SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The tough economy has undermined the environmental enthusiasm of Californians, hitting the U.S. state that pioneered climate change legislation just as the federal government is taking on the issue, a survey showed on Wednesday.
The poll by the Public Policy Institute of California shows support for urgent action on climate change has split on political lines, with a third of respondents from the more conservative Republican Party now saying global warming will never happen.
Total support for the state’s climate change law, a model for federal bills being debated, dropped to 66 percent from 73 percent last year. Meanwhile, the state has been reduced to issuing IOUs as unemployment has spiked to a new high.
Greater state partisanship may reflect the national debate as the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate consider climate change rules, but concerns about the economy could also presage deteriorating support for national action, the institute said.
“A prolonged economic slump may cause even more people to lose sight of what the long-term environmental issues are and focus on the more immediate economic issues,” Mark Baldassare, the institute’s president, said by telephone, adding the nation could follow California’s lead, depending on the economy.
For the second year in a row, a bare majority of Californians supported expanding offshore oil drilling.
But last year’s 57 percent majority who favored immediate implementation of the state’s global warming law has now eroded to 48 percent. Almost as many say the state should wait until the budget situation improves.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers, who reached a deal to close a $24 billion budget hole during the period the poll was taken, received record low support.
Few political and business leaders in California, which has the largest population and economy of the 50 U.S. states, deny global warming. Instead, critics focus on the cost of the state law, which aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
“Californians overall are supportive of fighting climate change, but you see here that they want a plan that is cost effective and won’t exacerbate the financial struggles of this recession,” Betty Jo Toccoli, president of the California Small Business Association, said by email in response to the survey.
Derek Walker, director of the Environmental Defense Fund California Climate Initiative, saw the glass more than half full.
“After millions of dollars of disingenuous attacks and a sour economy we are still seeing two-thirds of Californians supporting the state’s climate change law,” he said. “That’s a home run in my book.”
Despite eroding support for fast environmental action, most majorities in all parties support requirements for more renewable energy like solar and wind, emissions caps for cars and better city planning to cut driving needs.
Concerns about wildfires and drought are also up. Environmentalists say climate shifts are leaving parts of the state drier and have made wildfires a year-round risk.
Reporting by Peter Henderson; Editing by John O'Callaghan