A Streetsblog Cal article highlighted reports published by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation that evaluate the effectiveness of the state’s Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program in five different communities. The TCC program helps fund the development and implementation of community-defined, neighborhood-level plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “The most transformative element of TCC may also be its most foundational: the community engagement and collaborative processes that anchor each neighborhood’s efforts,” according to the reports. So far, the TCC program has been implemented in Fresno, Ontario, Stockton, and the Watts and Northeast San Fernando Valley neighborhoods of Los Angeles, and 18 more communities have received planning grants. “The TCC award not only brings a significant influx of financial resources to the community, but also reinforces the cross-sector partnerships that were built before and during the TCC application process,” the Center for Innovation found. “Empowering members of historically underserved communities can catalyze change for the long-term.”
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.
As summer kicks off and California braces for more record-breaking temperatures, a new tool co-developed by UCLA researchers will help government officials, school administrators and communities visualize the neighborhoods most in danger from extreme heat. Low-income residents and communities of color are impacted most by hot weather, which is the deadliest effect of climate change in California. “Heat is an equity issue. Neighborhood by neighborhood, we’re going to be experiencing heat differently,” said Colleen Callahan, co-executive director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. “That’s why it’s important to identify where protections are most needed, and where they’ll have the biggest impact.” The online mapping tool developed by UCLA and the Public Health Alliance of Southern California allows users to find information about temperature extremes, explore vulnerable populations, understand community health situations and seek out state resources such as air conditioners for low-income households. Researchers created the tool with a variety of audiences in mind. For instance, data at the school district level can help educators understand how their risk compares to nearby districts. They can also identify funding programs to weatherize classrooms and playgrounds. Other users, like state agencies, nonprofit organizations, and local and tribal governments, can use the tool to identify where to target investments. At the household level, residents can find programs to make their homes more energy efficient, help pay for energy costs or install rooftop solar panels to provide cheaper electricity. The California Strategic Growth Council’s Climate Change Research Program provided funding.
One of the cornerstones of many research center efforts at UCLA Luskin is community-driven research. Take, for example, the Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) project, with evaluation spearheaded by the Luskin Center for Innovation. Work at UCLA related to TCC has been going on for many years and in many forms, ranging from policy decision guidance for state officials to on-the-ground documentation of grassroots climate action. The team from the Luskin Center for Innovation is tracking hundreds of millions of dollars invested in local climate action. For example, they’re measuring the impacts of energy efficiency upgrades, like smart thermostats and LED lighting, to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and reduce energy bills. Taking you inside this effort are researchers affiliated with the Luskin Center for Innovation, who are all UCLA Luskin alumni.
Colleen Callahan MA UP ’10, co-executive director; Silvia R. González BA ’09, MURP ’13, UP Ph.D. ’21, director of research, UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative and an LCI-affiliated scholar; Jason Karpman MURP ’16, project director; and graduate researcher Elena Hernandez, MURP and MPH ’22
Tell us about what TCC is and how UCLA got involved.
González: TCC is all about recognizing the strengths of community institutions and individuals who are pushing forward environmental justice policies.
It’s focused on the ground-breaking climate action that’s happening in communities across California, with a focus on disadvantaged communities that have historically experienced disinvestments. Many of these residents are on the front lines of climate change.
The program encourages their visions for climate resilience by supporting them with power and financial resources. It’s really a leading example of local climate action.
Callahan: We first got involved because the state wanted to understand if the program was on the right track. We were called in as evaluators. And evaluation is really important to tell you a number of things: Like are we setting ourselves up for success? Do we have the right ingredients in place, the right kind of logic model or theory of change established? And are we putting in the right investments to achieve this vision?
The Luskin Center has a long track record of doing policy-applied research and working very closely with state administrators to improve their programs. So, this reputation of creating actionable research, plus the longstanding relationships we’ve had with local community organizations, have been essential.
Can you describe those relationships?
González: In the case of Pacoima — one of the communities that we’re working with — UCLA Luskin has a long-term relationship with Pacoima Beautiful [a grassroots environmental justice organization], and there’s an established trust. We’ve taken time to build a relationship with communities around us. For instance, Veronica Padilla [executive director of Pacoima Beautiful] graduated from the master’s in urban planning program. Before joining the evaluation team, I had been working with Pacoima Beautiful for years even prior to TCC.
But long-standing relationships aren’t always the case for researchers. There’s always a lot of mistrust in communities of color with outsiders coming in.
