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UCLA College celebrates Earth Day

Image of Farwiza Farhan with baby elephant

Farwiza Farhan, winner of UCLA’s 2021 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award. Farhan works to protect the Leuser Ecosystem, the last place on Earth where tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans live together in the wild. 


Every year, Earth Day provides an opportunity to celebrate and renew a shared commitment to protecting the planet. Across UCLA, initiatives such as the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge are making strides toward conservation goals, both locally and globally. And in the UCLA College of Letters and Science, renowned scholars are joining forces across disciplines to advance knowledge and research, educate, advocate and lead the way to a more sustainable future. Here are just a few highlights from the 2021–22 academic year:

Championing leaders

The UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES) hosted “Celebration of Environmental Heroes,” an event highlighting progress such as Ph.D. student Dani Hoague’s work with the Better Watts Initiative, discussed here with actor, writer and producer Issa Rae. Meanwhile, the annual Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award supports young leaders from around the world — most recently Farwiza Farhan, a conservationist working in Indonesia to protect one of the planet’s most biodiverse regions.

Issa Rae introduces UCLA graduate student Dani Hoague, who discusses her work with the Better Watts Initiative (BWI). The BWI team believes that a single action can make a difference in the community, and that collective action can greatly impact the world.


Community engagement

Besides providing a tranquil oasis on campus, the UCLA Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden inspires conservation through education, research and public outreach. Many events are open to the public, including monthly guided tours, the 2021–22 lecture series “Transplanted: Examining Contexts of Plants, People and Place,” and the Festival of Trees coming up on April 29. You can also listen to a carefully curated audio tour of the garden, featuring renowned experts highlighting its unique collections.

Environmental storytelling

At the IoES’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS), scholars come together across areas of study from English to anthropology to collaborate on media and communications that advance the cause of environmental science, policy and advocacy. LENS has received awards for outstanding environmental journalism and most recently partnered on the Labyrinth Project, a podcast that explores L.A.’s urban ecosystems and was created by Christopher Kelty, a member of the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics.

Images from the four episodes of Earth Focus

Images from the series “Earth Focus.” One episode earned the UCLA Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies an award from the Los Angeles Press Club. | Courtesy of KCET, LENS and Thomson Reuters Foundation


Global reach

The Congo Basin Institute, a joint initiative between UCLA and the nonprofit International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, is conducting the vitally important work of preserving the world’s second-largest rainforest. The institute recently received a major gift from the co-founder of Taylor Guitars and his wife to further ebony conservation research and restoration efforts in Cameroon. The project will support local communities, grow and plant trees, conduct ecological research and build a road map for rainforest reforestation.

Interdisciplinary research

At the newly launched UCLA Rothman Family Institute for Food Studies, scholars will conduct research to improve both human and planetary health. “Food is central to the human experience, and this new institute will play a leading role in examining aspects of our relationship with food as well as the ways in which food systems tie into larger issues like public health, sustainability and economic well-being,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block in a UCLA press release.


Learn more about the work of the UCLA College here.

Picture of Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim.

Activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim wins Pritzker Award for young environmental innovators

Picture of Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim reacts to the award announcement as UCLA professor Magali Delmas (left) looks on. Photo: Jonathan Young/UCLA

The UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability presented the 2019 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award to Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a member of Chad’s Mbororo indigenous semi-nomadic community.

Ibrahim promotes environmental protections for indigenous groups through work with international organizations, including as a member of the United Nations Indigenous Peoples Partnership’s policy board. She also leads a community-based environmental coalition in the region surrounding Lake Chad, a critical water source that has shrunk 90% since 1980 — in part because temperatures in the area rose 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past century. Violent conflict has occasionally broken out among groups competing for the vital resource.

The annual award carries a prize of $100,000, which is funded through a portion of a $20 million gift to UCLA from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation. It is the field’s first major honor specifically for innovators under the age of 40 — those whose work stands to benefit most from the prize money and the prestige it conveys.

Ibrahim said the award, which was presented Nov. 7 at UCLA’s Hershey Hall, will help amplify the voices of 370 million indigenous people around the world.

“The voices of indigenous people are being heard here — through me, through all of you and through this prize,” Ibrahim said. “We are all together. We will win this battle, I am so confident.”

University researchers, Pentagon experts and others have found that rapid climate change — driven largely by human-caused carbon emissions — have contributed to a growing number of armed conflicts. The phenomenon is expected to particularly affect regions that are already unstable.

To prevent and reduce conflict in the Lake Chad basin, Ibrahim developed a program that gathers information on natural resources from farmers, fisherman and herders in more than a dozen African ethnic groups, and then produces 3D maps of those natural resources that their communities can share. The effort is intended to reduce the chance for conflict among the groups.

“It’s amazing to see women and men who have never been to school working jointly to build 3D maps that share critical knowledge, like where fresh water can be found even in the worst days of a drought,” Ibrahim wrote in her award application. “But the most interesting aspect of this project is that it helps to reduce conflict and tension between communities.”

Hindou is an official adviser to the UN Secretary General in advance of a major climate summit taking place in Glasgow in September 2020. She also advocates for indigenous peoples’ rights, women’s rights and environmental justice in high-profile global forums, including as a National Geographic Explorer and a senior indigenous fellow for Conservation International.

Picture of a group taking a selfie.

Shawn Escoffery, executive director of the Roy and Patricia Disney Foundation, with the 2019 Pritzker Award finalists, May Boeve, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim and Varshini Prakash. Photo: Jonathan Young/UCLA

The Pritzker Award is open to anyone working to solve environmental challenges through any lens — from science to advocacy and entrepreneurism. But all three finalists for this year’s award were activists, which may reflect the global trend of young people taking a more vigorous role in fighting against climate change. In addition to Ibrahim, the finalists were May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, and Varshini Prakash, founder of the Sunrise Movement. Finalists were selected by a panel of UCLA faculty from 20 candidates who were nominated by an international group of environmental leaders.

