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.

Pierce on Heat’s Impact on Quantity, Quality of California’s Water

A Los Angeles Times story about Central Californians who are bearing the brunt of the state’s dwindling water supply cited Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. Drought, heat, agriculture and overpumping have parched communities and contaminated water sources. Few anticipated the dire impact of heat on water quality, and some residents are at risk of running out of water entirely, said Pierce, who directs the Center for Innovation’s Human Right to Water Solutions Lab. On KCRW’s “Press Play” and Minnesota Public Radio, Pierce weighed in on how the state is bracing for an expected 10% loss in water supplies over the next two decades. Radical proposals include a giant pipeline ferrying Mississippi River water across the Rockies, but that would be prohibitively expensive and politically untenable, he said. More feasible approaches include calling on consumers to step up conservation, expanding stormwater capture and wastewater recycling, and cleaning up contaminated groundwater.


 

Pierce on Failing Water Systems in California

Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke with Courthouse News about a new state audit that found that nearly 1 million Californians lack access to safe water. The audit classified 418 local water systems as “failing,” meaning their water supply exceeds the maximum allowable contaminant levels for safe drinking water. This could expose customers to a range of health dangers, including an increased risk of cancer as well as liver and kidney problems. Complicating efforts to improve water quality is the state’s decentralized patchwork of local agencies composed of roughly 7,400 “drinking water systems,” some private, some public. “Every state has way too many drinking water systems, compared to other utilities,” said Pierce, who leads the UCLA Human Right to Water Solutions Lab. He said the state water board has been trying to consolidate these systems to improve accountability and performance, but “it’s slow going. It takes a long time. And it’s political.”


 

UCLA Teams Up With LADWP for Equitable Energy Solutions

More than 20 UCLA faculty and researchers have entered into a $2.6 million agreement to conduct research for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to help the city achieve its goal of producing all of its energy from carbon-free and renewable energy sources by 2035 and doing so in ways that benefit all Angelenos equitably. The Luskin Center for Innovation, Center for Neighborhood Knowledge and Latino Policy and Politics Institute are among several UCLA research entities collaborating with the LADWP’s LA100 Equity Strategies, which will guide the department as it creates the first justice-focused, carbon-free energy transition of any major city. The effort builds upon interdisciplinary work already being done across campus, including the Center for Innovation’s research on energy affordability. “It takes careful intent to ensure that the costs associated with the transition to renewable energy get translated equitably through rates, and to protect low-income households in disadvantaged communities from bearing too much of that cost,” said Gregory Pierce, co-director of the center. “Historically, sustainability investments have not been equitable, so in some ways this project is trying to tackle that transition.” Recommendations from Pierce’s team could include enhanced rate discounts, speeding up energy efficiency and solar programs, and adjusting what criteria would trigger the shutoff of a household’s water or energy if it falls behind on payments. The university’s participation was made possible through an existing agreement between the LADWP and the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge. — Jonathan Van Dyke

Read the full story


 

Pierce on Floating Desalination Plants for Disaster Relief

Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to BBC about the prospect of floating desalination plants to bolster scarce supplies of fresh water worldwide. Desalination plants remove the salt from seawater, but the process of pumping large volumes of water across membranes at high pressure is expensive and energy-intensive. Now, engineers are working on building floating, nuclear-powered desalination systems that would make it much easier to create clean drinking water and power. Pierce noted that the most significant application of floating desalination systems could be in disaster relief. The current method of flying and trucking in bottled water after a disaster is “the most inefficient thing possible,” he said. “If floating desalination can address that, I’m all for that.” However, in other contexts, there are many other ways of securing clean water supplies that are more cost-effective, Pierce said.


Pierce on New L.A. Water Restrictions

The Los Angeles Times spoke to Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, about new watering restrictions implemented by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Due to worsening drought conditions and reduced water supplies, residents of the city of Los Angeles will be assigned two watering days a week based on their addresses — Monday and Friday for odd addresses and Thursday and Sunday for even ones. “It’s a fine way to go for now, but I would recommend not hesitating to go to one-day [watering] and seeing those plants die if necessary,” said Pierce, who leads the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab housed at the Center for Innovation.

Pierce on Rethinking Water Usage in California

Gregory Pierce, co-executive director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to Fast Company about new measures to conserve water in Los Angeles County. The current megadrought in the western United States is expected to last until 2030. In response, Los Angeles is implementing initiatives such as lawn-free landscaping, better capture of stormwater and new water recycling technology. While some have proposed desalination to increase the water supply, Pierce said the process is energy-intensive and creates concentrated brine that can be harmful to marine life. “Right now [desalination is] neither environmentally nor economically good enough to do, and I think we should do other things first,” he said. At some point, though it’s very controversial, the state may also rethink how water is used by agriculture, he added. Pierce said it may make more sense to grow produce in regions that get more rain than places such as the Central Valley.