It was really easy to work with community members since we had a long-standing history together. The trust we built over time enabled us to speak directly with residents and staff of community organizations. That access helped us gather new insights in our research that we wouldn’t have otherwise gotten.
Karpman: To add to that, one of the reasons Pacoima chose us as an evaluator is the collaborative work that UCLA has already been doing in the community, particularly through Silvia, while at the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, and the work that she and Professor Vinit Mukhija did as part of a Luskin MURP comprehensive project class.
They developed a displacement avoidance plan in collaboration with residents. It was really a generative endeavor that turned into new research projects and partnerships. It’s been cool to see how that project has endured even after the students have graduated.
Describe examples of what community-led research looks like in the TCC project.
González: The TCC’s evaluation approach of community-based research isn’t just surface-level. It’s about our research methods, the principles that are guiding the on-the-ground work, and the way the project is amplifying the voices of community members.
Hernandez: For instance, we attend as many in-person events as we can, and we try to attend all of the collation meetings with other local organizations. We’ll go to neighborhood fairs and speak directly to residents. We walk a fine line between being a partner and an evaluator. We’re there to collect data, but also to support the site.
We also want to make sure that our research deliverables are actually useful, so it’s not an extractive one-way street where researchers get data and then leave. It’s actually beneficial.
Our annual progress reports show impacts of the community’s work, with detailed numbers and profiles of residents. They showcase the community’s accomplishments with TCC.
They’ve been really meaningful to the community members. I always enjoy talking to residents and hearing what’s important to them. It’s fun to see how they light up when they talk about their projects. They’re really proud.
What type of impacts has the research had?
Karpman: It’s really informing active discussions about how to address climate change in an equitable way. Our work as an evaluator is going to help inform the degree to which this model gets replicated across the country.
Callahan: TCC is now part of the national dialogue around making federal climate investments more equitable, and federal agencies are looking at TCC as a model. Our research is documenting the benefits of resourcing and empowering historically underserved communities to realize their visions for community health, well-being and prosperity while combating the climate crisis.
González: Another impact is that it opens up an opportunity to bring in a more diverse set of researchers to UCLA who are interested in equity-focused work, and researchers that come from the front-line communities.
That’s one of the benefits that I see for the Luskin Center, that now you’re going to have people like me and like Elena, who come with a diverse set of experiences or identities. That will have an impact over the long run.
Karpman: That’s a good point. Since we’ve started working on TCC, the racial and socioeconomic diversity
of our graduate student research pool is really different.
Hernandez: In this project, I feel seen. This is research that I can be part of and give back to my community.
At the same time, this is a way to highlight the stories of community members. Because at the end of the day, they’re the ones doing the important work.
Kian Goh, assistant professor of urban planning, was mentioned in a KCET article about the misleading language surrounding extreme weather events. In recent years, harmful events including heat waves, wildfires and floods have been called “climate disasters,” and many politicians have pointed to them as proof of the dire need for urgent action to address climate change. However, some experts have argued that the focus on climate in the phrase “climate disasters” fails to acknowledge the role of policies that make certain communities more vulnerable to disasters in the first place. Goh explained that many disasters are “completely intertwined” with how cities are planned and governed, down to where neighborhoods were built in the first place. The international “No Natural Disasters” campaign rejects the idea that natural hazards are the sole cause of disasters and seeks to reframe the conversation around social and political factors.
This month, Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix all posted record high temperatures. And across the nation, Americans are ramping up for a scorching summer. Yet despite more frequent and intense heat waves on the horizon, cities are underprepared to deal with the challenge, according to a UCLA-led research team.
Their new study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, analyzed municipal planning documents from 50 large cities across the country. The researchers found that 78% of these cities’ climate plans mentioned heat as a problem, but few offered a comprehensive strategy to address it. Even fewer addressed the disproportionate impact heat has on low-income residents and communities of color.
“Just a couple of years ago, very few cities were talking about preparing for rising temperatures, so it’s an important step that heat is becoming a larger part of the conversation,” said V. Kelly Turner, lead author of the study and co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. “But without concrete steps to protect residents, cities are lagging behind the problem.”
Heat, exacerbated by climate change, has become one of the deadliest weather hazards in the nation, the researchers said, accounting for more deaths in a typical year than hurricanes, floods or tornadoes. In California, according to a recent Los Angeles Times investigation, heat killed some 3,900 people between 2010 and 2019. And UCLA research has shown that heat leads to more preterm births, makes it more difficult for students to learn and increases the risk of injuries to workers on the job (PDF).
