Equilibrium & Sustainability

Half of Angelenos avoided outdoors in 2021 due to air quality concerns: study

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Half of Los Angeles County residents have avoided going outdoors in the past year due to wildfire-related air quality concerns — a 30 percent increase from 2020, a new study from the University of Southern California has found.

This increase in concern comes just after California experienced its hottest and driest summer yet, while Los Angeles specifically has endured record-breaking heat waves, rolling blackouts, fires and drought emergencies, according to the report — the second annual USC Dornsife-Union Bank LABarometer Sustainability & Resilience Survey.

With the understanding that Los Angeles may experience a tenfold surge in heat wave frequency by 2050 — and up to a 40 percent increase in the areas burned by wildfires — the survey asked 1,244 county residents how they interact with their natural environment amid a warming climate. 

“The startling increase in the percentage of Angelenos who didn’t want to leave their homes because of unsafe air resulting from wildfires really speaks to the growing threat wildfires pose to quality of life in Los Angeles,” Kyla Thomas, director of LABarometer, said in a statement.

“Compared to just a year ago, our results suggest that more Angelenos are feeling the impact of climate change on their daily lives and plans,” she added.

Despite the rise in concern about going outside, the survey found that ratings of neighborhood-level air quality “most times of the year” remained steady. The authors concluded that residents therefore do not incorporate wildfires into their general evaluations of conditions in their neighborhood. 

Nonetheless, 75 percent of Angelenos said that climate change is caused mostly by human activity — up 3 percentage points from 2020, and significantly higher than the 60 percent of U.S. residents who acknowledge that warming is mostly a result of human activities, the survey said, citing the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

The percentage of Los Angeles residents who feel that climate change threatens their well-being rose 4 points from 2020 to 77 percent, while those who responded that the local government is doing enough to combat climate change remained stable at 18 percent, according to the survey.

About 1 in 4 Angelenos said they experienced psychological distress due to natural disasters in the past year, with lower-income and younger residents most affected, the survey found. Self-reports indicated that nearly 10 percent saw an increase in utility expenses, 4.4 percent suffered income losses and 3.1 percent endured health problems due to climate events.

Meanwhile, about two-thirds of Angelenos said they felt that their own actions could make a difference in the fight against climate change, with seniors (60+) 23 percent more likely to think so than young people ages 18-39.

Stressing that different populations experience the impacts of climate change disproportionately, the survey also revealed that Black residents were significantly more vulnerable to heat exposure than white residents at both home and work.

Asian and white Angelenos were most likely to report air conditioning in their homes — 89.5 percent and 86.9 percent, respectively — while only 65.5 percent of Black residents and 80.1 percent of Hispanic residents said that they had AC units. Black, Hispanic and Asian Angelenos (51 percent) were also far less likely than white residents (62 percent) to report living in neighborhoods with sufficient shade, the study found.

These demographic differences were also apparent when evaluating vehicle purchasing preferences. The most likely residents to buy or lease a hybrid or electric vehicle were non-Hispanic white, under 40, college-educated or high-income males, according to the study.

The percentage of Angelenos who said that their next car is likely to be hybrid or electric rose dramatically from 2020 to 2021. The survey found that 41 percent of respondents said their next car purchase or lease would likely be electric — up from 33 percent — while 47 percent said they would likely buy or lease a hybrid vehicle — up from 41 percent.

Overall, about 4 in 10 Angelenos said that they expected their next car to be zero-emissions, a finding that is consistent with all of U.S. residents, the report said, citing the Pew Research Center.

Christopher Hawthorne, director of the “3rd LA” urban design program at USC Dornsife, stressed that the willingness of the majority of Angelenos to consider buying a zero-emissions vehicle has implications beyond “air quality and the fight against climate change.”

“It raises important questions about urban planning, including what happens to the city’s 500-plus gas station sites when new gas-powered cars are no longer available,” Hawthorne said in a statement. “The ripple effects from the switch to electric vehicles will be felt across the city for decades to come.”

Tags Air pollution Climate change Electric vehicles Los Angeles wild fires

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