 percent, since last summer. Still, 62 percent of Californians and 64 percent of Angelenos say the supply of water is a big problem in their part of the state, and most Californians (58 percent) and Angelenos (63 percent) say state and local governments are not doing enough to respond to this ongoing challenge.

While only 7 percent of Californians say climate change is the most important issue, 35 percent say they're personally worried a great deal about global warming, 31 percent say they worry a fair amount, and 17 percent say they worry a little. Only 16 percent say they're not worried at all. Angelenos worry a bit more than the rest: nine out of 10 of us worry at least a little, compared to eight out of 10 Californians, around the same number who believe that global warming is a serious threat to the state's economy and quality of life.

In Los Angeles, 71 percent of us believe that the effects of climate change can already be seen around us, compared to 64 percent of Californians, while 9 percent of Angelenos and Californians believe they will see the effects within their lifetimes.

So it makes some sense that Californians overwhelmingly favor current laws to reduce emissions and new laws to set even more ambitious goals by more than a two-thirds margin. We're willing to pay higher prices at the gas pump and for electricity if that's what it takes to reduce global warming. We're supportive of putting stricter limits on power plant emissions, increasing tax credits and financial incentives for rooftop solar and building more solar power plants, and extending tax credits and building more charging stations for electric vehicles. And even though most Californians say they've never heard of the state's cap-and-trade system, an important part of the state's strategy to reduce emissions, a majority still supports it. A majority also supports spending some of the revenue from cap-and-trade to improve environmental conditions in disadvantaged communities.

While Californians are surprisingly unified when it comes to the environment, there are some interesting differences in the way we think about these issues. More than two-thirds of Californians with lower incomes perceive that pollution of drinking water is a more serious threat in lower-income communities, while half of higher income Californians believe that's not a problem. This perception is even more pronounced among Latinos, 72 percent of whom say this is a serious problem, compared to 46 percent of white Californians. Angelenos know: 63 percent of us take this threat seriously. The same pattern is true, though somewhat less dramatically, with air pollution, which spreads more widely.

This difference is in line with a long-running trend in California, in which Latino residents and voters worry about the environment and favor actions to improve the environment at markedly greater rates than white residents and voters. Key environmental measures have passed at the state and local level around California in the last couple of decades because of their support.

This pattern is visible in the current poll, too, although it is intriguing that the gap seems to be narrowing when it comes to climate change. Maybe global warming is beginning to make us understand that we're all in this together.

Almost all of us, anyway. The partisan political differences visible in this poll are not surprising, and it's not surprising that they've increased in the last decade. But it's not clear that they really matter in California, since we're confident in going our own way.

Photo: "Warped Sun" courtesy of Kevin Corazza.

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