Despite these damaging and wide-ranging effects, governance for heat has historically fallen behind other climate change-related hazards.
To assess heat planning, the researchers — from UCLA, Arizona State University and the University of Southern California — examined 175 municipal plans from the 50 most populous cities in the United States, drawing from an open-source database they created. They conducted a content analysis to understand the types of solutions and interventions cities proposed in response to heat and why.
The team found that, overall, solutions to rising temperatures didn’t match the severity or complexity of the problem. How municipal plans framed the issue of urban heat, they said, strongly influenced how cities addressed it, and in most cases limited the scope of their approach.
For instance, many plans looked at heat through a “hazard” lens, focusing on extreme events like triple-digit heat waves. When identifying the issue as a crisis akin to a hurricane or flood, the solutions often fit into a disaster response-style approach — like text alert systems and air-conditioned public cooling centers.
Other plans defined the issue in terms of the “urban heat island effect,” a phenomenon whereby cities — because of their heat-absorbing infrastructure, like asphalt — become and remain hotter than surrounding rural areas. In framing the issue as a land-use problem, these plans often focused on physical ways to cool cities. Adding more trees was the most common intervention, while sun-reflecting cool roofs and vegetation were also mentioned.
However, the study found that these two approaches to heat governance rarely overlapped. And while each approach has its benefits, such narrow framings don’t get at the full issue, the researchers emphasized.
“If cities are not painting a complete picture of heat — how chronic it is, and its disparate impacts on the ground — we’re not going to be able to fully protect residents, and we could end up exacerbating existing social and environmental injustices,” said co-author Emma French, a doctoral student in urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Even some seemingly obvious solutions, such as providing outdoor shade for residents, received short shrift in planning documents, noted co-author Ariane Middel, an assistant professor at Arizona State University. “Shade is the most effective way to protect pedestrians from exposure to sunlight, but few cities mentioned shade in their plans.”
Further, heat was only identified as an equity issue one-third of the time, despite a growing body of evidence that urban communities of color are disproportionately affected by rising temperatures as a result of longstanding social, structural and health-related inequities. Cities that don’t address this disparity can expect to see increasingly adverse implications down the road, the researchers stressed.
Among cities with more robust preparations for heat, membership in environmental networks like the National League of Cities and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network was more common. These groups bring together sustainability practitioners from across the country, and their broader governance structures can offer opportunities to share best practices.
“Peer-to-peer knowledge exchange through networks that connect large and small communities is going to be essential to implementing the most effective solutions as quickly as possible,” said co-author David Hondula, an associate professor at Arizona State University and director of the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation for Phoenix.
Read more about the Luskin Center for Innovation’s heat-related research and policy recommendations in their Adapting to Heat in California (PDF) report and Protecting Californians From Deadly Heat (PDF) policy brief.
Watts is a leader in local solutions to the climate crisis, according to new progress reports for a state-funded project. This year, 300 Watts residents received energy efficiency upgrades like smart thermostats and LED lighting to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and reduce energy bills. Volunteers delivered 261,000 pounds of fresh food to almost 10,000 residents by rescuing produce that would have otherwise ended up in landfills. And the community also started planting 2,250 trees, which will cool down streets and sequester carbon. These projects in Watts are part of the Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program administered by California’s Strategic Growth Council, which is providing millions of dollars in grants for climate action and community benefits in partnership with local government, residents and organizations. The UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation analysis documents the progress of TCC-supported action in five communities across California: Fresno, Ontario, Stockton, and the northeast San Fernando Valley and Watts neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The annual reports are part of an ongoing evaluation that UCLA is conducting in collaboration with TCC grantees. “Learning from these pilots is important,” said Jason Karpman, project director at UCLA. “As one of the most comprehensive community-scale climate programs in the world, lessons from TCC can support equitable climate action elsewhere.” Policymakers are considering how to bring elements of TCC to more underserved communities, and a previous report from the Luskin Center for Innovation identified the TCC program as a nationwide model for such efforts.
