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For California Voters, Candidates’ Positions on Global Warming is Crucial

When it comes to environmental issues, Californians have more faith in Obama than Romney, finds survey

With presidential candidates warming up for the final showdown, Californians are focusing on an issue close to their hearts: the state of the environment.

LA smog Photo by Flickr user Vlasta2Smog hangs low over the city Los Angeles. Two thirds of Californians believe air pollution is a serious
environmental problem that needs to be tackled right away.

Seven in 10 California voters say candidates’ positions on global warming are important in determining their vote, according to a recent survey by Public Policy Institute of California. The report, PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and the Environment, surveyed 2,500 residents about the upcoming presidential election, the government’s handling of environmental issues, perceptions of global warming, and preferences for state and federal emissions regulations.

For the 2012 election, likely voters put more faith in Barack Obama than Mitt Romney when it comes to handling environmental issues. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed trust Obama with global warming and energy policy, compared to 33 percent who believe in Romney. In the race overall, Californians favor Obama to Romney 51 percent to 40 percent.

While the gap is striking, it’s not surprising. The survey’s findings show that Californians tend to agree with just about everything Obama has to say about environmental policy. Sixty percent of Californians believe the effects of global warming have already begun. While many environmentalists have been disappointed with Obama’s track record on green issues and climate change (Bill McKibben for instance, believes the  "The president is … far too much in the center for many environmentalists"), he does win some points for actions like blocking the Keystone XL pipeline and backing renewable energy.

Last year Obama unveiled unprecedented rules to limit mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. Romney, on the other hand, is diametrically opposed to every stance Obama has taken during his first term. Understandably, California voters —most of who believe air pollution is a big concern (with blacks and Latinos noticing the most health impacts) — have taken notice.

The survey found that an overwhelming majority (78 percent) are in favor of increasing federal funding to develop renewable energy technology. Similarly, closer to home, 77 percent support a state policy that calls for a third of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020. However, that number drops to 44 percent if cleaner energy means more costly electric bills. About 71 percent back the state law requiring emissions reductions (AB 32), and most Californians favor more state and federal regulations to help curb global warming.

But when would be the best time to act? The majority of those surveyed say now. “People are not only viewing the immediate [effects of global warming], but also the long-term as things that concern them,” says Mike Baldassare, president and CEO of PPIC. “Many Californians say the time to act is now, not to wait until the economy has improved.”

The survey also broke down responses by race, and the results are most illuminating. A higher percentage of blacks and Latinos felt the immediate effects of climate change, saying they are more heavily impacted by health problems, that health threats from global warming are greater in lower-income areas, and that global warming is a serious threat. Whites tended to have greater awareness of systems like cap and trade and fracking, but had a lower percentage favoring immediate action or perceiving disparities in health threats.

Survey writers attribute these differences along racial lines to exposure. Factories and refineries that emit toxins are often located in communities of color, so it’s those communities that bear the brunt of health effects. Monday’s fire in at the Chevron refinery in Richmond is a prime example of how only the most catastrophic events will gain media attention, while the day-to-day impacts on the environment and public health slip under the radar.

It remains to be seen if Californians will put their votes where their opinions are. Chances are, when it comes to green issues, they will. A 2011 study by researchers at Stanford University found that talking ‘green’ during a campaign can win votes. “The results suggest that by taking a green position on climate, candidates of either party can gain the votes of many citizens,” said Stanford professor and social psychologist Jon Krosnick.

Mitt Romney, take note.

Nicky Ouellet
After teaching English for three years in Russia and on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Nicky now writes for the Earth Island Journal.

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