Megan Mullin Appointed an Endowed Chair and Faculty Director at UCLA Luskin Environmental politics scholar joins Luskin Center for Innovation leadership team as urgent climate change challenges face California and the country

By Stan Paul and Michelle Einstein

Megan Mullin an award-winning scholar of American political institutions and behavior, focusing on environmental politics has been appointed to endowed positions within the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. 

In January, she will join the faculty of UCLA Public Policy as the Meyer and Renee Luskin Endowed Professor of Innovation and Sustainability. Mullin, currently a professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, has also been appointed the new faculty director of the Luskin Center for Innovation. Meyer and Renee Luskin recently endowed both the professorship and faculty director roles.

“Megan Mullin is a unique scholar whose work, at the intersection of environmental protection and the policy process, is perfectly suited to take the Center for Innovation to the next level,” said Gary Segura, dean of the Luskin School.

Mullin’s appointment comes at a time when unprecedented heat, drought and wildfires underscore urgent climate change challenges facing California and the country. The path to solutions is steeped in politics from the level of local communities to the nation’s capital.

“I explore environmental policies that are just, effective and environmentally sustainable. Governance research can help ensure that policies are successfully implemented,” Mullin said.

Her areas of research include the governance and finance of urban water services, public opinion about climate change and the local politics of climate adaptation. 

“Megan understands the factors necessary for action – from the role of public opinion and elections, to how environmental policy is affected by the complex layers of American federalism,” said Public Policy chair Mark A. Peterson. “My colleagues and I are thrilled that Megan will be joining our department as she also takes on the faculty director role at the Luskin Center for Innovation.”

As faculty director, Mullin plans to build upon the center’s work solving environmental challenges through collaborative, actionable research.

“I’m delighted to help advance the Luskins’ vision of bringing UCLA’s expertise to confront our biggest public challenges. The center is bringing that vision to life by collaborating with decision-makers and community members to make on-the-ground impact in environmental policy,” Mullin said. “I look forward to joining that important work and furthering it.”  

Mullin brings a breadth of qualifications for the position. In addition to her role at the Nicholas School, she also holds appointments at Duke’s Department of Political Science and Sanford School of Public Policy. Mullin is a 2020 Andrew Carnegie Fellow and serves on the leadership team for C-CoAST, a National Science Foundation-funded interdisciplinary initiative to study human-natural interactions in coastal systems. Recipient of five awards from the American Political Science Association, she earned a Ph.D. in political science from UC Berkeley.

“Megan is one of the nation’s most esteemed social scientists addressing the local politics of inequitable access to clean water and climate adaptation,” said Gregory Pierce, co-director of the Luskin Center for Innovation. “She will increase our local and national impact through her scholarly and community-engaged understanding of how to affect change at a critical time.”

In a recent article in Nature, Mullin explained why Americans have been slow to respond to the climate crisis and argued that “it is time to bring political knowledge to bear on decisions about protecting people from its consequences.”

Mullin envisions expanding upon the center’s work with a governance lens. Her research aims to understand political feasibility. Specifically, Mullin wants to increase the Luskin Center’s influence on environmental policies in California and more recent work on the national stage. 

“There are so many lessons learned from California’s environmental innovations that can be applied elsewhere,” Mullin said. “That’s not just about helping California learn, but also understanding what’s transportable to different contexts.” 

“She will bring an integrated set of research skills, teaching experience and policy impact that’s a fantastic fit,” said Peterson, a professor of public policy, political science and law at UCLA. 

Mullin plans to start teaching courses in the upcoming spring quarter and said she believes that students are an important bridge for research and practice. 

“And yes, I really love teaching and mentoring students,” Mullin said. “That’s an excitement about Luskin – the extent to which the center is integrating students into so many different parts of its activities.” 

She also welcomes the Luskin School’s focus on the intersection of policy, planning and social welfare. “That intersection is a powerful combination to understand environmental policy at the local level,” Mullin said. “For instance, confronting climate change also requires thinking about housing and social services. And considering how communities have enormously different risks and capacities. This is a unique opportunity to bring all of those pieces together.” 

Mullin is the recipient of a Duke University award for excellence in graduate student mentoring. She teaches and advises students in the areas of environmental politics, local politics and water governance in the United States.

