No More Business as Usual


By John Harlow, Photos by Christopher Boffoli

Published Apr 1, 2020 8:00 AM

UCLA tackles 10 aspects of climate change, the existential crisis of our times, and comes up with smart solutions.

Every generation faces an existential threat, whether it’s the Black Death, the Nazis or the nuclear bomb. But few nightmares present such an apocalyptic vista as the climate crisis.

Maybe it’s because the consequences are so tangled, dense and widespread, yet curiously slow-moving, that many feel becalmed between angry doom-mongers and cynical deniers. Or maybe it remains an inconvenient truth — a damper on the post–World War II economic explosion known as the Great Acceleration, which has improved billions of lives.

But global prosperity comes at a cost, the scientific community agrees, with unprecedented levels of carbon emissions from industry and agriculture trapped in the atmosphere, warming the planet and melting ice mantles. And even if emissions were miraculously curbed today, the atmosphere would continue to heat up for decades. No wonder so many throw up their hands in frustration.

Although time is fleeting, we can still have a smart, nuanced conversation about human-induced climate change and what to do about it — and that’s taking place at UCLA. Much of this big thinking is framed within UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenge. Since 2013, the challenge has responded quickly and ambitiously to a public thirst for evidence-based solutions to the climate crisis.

Hundreds of UCLA faculty and students and community activists are united in one goal: to move UCLA and Los Angeles County to 100% renewable energy and locally sourced water in a healthier ecosystem by 2050.

It’s a massive challenge and vulnerable to exogenous change. Right now, campus planners are finding alternative ways to produce zero waste by December 2020. It has been complicated by Operation National Sword — China’s decision to no longer process foreign plastics. But UCLA Facilities Management is focused on composting or recycling garbage away from landfills.

“Change is happening. Cigarette butts and one-use water bottles are rarer now,” a facilities manager says, speaking off the record. “But we [do] see a lot more fast-fashion stuff, sweatshop clothes bought for Instagram and then thrown away.” This can result in more trash ending up in the ocean.

Consumers may be approaching a tipping point toward green lifestyles, argues Magali Delmas, professor of management at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and David Colgan, director of communications at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES), in their 2018 book, The Green Bundle, which shows how green businesses are nudging behaviors toward more pro-environment choices.

But there are mounting challenges driving up the world’s temperature — Los Angeles is estimated to be as hot as La Paz, Mexico, by 2080. The good news is that UCLA faculty are illuminating paths ahead. We asked them to tell us how they view 10 aspects of the crisis.

1. Fire zones

The burning seasons in California, Australia, Brazil and the Congo are growing longer and hotter — and becoming psychologically and economically more devastating.

Then-California Gov. Jerry Brown described the 2018 Camp Fire — the worst blaze in California history, killing more than 80 people and burning nearly 19,000 buildings — as life in the “new abnormal.” It is a catchy phrase, says Jon Keeley, adjunct professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at IoES. And it’s a useful way to encapsulate future fire regimens.

Keeley says there are two major causes of wildfires in the Golden State. Blazes in coastal areas are largely caused by humans, with utility failures responsible for a fivefold increase over the last 20 years. According to Keeley, this is not just a maintenance issue, which could be ameliorated by burying more lines, but also the extension of an aging grid to accommodate the 6 million people added to California’s population since 2000. “Population growth impacts the probability of humans igniting fires during extreme weather events,” he says.

In the Sierras, it’s lightning that’s the major cause of fires. Between 2012 and 2016, drought and bark beetles killed 129 million trees in California — albeit from a state canopy of 7.9 billion trees — turning them into kindling. Keeley argues that the state must rethink urban planning and forestry practices (including having more controlled burns) as well as the nature of the “survivor” trees we prioritize.

2. Rising waters

Sea levels have risen about 8 inches since 1900, according to the Smithsonian, a pace that has increased over the past three decades as heat has expanded seawater and melted land ice sheets and glaciers.

Low-level cities — from Venice, Italy, to New Orleans — are at a unique risk. Liz Koslov, assistant professor in the Department of Urban Planning at IoES, believes planners should look at Indonesia, which is moving its capital from Jakarta to a higher-altitude location.

