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Survey: Californians say extreme weather, climate change are hitting close to home

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A vast majority of Californians say climate change is already impacting their communities, with Los Angeles area residents the most likely to report feeling those effects, according to an annual survey on the environment from the Public Policy Institute of California.

In the wake of a historically wet winter, the survey shows Californians are a bit less concerned about water supply issues and drought than they were last year. However, the whiplash of weather extremes in recent years has left residents worried about a spike in related events, such as wildfires, floods and heat waves.

Nearly half of Californians — and more than half of Inland Empire residents — said they’ve been affected by such an event in the past two years. That’s compared with one in three adults nationwide who in March told Gallup pollsters that they’d been impacted by extreme weather. The PPIC poll also shows that nearly three-quarters of all Californians link such events to climate change.

As a result, more than six in 10 residents told the PPIC that they believe the state’s stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost, even if the rules put jobs or economic growth at risk.

“Solid majorities say it is very important for the state government to pass regulations and spend money now on preparing for and reducing climate change,” noted Mark Baldassare, statewide survey director for the PPIC, which polled 1,724 adults from June 7 to June 29.

That could bode well for a climate measure Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers are floating for the 2024 ballot, which could ask voters to approve a $15 billion bond to help pay for climate action.

The survey results released Wednesday, July 12, come two days after Newsom signed a state budget that cuts $2.9 billion from programs aimed at fighting climate change. That is less than the $6 billion the governor proposed cutting from climate spending in January. But with the state facing a $30 billion deficit, leaders are touting the 2024 bond as a way to more than make up the difference in climate spending. And even if the bond doesn’t pass, California’s budget is expected to include $51.4 billion in spending on climate projects, such as getting more electric vehicles on the road, over the the next several years.

Exactly half of Californians have seriously considered buying an electric vehicle, per the survey, and 8% already have one. That’s up slightly from last year, when 49% said they were considering an EV and 6% had one at home.

Inland Empire residents are the most likely to have considered an EV but the least likely to own one, per the PPIC. That’s in line with other research, such as a May study from the nonprofit group Coltura that found Southern Californians who drive the most are the slowest to switch to electric vehicles due to high purchase costs and concerns over charging access.

Most Californians support a federal goal of boosting the electric vehicle market so that by 2032 EVs account for two-thirds of all new cars and trucks sold. But the poll found most Californians oppose the state’s goal of banning gas-powered vehicle sales by 2035, with just 45% approval overall, including 60% of registered Democrats. Support for that ban is highest among Los Angeles residents, young adults ages 18 to 34, Asian Americans and people earning less than $40,000 a year. It’s lowest among Inland Empire and Central Valley residents, White residents, and those earning more than $80,000 a year.

Most Californians also favor the state law requiring all electricity to come from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, by 2045. However, just 43% told surveyors they’re willing to pay more for renewable electricity. That’s down from 56% who said they’d be willing to pay more for fossil-free electricity in the 2016 survey.

In terms of the state enacting regulations and spending money now to fight climate change, residents in the Orange County and San Diego region were second only to Bay Area residents in terms of supporting those efforts, with 62% in favor. Los Angeles area residents weren’t far behind at 60%, while just 45% of Inland Empire residents support those moves.

Statewide, a little more than a quarter of residents say climate change is a top concern. That figure has been pretty steady since PPIC first asked that question in 2021.

The percentage of residents who say climate change is a top concern falls as income and age rise, with non-White Californians much more likely than White residents to be worried about the issue. Los Angeles ties with the Bay Area for having the most residents who say they’re highly concerned about this issue, with 31%, while just 17% said the same in the Inland Empire.

While the share of people who said water is the most important environmental issue facing California today has fallen to 22% from last year’s 30%, it was still the top pick in this year’s survey. That’s good news to water watchdogs, who’ve faced the challenging task in recent months of encouraging people to continue conserving even as melting snow causes flooding in some parts of the state.

“Despite the recent rains, drought is the new normal for Southern California,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper.

Historically, residents do tend to use a bit more water in the months after a drought ends. But they don’t return to pre-drought levels, since many have formed habits and taken steps, such as removing turf, that permanently reduces their water use. That trend seems to be holding this year, with data from the State Water Resources Control Board showing average monthly residential use jumped from 56 gallons in March to 68 gallons in April, a month after regulators lifted restrictions across Southern California and other areas. But that rate is still down significantly from April 2022, when average residential use was 83 gallons per month.

After water issues, the largest share of Californians told surveyors they’re most worried about wildfire, with 18% citing it as a top issue vs. 13% who said that last year. Climate change also gained a bigger share on the top concerns list, up to 16% from 11% in 2022.

In terms of addressing these issues, Los Angeles residents have the most confidence that the government will be ready to respond to extreme weather events, with 21% having a “great deal” of faith vs. 16% of Inland Empire residents with that level of confidence and 15% in the Orange and San Diego counties region.

Most Californians also think state leaders are doing a better job than their federal leaders in this area, per the survey.

“When it comes to their handling of environmental issues, majorities approve of Governor Newsom and the state legislature, while half approve of President Biden and one in four approve of Congress,” Baldassare said.

Newsom’s approval rating on environmental issues is at 58%. That’s down from a peak in 2020, when his approval hit 69%. But it’s the highest approval rating for a governor on environmental issues in the past dozen years of the PPIC survey.

Biden’s approval on environmental issues peaked in 2021 at 61% and is now at 47%, while Congress’ approval rating for this area is at just 25%.

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