Asian Americans’ Green Values

Polling is sparse, but Asian Americans look to be strong environmentalists.
This post is part of the research project: Word on the Street
A growing Asian American voting bloc. Photo Credit: mayrpamintuan via Compfight cc

A growing Asian American voting bloc. Photo Credit: mayrpamintuan via Compfight cc

As populations grow and political preferences shift, Asian Americans are emerging as an increasingly powerful voting bloc. And politicos, NGOs, and pollsters alike are just beginning to pay more attention. So, while polling data are still fairly spotty, evidence is mounting that most Asian Americans hold particularly strong green values.

In fact, research indicates Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders rank much higher on their commitment and identification with environmentalism than the rest of the US population.

This is significant. Asian Americans represent just over 5 percent of the total population, but according to the US Census, the Asian American population grew by 46 percent between 2000 and 2010—faster than any other racial or ethnic group. And in California, Asian Americans make up 15 percent of the state’s resident population (almost three times the size of the state’s African-American population). Asian Americans constitute a majority of the population in Hawaii (57 percent), and are also a significant portion of the state populations in New Jersey (9 percent), Washington (9 percent), New York (8 percent), and Virginia (7 percent). Plus, Asian Americans, who voted in record numbers in 2008, turned out in even higher numbers in 2012.

What’s also significant is that Asian Americans have been shifting to the political left more generally.

Back in 1992, Asian Americans decisively supported Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush; Bill Clinton got only 31 percent of the Asian American vote. Four years later, a plurality of Asian American voters supported Republican Bob Dole. But in 2012, Obama carried 73 percent of the Asian American vote (and 71 percent of the Latino vote) and Democratic Congressional candidates received 59 percent. Party identity isn’t quite so clear cut; 57 percent of Asian Americans identify as Democrats, and only 28 percent consider themselves Republicans—leaving a fair number of independent voters. But 6 in 10 Asian Americans are currently in the 18 – 34 age bracket, and among these younger Asian Americans, 61 percent identify as Democrats, and only 24 percent identify as Republicans.

Asian Americans are taking increasingly progressive positions on more and more issues: 67 percent favor raising taxes on incomes over $250K; majorities support universal healthcaresame-sex marriage, and affirmative action programs; 58 percent of Asian Americans support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the US. But green values stand out as particularly important to this group of voters.

For example, according to the series of National Asian American Surveys (NAAS)—a landmark effort to collect data about the policy views of Asian Americans, started in 2008 and lead by two political scientists, Karthick Ramakrishnan, UC Riverside, and Taeku Lee, UC Berkeley—71 percent of Asian Americans consider themselves environmentalists, about 30 points higher than the national average. Among some groups, including Chinese and Vietnamese Americans, the proportions are even higher. The same goes for Pacific Islanders. (Note: some surveys make this distinction between Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; others do not).

According to the NAAS, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are also significantly more likely than the national average to prioritize environmental protection over economic growth. This sentiment is especially strong among young adults (who are, on the other hand, less likely to call themselves “environmentalists”), and among Indian Americans, Japanese Americans, and Korean Americans.

A 2009 survey of Asian Americans in California found that a whopping 83 percent describe themselves as “environmentalists,” compared to just 52 percent of all California voters. That number was even higher for Chinese Americans in the state, with 96 percent calling themselves environmentalists. And 74 percent of Asian Americans in CA said environmental issues are extremely or very important to them personally, compared to 66 percent of state voters overall.

In order to protect the environment, Asian American voters in California wanted government to take an active role in protecting our air, land, and water. Overall, Asian American voters in California felt that environmental regulations provide an important benefit to society (71 percent), with only 12 percent saying they do more harm than good.

The top three environmental issues among Asian-American voters in California in 2009 were global warming, water shortages, and dependence on foreign oil.