“So many of my former students are now out working in environmental professions, and that’s how I understand what challenges they’re confronting. That informs my research agenda. It’s an ongoing conversation,” said Mullin, whose research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Carnegie Corporation, the JEHT Foundation, and the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation. 

Mullin’s appointment completes the Luskin Center for Innovation’s leadership transition following the departure of JR DeShazo, the founding faculty director, who was appointed dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in 2021.

As the faculty director of the center, Mullin will join the existing executive team with Pierce,  V. Kelly Turner and Colleen Callahan. Pierce and Callahan will continue serving in executive leadership roles, and Turner will take on a new leadership role furthering her research on climate action.

‘Heat Is One of the Greatest Climate Injustices Facing California’

News outlets covering the wilting heat wave now afflicting California called on experts from the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, a leading source of research on climate adaptation and resilience. A Los Angeles Times story and editorial about the state’s halting efforts to improve its response to deadly heat waves cited the Center for Innovation’s Colleen Callahan and V. Kelly Turner, along with the center’s report urging a more coordinated approach to California’s climate policies. Turner also spoke with Curbed about soaring temperatures on the nation’s school playgrounds. “Elementary schools tend to be some of the hottest areas in all of the neighborhood,” akin to a parking lot or highway, said Turner, who researches how people experience heat in urban settings. In one study, she clocked a playground slide at 122 degrees on a 93-degree afternoon. Turner also shared her expertise on KPCC’s “Air Talk” and KQED’s “Forum.”


 

Guidance for an Effective, Equitable Heat Strategy in California

While California is planning for rising temperatures with its new Extreme Heat Action Plan, the state has not historically treated extreme heat as a social equity and public health crisis — a crisis that requires targeted and robustly funded action to save lives. The UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation has released two policy briefs that can help inform upcoming policy and budget decisions leading to an equitable and effective state strategy:

  • Protecting Californians From Deadly Heat summarizes five recommendations to advance an equitable, evidence-based approach to heat mitigation and adaptation, including an “all-of-government” approach that coordinates California’s current patchwork of regulations and funding sources.
  • Protecting Californians With Heat-Resilient Homes spotlights three recommended actions to protect people at home, including policies and programs to make residential cooling strategies more accessible and expansion of community resilience centers to protect the unhoused and other vulnerable populations.

Read more about the Center for Innovation’s research into climate solutions.


 

Callahan on Expanding Access to Clean Vehicles

Colleen Callahan, co-executive director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation,  spoke to ABC7 News about expanding access to clean vehicles in rural communities in California. Electric vehicles are an important strategy to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change, but zero-emission car sales have largely been clustered in wealthier, urban areas. Many rural communities that would benefit from increased investment of clean energy lack the necessary infrastructure for electric vehicles, such as charging stations. “The same Californians who tend to live in communities most affected by air pollution — including pollution from trucks and cars and other kinds of on-road sources — they’re the same ones that you’d think should be getting the access to the clean vehicles, but that’s not always the case,” Callahan said. She also highlighted the importance of lowering the cost of clean vehicles through rebates and raising community awareness about the benefits of zero-emission vehicles.


Callahan on Pursuing Clean Energy and Equity in California

LAist spoke to Colleen Callahan, co-executive director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, about the California Climate Credit, one piece of the state’s larger strategy to address the climate crisis. Under the program, many consumers received a credit on their utility bills, funded by a cap-and-trade system that requires industries to pay for the pollution they emit. The credit is meant to offset the costs that fall on the public as California transitions from energy generated by fossil fuels to cleaner energy like wind and solar. Callahan said it may be time to rethink a universal credit, especially as low- and middle-income Californians continue to be disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising inflation. “If the goal is to increase energy affordability for low-income Californians during a transition to a clean, low-carbon economy, then other strategies that the state are using should probably receive more emphasis in the future,” she said.

Insights From an Environmental Pioneer Mary Nichols, longtime champion of emission regulation in California, offers a roadmap toward a cleaner transportation future

By Les Dunseith

What comes to mind for Mary Nichols after 50 years as a leader of California’s environmental policy?