Ibrahim was chosen as winner by five distinguished judges: Shawn Escoffery, executive director of the Roy and Patricia Disney Foundation; sustainability and marketing expert Geof Rochester; philanthropists Wendy Schmidt and Nicolas Berggruen; and Kathryn Sullivan, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the first American woman to walk in space.

Peter Kareiva, director of UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said the Pritzker Award’s biggest value is that it brings together a community of candidates, past winners, UCLA faculty and the environmental leaders who serve as judges and nominators.

“We’re way beyond the time where a single innovation is going to do it, a single policy is going to do it. We’re way beyond that,” Kareiva said.

After receiving the award from Tony Pritzker, Ibrahim echoed that sentiment and called the other finalists up to the podium.

“We need action, and this action can only happen if we all join hands,” Ibrahim said. “We will make it all together.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Diagram of Vegetation density in California in 2011 versus 2014.

California ‘browning’ more in the south during droughts

Diagram of Vegetation density in California in 2011 versus 2014.

Vegetation density in California, 2011 versus 2014, when the state was in the midst of a drought that had especially severe effects in the southern part of the state.

 

Like a climate chameleon, California turned brown during the 2012–16 drought, as vegetation dried or died off.

But the change wasn’t uniform. According to research from UCLA and Columbia University, large areas of the northern part of the state were not severely affected, while Southern California became much browner than usual.

“Southern California is more prone than the northern part of the state to getting severe droughts,” said UCLA climate scientist Glen MacDonald, one of the paper’s authors. “But that difference seems to be increasing.”

That means additional stress will be placed on wildlife ecosystems and resources that the approximately 24 million people living in Southern California need to survive, including energy, food and water supply.

The problem isn’t just a lack of precipitation. Hotter temperatures due to global warming — which accelerate evaporation and make drought effects worse — are playing play a major role in many locations, including Southern California and some parts of the Sierra Nevada.

One band of low-to-middle elevation forest in the western Sierra was hit particularly hard and showed drastic browning, MacDonald said. That area of the Sierra Nevada experienced a high concentration of tree deaths, which contributed to California’s overall loss of more than 129 million trees since 2010.

In contrast, some parts of California became greener — mostly at high elevations and in the far northwestern part of the state, where it’s cooler and moister.

The researchers examined satellite images dating back to 2000 and historical records dating to 1895. They combined that data with information about drought severity and vegetation indexes — which analyze imagery to determine how densely green a patch of land is.

The research was partially funded by UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, which seeks to develop informed strategies to transition L.A. County to 100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent local water and enhanced ecosystem health by 2050.

Lead author Chunyu Dong, who worked on the project as a UCLA postdoctoral researcher, said the findings reveal a century-long trend in Southern California toward a drier climate that won’t affect only plants, but also the lives of millions of people.

“The Southern California water shortage will be more severe in the coming decades, especially when we consider the population here is increasing quickly,” Dong said.

The changes also have implications for wildfires, he added. Additional dry vegetation and hotter, windy weather could lead to more large fires that are difficult to control.

That lines up with 2017 research by MacDonald, who used the natural climate record contained in ancient tree rings to understand how climate variability and droughts have changed over hundreds of years. That paper found that California is in an unprecedented scenario in which the climate has warmed at the same time that variations in temperature and precipitation have been magnified, supporting rapid plant growth in wet years and then drying in hot summers, which provides more fuel for wildfires.

The 2019 rainy season made California drought-free for the first time since 2011, greening the state and causing wildflower superblooms, even in deserts. But MacDonald said the relief could be short-lived.

“The one thing that seems to keep coming up is that we’ll have more swings in precipitation,” he said. “We’re going to have our seasonally dry summer and that fine fuel is going to dry out. If it’s a hot summer, conditions are ripe for wildfire. The worst thing we can possibly do is say we don’t have to worry about this anymore.”

How climate change and drought will reshape the state’s vegetation in the long term remains to be seen. Some coastal sage scrub and chaparral could be replaced by grasslands, and low-elevation shrubland and woodland might even replace some coniferous forest, MacDonald said, but more study is needed.

UCLA students aim to help island nations balance economics with ocean conservation

Blue Prosperity aims to mitigate the threats of climate change and overfishing to marine ecosystems through strategic economic growth and management, working hand-in-hand with local governments, businesses and communities.

UCLA student wins national award for environmental justice work

Her mission for the environment and social justice is just getting started, but she’s already built an impressive resume.

Alumnus Morton La Kretz awarded the UCLA Medal, campus’s highest honor

“Morton’s leadership and philanthropy are testaments to his belief that the true measure of a life is not what you get, but what you give,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block at the medal ceremony.

UCLA presents inaugural Pritzker Award to environmental economist Dan Hammer

Hammer is an environmental economist and data expert, and the co-founder of Earth Genome, a nonprofit that seeks to provide environmental data to decision makers.

$5 million gift from Morton La Kretz will support renovation of UCLA Botany Building

The restoration and improvements made possible by the donation will enhance research and teaching on plant, conservation and environmental biology in the UCLA College’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology.

UCLA faculty voice: Oroville Dam shows urgent need for climate adaptation

The crisis at Oroville Dam should be a wake-up call to those making infrastructure decisions today that will affect Californians for many years to come.

Chilling climate revelations from the last ice age

About 14,000 years ago, the southwest United States was lush and green, home to saber-toothed cats and mammoths. Meanwhile, the Pacific Northwest was mostly grassland.