Koslov is investigating “planned retreat,” which is a deliberately provocative challenge to vulnerable communities from Staten Island, where locals are seeking state aid to move from the endangered New York coastline, to Del Mar, where Southern Californians are resisting calls to abandon up to 600 homes, some valued at $20 million.

“There are social justice questions — it is easier to buy out poorer neighborhoods, while the wealthy will employ lawyers and build barriers,” Koslov says. She has argued that delaying relocation will make it more expensive and traumatic, but not less inevitable. “An openness to different ways of living with water is key.”

3. Floods

Greenhouse gas buildup normally means warmer air and more precipitation, says Dennis Lettenmaier, distinguished professor of geography at IoES, “but it’s not that predictable. There are more intense rains in concentrated areas — and more brutal storms.”

This can cause extreme runoff, a growing problem in heat islands such as Houston. Between 2015 and 2019, Texas had three “500-year” flood events — that is, rainfall so extreme that the chance of such an event is just 1 in 500 in any given year. Lettenmaier says that future skyscrapers may be designed to have rougher surfaces, which would diffuse the impact of high winds and floods.

4. Water scarcity

Lettenmaier led a study that measured the amount of groundwater lost in the agricultural basin of the Central Valley during two recent droughts. His study questioned whether California agriculture could survive another drought — particularly those farmers planting thirsty almond and walnut trees, which are watered by 100,000 private wells.

This is not just an agricultural question, as L.A. is struggling to improve its water policies. In UCLA’s 2019 report card on water sustainability, L.A. County earned a C+ and was cited for having polluted groundwater. But Cassie Rauser, director of UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, believes the next score will be better, especially with a $300 million-a-year bond earmarked for stormwater capture and other improvements.

5. Food insecurity

Extended droughts and extreme weather are already disrupting food chains around the world, resulting in famine, according to the nonprofit CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere).

Amy Rowat, associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA College’s Division of Life Sciences, has proposed one radical solution. She is developing ways to produce meat in a lab. A large-scale switch to cultured meat could reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly.

“Changes in the food system will be critical for human and planetary health,” Rowat argues in a forthcoming paper. “Livestock contribute to 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 8% of freshwater use and 30% of land use. Eating habits are hard to change, but innovations are urgently needed, [such as] introducing sustainable substitutes that have a flavor and texture akin to meat,” she writes. Rowat adds that there’s another benefit: Plant-based meat is clean — there are no hormones or chemical runoff. And it’s made without animal suffering.

6. Plague

The World Health Organization has warned that tropical disease–carrying insects are moving into more temperate zones. And there are reports of “zombie” plagues returning to life as permafrosts melt: In 2016, a Siberian boy’s death was reportedly due to anthrax that had been dormant for 75 years in a frozen reindeer corpse.

Professor John Clemens, vice chairman of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health’s epidemiology department, has been working on the ground in Bangladesh, where sea levels have risen much faster than the global average and is creating salinization problems. He has been studying links between this dramatic climate change and mosquito-borne menaces such as dengue and chikungunya, which first appeared in Florida in 2014. Clemens has helped redesign health systems to be more responsive to coming threats.

"After a wildfire, the nature around you has been changed, and for many people that is a loss of spiritual solace. They are grieving," David Eisenman says.

7. Vanishing wildlife

Animals have survived previous climate shifts by relocating. The World Wildlife Fund has estimated that most species, including plants, need to move 1,000 meters a year to keep ahead of today’s pace of change, a distance that’s too far for many.

The alternative is dire: One estimate suggests that more than a billion animals were affected by the recent Australian fires.

Yet some species are already adapting — coyotes birth bigger litters after a wet winter, when there will be more prey available — and others are relocating.

Professor Ursula K. Heise, who holds the Marcia H. Howard Chair in Literary Studies at the UCLA Department of English and has a joint appointment at IoES, explored the journey of Mexican parrots for the documentary Urban Ark Los Angeles. Together with Brad Shaffer, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA and director of the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science, Heise has been keeping an eye on the birds. Originally poached in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas and trafficked into L.A. in the 1980s, many of the birds escaped to “naturalize themselves as Californian citizens,” she explains. Today, the parrots are endangered in Mexico.

