The percentage of Californians who believe air pollution is a "big problem" has dropped precipitously in recent years, especially in Los Angeles County and the Central Valley, among the nation's dirtiest regions, according to a new survey.
At the same time, the poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that support for the state's landmark 2006 law to slash greenhouse gases has declined, and fewer people think that global warming is a serious threat to the economy and quality of life of the state.
"Californians continue to care about environmental issues," said Mark Baldassare, president and chief executive of the polling group, which found strong majorities in favor of pollution and global warming laws. "But less so than two years ago, perhaps because of the economy and the partisan discussion in Washington around environmental policy."
Air quality in Southern California, the Central Valley and the state overall has improved dramatically in the last two decades, despite a growing population, according to the Air Resources Board.
But three-fourths of residents still live in areas that violate health standards for ozone, which causes respiratory disease. And large swaths of the Inland Empire have 40 to 80 days a year that exceed the federally designated safe level for ozone, a colorless gas.
About half the state, including major portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, exceeds the health standard for fine particulates, which are linked to cancer, heart disease and other ailments.
And more than a third of Californians report that they or an immediate family member suffer from asthma or other respiratory problems.
Nonetheless, the survey found that only 23% of Californians saw air pollution as "a big problem" in their region, an 11-point drop since last year. In Los Angeles County, that segment dropped 17 points, to 30%, and in the Central Valley, it sank 15 points, to 36%.
Baldassare suggested that the sharp drop this year could be attributed partly to the fact that wildfire-related air pollution is down, with fewer fires so far this year than last.
"The poll results would likely have been different if the public was more aware that 5,000 Southern Californians are estimated to die each year due to air pollution," said Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a regional agency. "Much more needs to be done to increase public awareness."
Nonetheless, the survey found strong support for tougher pollution standards on cars, diesel trucks and buses, on commerce and industry, and on agriculture. More than three-fourths of Californians say the state should focus transportation dollars on public transit, while just 18% want more freeways.
In the case of global warming, the softening of support for regulation may be linked to the poor economy, but it also comes at a time of fever-pitch rhetoric over whether a national climate law, passed by the House and awaiting Senate action, will damage U.S. industry and cost consumers money.
Two-thirds of Californians still support the state's comprehensive global warming law, the first in the nation, but that's significantly less than the 78% who endorsed it in 2007. The partisan divide has widened, with only 43% of Republicans supporting it, compared with 57% two years ago.
The California survey echoes results of a March Gallup poll that suggested that skepticism about global warming was rising nationally, with only 60% viewing it as a problem they worried about "a great deal" or "a fair amount."
"We see declining interest in environmental initiatives -- or anything else that implies new investment -- whenever the economy is in trouble," said Air Resources Board Chairman Mary D. Nichols, who oversees the state climate plan. "But people understand that economic recovery depends on reducing our dependence on petroleum and developing new technologies."
On the petroleum issue, 51% of Californians favored expanding oil drilling off the coast, compared with 43% that opposed it. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sought to insert a drilling provision into the budget, but environmental groups objected strenuously and the measure failed to pass the Legislature.