Climate change and energy appear to be top of mind for those in California, but what about Asian American climate change attitudes outside California? The fact is that Asian Americans have largely been overlooked when it comes to national polling on energy and climate change. But some national data are available (please send me more polling if you’ve seen it).

One 2012 survey by MPO Research Groups found that 15.4 percent of Asian Americans are skeptical that global warming is “real,” (compared to 16.5 percent of Caucasians, 15.8 percent of Hispanics and 6.1 percent of African Americans).

However, it was African and Asian Americans who were most likely to understand that global warming is caused by human activity (67.3 percent of African Americans and 69.2 percent of Asian Americans) and to be concerned about it. Fifty-five percent of African Americans and 53.8 percent of Asian Americans said they are concerned about global warming. By comparison, 56.7 percent of Caucasians and 60.3 percent of Hispanics acknowledge global warming is caused by human activity, and only 49.3 percent of Caucasians and 34.2 percent of Hispanics expressed concern about it.

In this survey, Hispanics and Caucasians were most likely to believe that global warming is a natural occurrence, 23 percent and 21.2 percent respectively. Only 12.2 percent of African Americans and 7.7 percent of Asian Americans felt this way.

Without more research, we’re left to speculate (which can be dangerous). But Lloyd Green suggests that one major reason that Asian Americans are turning away from the Republican party nationally is the party’s increasing rejection of science. According to the Pew Research Center, around half of Asian Americans hold at least a college degree—compared with less than one in three members of the overall adult population. And Green points out that Asian-American students tend to concentrate in the STEM fields—sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (anecdotally, 40 percent of the student body at Cal-Tech is and a quarter of MIT students are Asian American).

In addition, international polling shows that people in Asian countries are far more likely than their American counterparts to see climate change as a major, imminent threat. With about three in four Asian American adults born outside the US, first-hand experience and family connections in Asian countries may play into Asian American attitudes about climate as well.

When it comes to climate, energy, and environmental health, there’s obviously a lot to learn about Asian American opinions and motivations. What we do know is that compared with the general public, Asian Americans are more likely to support an activist government and that they’re leaning toward progressive thinking on a range of issues. We’re also seeing evidence that this population appears to be one of the greenest-minded in America—if not yet the most engaged in green solutions or policy. That’s an opportunity!

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  1. Wayne says:

    Thanks for this post, Anna, you’ve documented an interesting theme. There are a number of topics that are tempting to touch on. Here are a couple of comments from a third generation Asian-American (Japanese).

    On one hand, I think there is a strong sense of conservation or not wasting in many traditional cultures. The Japanese term “mottainai” conveys that feeling and is translated as “don’t waste what nature gives you” in an amusing folk-style musical definition on YouTube Mottainai.

    But as with other old-country habits, mottainai has withered with each generation, especially when up against Godzilla-sized advertising budgets that encourage the opposite behavior. A counter reaction can sometimes develop (child to parent: “why are you being so cheap”). Nevertheless, examples set by ones parents and grandparents can be a strong influence. I remember my grandfather saving and reusing pieces of wood and twine many times over in his gardening. He never said anything about it but his actions told me that this is how things should be done.

    On the other hand, it is dismaying to see the extent that many Asians have succumbed to a materialist life. It would be interesting to delve deeper into some of the surveys—I’d like to see if the green responses to questionnaires are backed up by green action. I suspect there is a lack of consistency and I also suspect that it is not limited racially. A century of increasingly powerful advertising has convinced all of us, in varying amounts, that luxuries are now necessities. It is a constant battle to counter this tide but perhaps the way forward is to set an example to show how things should be done.

  2. Anna Fahey says:

    Thank you, Wayne, for sharing these insights and experiences. You know how I feel about out-of-control materialism! And there’s also some interesting research that indicates Americans in general are getting fed up with consumerism in our culture. I would like to see much more research than we have available on this subject and on Asian American perspectives—on materialism and on action based on “green” values. I hope we’ll see more of this in the near future.

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