Californians Uncertain Whom to Blame for Wildfires

September 27, 2020
R&WS Research Team
California | Climate Change | Donald Trump | Environment | Joe Biden | Travel/Tourism

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Wildfires have scorched over 3.5 million acres in California this summer, resulting in 26 fatalities and the destruction of 6,100 structures, as well as a thick smog which has caused air pollution as far afield as New York. In Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ latest polling, 79% of Californians report to be affected by the current wildfire crisis.

While no region has escaped unscathed, Region 3, which represents the San Francisco Bay area, has been hit particularly hard, with 88% of respondents affected to some degree. Overall, 44% of respondents there have been somewhat affected, 25% moderately affected, and 18% significantly affected. Regions 4 and 5, which represent the Northern San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast respectively, also report a worse experience than most.

Thousands of firefighters have been employed across the state, leading to increasing containment levels and prompting energy company PG&E to cut power on hot days in an attempt to reduce wildfire risk, leading to rolling blackouts. Governor Gavin Newsom has argued that the size of the wildfires emphasise the reality of climate change.

While scientists calculate that worldwide temperatures have risen by 1.8°F over the past 150 years, the increase has been close to 3°F in California, where the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on earth (130°F) was seen in Death Valley this summer. However, some critics point to the state’s history of struggling with forest management as responsible for the fires. The majority (52%) of Californians appear closer to believing that the wildfire crisis is primarily a result of climate change, compared to less than a third (30%) who are closer to considering the wildfire crisis as primarily a consequence of forest mismanagement. 

Views on this question also saw heavy partisanship with 71% of Biden voters blaming the wildfires on climate change primarily compared to just 21% of Trump voters.

Trump’s has denied the role of climate change in wildfires since 2018, instead preferring to blame Governor Newsom’s forest management and state water policies. In Governor Newsom’s 8th September press release, he stated that he had “no patience for climate change deniers” fuelling the ongoing climate debate between the Governor and the President. Newsom has since stated claimed that he has “directly confronted the president” on climate change, though a video of the press briefing from earlier this week shows a more gentle exchange between the two leaders. When asked about their opinion of Trump’s response to the fires, the majority of Californians (55%) disapprove compared to 25% who approve.

Meanwhile, the majority (52%) of Californians approve of Newsom’s response compared to 20% who disapprove.

Nevertheless, approval ratings were far lower among likely 2020 Donald Trump voters, at only 29% compared to 68% of likely Joe Biden voters. Those who are still undecided on their vote sided in Newsom’s favour, with 33% approving and 16% disapproving of the Governor’s response.

Public opinion on Trump’s response was even more partisan than that on Newsom’s response; only 7% of likely Joe Biden supporters approved of the President’s response, compared to 64% of likely Donald Trump supporters. The stark divide is likely due to hardening attitudes ahead of a bitter Presidential race.

In terms of overall blame, respondents were evenly split between the different factors. A quarter of respondents (25%) blame the California State Government and 25% blame the Federal Government. Moreover, 24% blame the general public, which may be linked to reports that the El Dorado fire now stretching over 7,000 acres started from a pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party. Notably, a slight plurality (27%) ‘don’t know’ who to blame. The majority (53%) of 2020 Trump supporters blame the California State Government whereas the plurality of Biden supporters (35%) blame the Federal Government.

Overall, polling highlights that the Californian public are strongly divided on the wildfires, just one of several issues that the state has to tackle in the coming years, as well as ongoing droughts, rising temperatures, growing wealth inequality and a rapid population increase. All these factors may contribute to 29% of respondents to our poll saying they, yes, they are considering moving away from California on a permanent basis.

Among this group, a quarter are ‘reasonably likely’ or ‘nearly certain’ to make such a move this year.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Follow us on Twitter

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