“As a lawyer, what I know is how to take laws … and actually make them do something for people,” she said. “If there’s a principle that I have tried to conduct my work by, it is that you don’t get appointed to one of these government jobs to fill the seat. You get appointed to actually do something with the job.”

After four terms as California Air Resources Board chair, Nichols told an in-person crowd of about 75 people and others watching online during the April 4 UCLA Luskin Lecture that getting things done requires dedication, persistence and, perhaps most importantly, good science.

Nichols pointed to her experience in leading the agency to set gasoline efficiency and anti-pollution standards in the automotive area. 

“We had our own engineers who knew just as well as the people inside the car companies that we were regulating what could be made available and what could be made affordable — like the catalytic converter — if you could just get the companies over their reluctance to change and overcome their constant desire to hold onto what they have until they can figure out how to make a profit on it.” 

If policymakers know what needs to be done and have the data to support it, Nichols said, “then you have a pretty good chance of bringing people along with you and moving forward.”

Nichols is an attorney who began working as an environmental regulator in response to the federal Clean Air Act of 1970. She first joined the state’s top environmental agency in 1975 and served as chair between 1979 and 1983, then from 1999 to 2003, and again from 2007 to 2020. She is also a distinguished counsel for the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law and has associations with the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and with the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. 

In his introductory remarks, Dean Gary Segura of the Luskin School of Public Affairs said, “If you’re interested in the environment and you’re a longtime resident of California, the first name that would come to your mind in shaping the environmental policy of this state is Mary Nichols.”

Nichols’ appearance was the first Meyer and Renee Luskin Lecture Series event to occur in person in more than two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It took place in the Charles E. Young Grand Salon at Kerckhoff Hall on the UCLA campus. 

Nichols was joined in a discussion about the past and future of clean transportation by Tierra Bills, assistant professor of public policy and civil and environmental engineering at UCLA, and Colleen Callahan MA UP ’10, co-executive director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation.

They touched on issues that included air pollution, the future of clean energy and how to overcome resistance from businesses, government officials and the public to new, cleaner technology, including fostering wider acceptance of electric cars.

“We start with the fact that electric vehicles are expensive. There’s no question that they are more expensive than gasoline cars,” Nichols acknowledged. “And new gasoline-powered cars are expensive to begin with.”

She noted that electric vehicles are a growing segment of the used car market, but the reality is that many people are never going to purchase an electric car unless manufacturers — many of which see electric vehicles as their future — receive government incentives to bring costs down. 

“Otherwise, we’ll be looking at nothing but a luxury market,” Nichols said.

In California, a related need is starting to get more attention — making charging stations readily available. 

“If people find a way to afford to buy an electric vehicle, but they don’t have a place to charge it, then it’s not doing any good,” Nichols said. “We still have a long way to go in terms of … providing charging in public places and charging at workplaces.”

Bills pointed out that technological innovation has historically bypassed disadvantaged communities. 

Nichols said greater recognition of the need for equity now exists among decision-makers, but challenges remain. “I think there are ways of attacking the problem,” she said, “but it is going to require much bigger thinking than most of what has been going on up to now.”

Plus, dealing with environmental problems requires widespread buy-in.

Nichols joked, “Just saying that the Air Resources Board thinks you should do something isn’t going to be a winning argument, right?” 

Regulation and innovation are important, she said, but federal and state agencies also must look to build partnerships at the municipal level, enlisting assistance from local businesses and community-based organizations. 

She recalled an instance in which funding became available to advance air pollution goals by replacing old buses. To their surprise, government officials soon found themselves working not so much with school districts and large transit agencies as with religious organizations. 

“That’s who had old buses that they wanted to turn in and get new, clean buses so they could take kids on field trips,” Nichols recalled. “So, sometimes it requires a new way of delivering services.”

Callahan spoke about the increasing alarm among scientists that more must be done — and soon — if humankind is going to persevere in the face of climate change. How does one remain grounded and optimistic when faced with so many dire predictions?

You just have to keep working at it,” Nichols said. “It requires you to stay flexible in the sense that you look for new allies. You look for new resources. You look for new energy, which is one of the reasons why I like hanging around universities.”