8. The human condition

Los Angeles will plant 90,000 trees by 2021 as part of its Cool Streets LA initiative, which is focused on urban areas where shade is considered a luxury. Recognizing the body’s vulnerability to climate change, the program hopes to cool down urban heat islands.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that frequent days of extreme heat will cause more breathing difficulties and heart attacks, while higher levels of carbon dioxide will prompt plants to produce record levels of pollen.

There are also unexpected consequences of the big heat. “We estimate that 25,000 infants are born prematurely each year in the United States due to ambient temperatures above 80 F during gestation,” says Alan Barreca, associate professor of environmental economics at IoES. “Premature birth is associated with a host of issues later in life.”

More than 400,000 babies are born prematurely each year in the U.S. “We are losing 150,000 gestation days a year right now,” he says. “But without adaptation [and] ensuring cooler environments for pregnant women, there could be an additional 250,000 gestational days lost by the end of the century.”

After studying 80 years of public records, Barreca noticed another trend. “It’s not that people have less sex in hot weather — quite the opposite — but studies suggest that sperm production falls in exceptionally hot weather. Climate change will rob some people of the choice of whether to have children,” he says.

9. Climate refugees

The United Nations has warned that at least 20 million people a year are becoming “environmental migrants,” made homeless by extreme weather.

And there is a consequential cost in mental health that manifests in rises in substance abuse, violence toward children and divorce, says David Eisenman M.S.H.S. ’02, professor-in-residence in the Department of Community Health Sciences at Fielding School.

“After a wildfire, the nature around you has been changed, and for many people that is a loss of the spiritual solace the land brought them. They are grieving,” he says. During California’s Camp Fire, “many people from Paradise took refuge in nearby Chico — 20,000 people moving into a town of 80,000. Chico opened its heart, but resources have been overwhelmed.

“Bigger cities like Houston and Atlanta were able to absorb mass movements after Hurricane Katrina, even if there was pressure on housing and jobs,” Eisenman says. “But future events are going to affect midsize cities like Chico more severely. We are studying how to deal with such shocks.”

10. Governance

The most crucial question remains: Are current liberal democracies up to the task of managing the consequences of global warming?

In his 2019 book, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at the Fielding School, writes that “for the first time in history, we face truly global challenges. Yet there isn’t worldwide acknowledgment of our world crisis, not honest self-appraisal, and the depletion of resources and the rise of CO2 levels leave us little room for experiment and maneuver.

“It is certain that within the lifetimes of most of us, per-capita consumption rates will be lower than they are now. The only question is whether we shall reach that outcome by methods of our choice or unplanned methods not of our choice,” Diamond warns.

There are tough decisions ahead. Which government would want to fill the air with sulfur dioxide in order to darken the skies and lower the temperature? That’s what happened after the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, when sulfuric haze temporarily cooled the world by 0.9 degrees over three years. Who would close coal power plants or hike gasoline prices to force the adoption of solar power?

In December 2019, Edward A. Parson, professor of environmental law at the UCLA School of Law, returned from the COP25 climate change conference in Madrid feeling “anguished” at the failure to agree on how to stop the runaway locomotive of CO2 emissions.

“And, once again, how bad is it?” he wrote afterward. “It’s pretty bad, but quite uncertain. Not necessarily catastrophic in any global sense — and still absolutely worth intense efforts to make it less bad.”

Michael Ross, professor of political science at the College’s Division of Social Sciences, says petrochemical states are less democratic and often better organized at protecting fossil fuels than those that challenge them. Yet he believes that liberal democracies have one big advantage: “While leaders look first at short-term benefits to themselves, they are also sensitive to voter preference. The biggest advantage in a liberal democracy is that there [are] civic space and opportunities for groups to organize. And I think youth movements mobilizing around climate change are going to have a real effect. Yes, I do have hope.”



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