Editor's Note: California's Latino, Asian and African American communities are in tune with the rest of the state in their desire to have the government tackle environmental issues like air pollution and global warming, according to a recent survey. Communities bearing the brunt of pollution need to be part of the solution. Mary Ambrose is environmental editor for New America Media. This article is available in Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese.
SAN FRANCISCO -- The environment must be a priority. That's the message Californians, even from some of the state's poorest communities, are sending to the government according to a new survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Nearly six out of 10 Californians say the state should take immediate steps to reduce pollution, despite a yawning budget deficit. Only 36 percent want to wait until the budget is in better shape. Fifty-one percent want all levels of government to help curb environmental degradation.
Forty-five ethnic media and grassroots environmental groups discussed the findings of the survey at an event organized by New America Media at the World Affairs Council. The PPIC survey was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Poor air quality remains the number one environmental concern for Californians; a ranking unchanged over the eight years the PPIC has been surveying how Californians think about the environment.
The survey found concern about air pollution was highest in the Central Valley (51 percent), then Los Angeles (47 percent), followed by San Francisco Bay Area (22 percent) and Orange/San Diego Counties (19 percent).
As in the past, more than any other ethnic group surveyed, Latinos (45 percent) followed by African Americans (40 percent) said air pollution "is a big problem." The survey "is a validation of the Latino concern" rather than a "revelation," said Alberto Mendoza, CEO of the Coalition for Clean Air in Los Angeles.
Mendoza dryly noted that the poll confirmed what he knew to be true: the Latino community cares about the environmental degradation and knows the consequences of not addressing it.
"We came to environmentalism through financial hardship," Mendoza said. "And as a society, we're all coming back to that."
Margaret Gordon, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and a Port of Oakland commissioner agreed. Pointing out that many of the most highly contaminated industries are located near African American communities, Gordon said, “African Americans are very aware that their health is affected from having to live near mobile and moving sources of pollution. Historically, our community has borne a disproportional burden of pollution.”
However only 16 percent of whites and 8 percent of Asians think air pollution affects their health although almost half (48 percent) of Asians surveyed said air pollution is a problem. That reflects "a fascinating disconnect between Asians and the world they live in," said Roger Kim of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. "We live in the same neighborhoods, we breathe the same air," he noted, shaking his head.
Tae Soo Jeong, editor of Korea Times in San Francisco, provided some explanation. When he came to Los Angeles years ago from Korea, he said he "thought the air was wonderful. I could jog, I could breathe—much better than the air in Seoul, and other Asian cities."
Also, Koreans in the United States have a very low rate of having health insurance, Kim noted, and Asians may think their children have the flu, when in fact they may suffer from pollution-induced asthma.
Lack of diagnosis often masks pollution's effect on lower income Latino communities, agreed Mendoza of the Coalition for Clean Air in Los Angeles. But more than any other group, 78 percent of Latinos have cut back on their driving and are much more likely than whites to carpool or take public transit to work.
Whether they're carpooling or not, most Californians want automakers to improve the fuel efficiency of their cars, even if the government has to force them and it increases the cost of buying cars. Eight out of 10 people surveyed want the federal government to fund research into wind, solar and hydrogen power and there is increased support for nuclear power (44 percent approve, and 50 percent are opposed).
The surprise of the questions on energy sources was that—for the first time since 2003—a majority of Californians favor more offshore drilling for oil. There was a ten-point increase over the July 2007 survey, and PPIC says this is due to support from Republicans.
Regardless of political affiliation, PPIC found that likely voters trust Barack Obama over John McCain to handle environmental matters (52 to 28 percent) and energy policy (51 to 33 percent).
Mendoza from the Coalition for Clean Air called for greater engagement in the political process by those most hurt by pollution. Roger Kim echoed that, saying, "Our communities are bearing the brunt, and we want to be part of the solution," though he said he was frustrated in his efforts to make this connection in the Asian community.
Asians are 12 percent of registered California voters, yet only 7 percent actually cast ballots, Kim lamented. So, although Asians top other ethnic groups (80 percent) in endorsing the state's goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, that doesn't translate into political clout. Even last month in Richmond, Calif., where there are 350 toxic facilities, the number of languages in the local Laotian community, made it challenging for Kim's group, the Asian-Pacific Environmental Network, to organize them against Chevron's proposed expansions.
New America Media (NAM) Executive Director Sandy Close described the survey as "a tremendous call to action for both NAM and the ethnic media." All news organizations have to cover environmental degradation and climate change, she said, "as a priority, just as we cover education and immigration."