Gesturing toward the crowd of environmental advocates, faculty, staff and students, Nichols continued.

“You get to know some of the people who, hopefully, are not just going to do what I did, but who are going to do it more and better.”

The Meyer and Renee Luskin Lecture Series enhances public discourse on topics relevant to the betterment of society, bringing together scholars as well as national and local leaders to address society’s most pressing problems. The event with Mary Nichols was co-hosted by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, along with several campus partners: the UCLA Center for Healthy Climate Solutions, UCLA Center for Impact@Anderson, UCLA Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, UCLA Samueli Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge.

View photos from the event on Flickr.

Watch the lecture on Vimeo.

 

Callahan on Defining Objectives of Justice40

Colleen Callahan, co-executive director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation,  spoke to E&E News about President Biden’s executive order regarding environmental justice in disadvantaged communities. The Justice40 Initiative calls for 40% of federal benefits from climate and energy programs to reach disadvantaged communities. Identifying and prioritizing these communities will be critical, said Callahan, who co-authored a report on implementing Justice40 with an equity lens. “There’s a fear that the states could have a big role in implementing the Justice40 dollars, but without a strong history of equity-centered investments in that type of area — clean energy, climate issues and environmental justice — we’re not actually going to achieve the outcomes that [Biden’s] executive order calls for,” Callahan said. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to really define what our objectives are with Justice 40.”


Callahan Named Co-Executive Director of Luskin Center for Innovation

Colleen Callahan MA UP ’10 has been appointed as co-executive director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. She served as the founding deputy director for 12 years, playing an integral part in building the research center from the ground up. The new role reflects Callahan’s experience, the growing trajectory of the center and its goals for the future. In this expanded position, Callahan plans to increase strategic engagement and partnership initiatives to maximize the center’s impact on public policies and other environmental innovations for the health of people and the planet. “It’s both an exciting and daunting time to step into this role,” Callahan said. “Bold action on the climate crisis is urgently needed. I’m humbled to have this opportunity to expand the center’s collaborations with frontline communities, policymakers and others to help advance solutions.” With 18 years of experience in social entrepreneurship, environmental policy and urban planning, Callahan will amplify the work of the Luskin Center for Innovation’s 20 faculty affiliates, 12 full-time staff, and more than 25 part-time researchers and consultants. The new executive director position will enhance the center’s leadership structure, with Greg Pierce sharing the executive leadership role with Callahan. In addition, V. Kelly Turner and Pierce, faculty in the department of urban planning, are leading the center’s research programs as co-directors. Together, they bring a shared commitment and strong capacity to advance evidence-based and equitable environmental policies. Rounding out the team will be a new faculty director in the coming year. 

Read full story


 

Callahan on the Future of High-Speed Rail

Colleen Callahan, deputy director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to the Washington Post about federal funding for new infrastructure projects and the future of rail transit in the United States. President Biden has signed a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill into law, and $65 billion is earmarked for rail projects. However, Callahan expressed doubt that the new package will go toward high-speed rail. “This package is not the silver bullet for the bullet,” Callahan said. “We won’t see much of it go to high-speed rail.” Bullet trains are popular around the globe and can unite cities hundreds of miles apart without excessive carbon emissions. However, the federal funding for rail projects is expected to go largely to the federally owned Amtrak. Many transportation experts predict that Amtrak will use the funding to address problems on its traditional lines instead of investing in new high-speed rail projects.


A Focus on Front-Line Communities in the Fight for Climate Justice

An ABC7 News report on President Joe Biden’s pledge to prioritize environmental justice in disadvantaged communities highlighted an action plan put forward by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. Known as the Justice40 Initiative, Biden’s executive action ordered that 40% of the federal government’s investments in climate and clean infrastructure be used to benefit people in historically marginalized communities. The UCLA report provides guidance on steps needed to design and implement the initiative to be effective and equitable. “Southern Californians breathe some of the dirtiest air in the country. These are the types of communities that should be at the front lines of receiving the benefits of investments that are meant to reduce air pollution and fight the effects of climate change,” said Colleen Callahan, deputy director of the Center for Innovation and co-author of the report. Other media outlets covering the Justice40 report include La Opinión, Black Voice News and Asian Journal.