New Lab Aims to Advance Access to Affordable, Safe Water  UCLA’s Human Right to Water Solutions Lab expands research on drinking water across the nation

Since 2012, Californians have had a legal right to clean water — yet safe, affordable water is not always easily accessible throughout the state.

Issues like high water bills, contaminated water sources and outdated infrastructure complicate water access, especially in frontline communities — all against a backdrop of chronic drought in some of our most water-limited regions. Researchers are working to find solutions that make water access more just, including at a new research lab at UCLA.

To address the most pressing challenges in realizing safe, clean water throughout the country, the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation has launched the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab. The lab is led by Gregory Pierce, co-director of the Luskin Center for Innovation, adjunct assistant professor in the Luskin School of Public Affairs and co-director of the UCLA Water Resources Group. In addition, the lab is advised by collaborators from across the nation.  

Pierce and his research team have helped to guide California’s efforts to provide safe drinking water for all residents, as well as develop a plan for the first statewide low-income water rate assistance program in the nation. Now, the new lab is expanding its work across the country to support policy, advocacy and civic leadership solutions to improve water access, quality and affordability — the three key pillars of the human right to water.

“As lab director, I hope to cultivate a space to collectively improve access to clean water,” Pierce said. “This lab builds on the Luskin Center for Innovation’s broader goals to collaborate with community leaders and policymakers who can use our research to advance environmental equity.”

The lab has three objectives:

  • Advance fundamental research on water access, quality and affordability solutions
  • Support and amplify the efforts of community, scholarly and policy partners working to realize the human right to water
  • Make data and training resources collected or generated through research more useful to the public

The new Los Angeles County Water Governance Mapping Tool illustrates the lab’s dedication to making data more accessible and useful for the public. Developed in collaboration with community-based organizations and the Water Foundation, this interactive visualization tool provides information about Los Angeles County’s complex network of water systems, each managed by a separate set of decision-makers and policies.

“We’re hoping to support Angelenos to understand where their water comes from and who is managing it,” said Peter Roquemore, a researcher in the lab and at the Luskin Center for Innovation. “There are more than 200 different community water systems in the county — it’s a complex system. This information can help hold water system leaders accountable to provide clean and affordable drinking water.”

The Human Right to Water Solutions Lab builds on the work of the Luskin Center for Innovation’s water program, which, under Pierce’s leadership, has grown over the past seven years from a single staff member to a team of more than 15 staff and students producing research to advance water access and equity. 

Map of Los Angeles County water districts

Visit UCLA’s new Los Angeles County Water Governance Mapping Tool to search an address and access information including:

  • Name of the water system that supplies water to the address
  • Names of board members who direct the policies of that water system
  • Demographics, tenure, and pay of individual board members
  • Methods for selecting board members, including eligibility and election cycles
  • Average cost and relative affordability of water from the system
  • Safety and quality of water from the system
  • Water operator qualifications

Pierce Explores Inequitable Access to Drinking Water

Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to Capital & Main about how to help communities facing water quality challenges. A newly updated tap water database by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group includes drinking water data between 2014 and 2019 across all 50 states, illustrating wide disparities in water quality across systems. People living in underserved communities, especially in areas with high Black and Latino populations, face a disproportionate risk, the data showed. Pierce said the database provides an impressive translation of federal and state data and also raises wider questions, such as what alternatives are readily available to vulnerable communities facing water quality challenges. He noted that clear-cut answers are not always easy to come by, since bottled water is also associated with high costs and loose regulations. “Unless a system’s failing to meet the basic regulatory standards, I don’t think there’s a good case to say that bottled water is better,” Pierce said.


Pierce on Municipal Approaches to Heat

Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, co-authored an article in Planetizen discussing different cities’ approaches to addressing extreme heat. “People of color and those with lower incomes are disproportionately exposed to heat, and the largest health risks fall on seniors, young children and those with chronic conditions,” Pierce wrote. Climate change has led to an increase in heat-related deaths and hospitalizations. In a recent paper published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, Pierce and his co-authors analyzed surveys by California’s Office of Planning and Research to determine what factors influence whether municipalities actively plan for extreme heat and what kinds of heat-related planning and policy innovations they have adopted. The authors recommended making social equity a top priority in heat adaptation planning. They called for engaging with local communities and directing investments where they are needed most to eliminate thermal inequity.

Read the article Read the full paper