Assistant Professor of Public Policy R. Jisung Park was featured in a Marketplace report about the impact of air conditioning on student performance. Park has conducted several studies investigating how heat affects student performance in the classroom, and his research shows that students learn less overall when they experience more hot days. “It’s a slow, hidden burn,” Park explained. “These little disruptions to learning, maybe we don’t notice them on a day-to-day basis, but over time they appear to add up to something meaningful.” Many of America’s school buildings do not have air conditioning, and some have no cooling at all. “The Goldilocks zone seems to be somewhere in the mid-60s” to achieve optimal learning outcomes, Park said. Now, many public schools are choosing to use some of their federal COVID relief funds to upgrade air conditioning, which improves air quality and should also improve student academic and health outcomes.
By Les Dunseith
Robert Bullard has been called professor, dean, author, policy influencer, important thinker, movement starter and the father of environmental justice. But that’s not how he chose to describe himself during a May 12 talk at UCLA.
“I do what’s scientifically called kick-ass sociology,” Bullard said playfully in his opening remarks to a roomful of students, faculty, staff and other interested parties, plus an online audience. “And what I’ve tried to do is to make it simple, make it plain, make it real and connect the dots.”
The renowned scholar from Texas Southern University has written 17 books. “But it’s really just one book — don’t tell anybody,” Bullard said slyly. “The central glue that connects all of those volumes? Fairness, justice and equity.”
He often blended humor into his discussion of serious topics such as America’s history of racial discrimination and the growing global climate crisis. Titled “The Quest for Environmental and Climate Justice,” Bullard spoke and took audience questions for more than an hour in the Bruin Viewpoint Room of Ackerman Union as part of the UCLA Luskin Lecture series. It was presented in conjunction with the Harvey S. Perloff Environmental Thinkers Series and UCLA Urban Planning’s 50th anniversary celebration.
In his introductory remarks, Dean Gary Segura of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs said, “At the Luskin School, we try to have conversations about things that actually matter — climate degradation, environmental degradation and its impact on working class and poor people of color — and for which there is a desperate need for solutions.”
Bullard is known for his courage and “his insights into how questions of race figure into environmental justice,” said the evening’s emcee, Susanna Hecht, a geographer and professor of urban planning who also serves as director of the Brazilian Studies Center at UCLA.
“He is a person who has a broad perspective and broad horizons,” Hecht said. “His work has expanded to embrace a range of topics that evolved at the center of environmental, civil rights, human rights and the question of race and vulnerability under climate change, as well as patterns of pollution in both urban and industrial landscapes.”
So, what is environmental justice?
Bullard sees it as an essential notion that all people and communities are entitled to equal protection to ensure they have adequate housing, quality health care, and access to the energy and transportation they need in their daily lives. Civil rights and human rights.
The reality rarely matches the ideal, however. He cited as an example a study that showed government relief after a natural disaster going primarily to wealthier, predominantly white communities rather than to poorer, predominantly Black areas.
“We know that all communities are not created equal,” Bullard said. “There are some that are more equal than others.”
Without action, disparities are likely to grow as industrial pollution further degrades our planet, he said.
“Climate change will make it worse on the populations that are already suffering,” Bullard said. “Those who have contributed the least to the problem will suffer the most. That’s the inequity that we’re talking about. You can’t have your basic human rights if even the right to breathe has been taken away from you.”
Despite decades of experience documenting human nature at its worst, Bullard has not given in to despair.
“I’m hopeful and optimistic that we can get this right. I’ve been working on this for 40 years, but we don’t have another 40 years. We only have, maybe, a dozen to get this right,” Bullard said.
He cited California as a leader in environmental equity and climate change responses and noted the state’s history of finding out-of-the-box solutions in technology and government, as well as its highly regarded universities.
“Let California be California. That’s my answer. Push the envelope as far as you can,” Bullard said.
“And so, I’m looking to young people. I’m looking at your faces,” he told his audience of mostly young scholars. “You are the majority now. I’m a boomer and proud of it. But millennials, zoomers, Gen X, Y and Z — you outnumber my generation. Take the power.”
View photos from the event on Flickr.
By Mary Braswell
In the fight for real climate justice, the smartest strategy is also the simplest: Listen to the people on the front lines.
That was the core message of attorney, environmental advocate and community organizer Elizabeth Yeampierre during a May 3 online dialogue with a UCLA audience.
“The path to climate justice is local,” said Yeampierre, executive director of the New York nonprofit UPROSE and co-chair of the national Climate Justice Alliance. “We don’t need people to helicopter in and determine what’s in our best interest. We know. And we’re really sophisticated at getting this done.”
Communities around the country that stand to bear the brunt of climate change are forging vast coalitions and getting results, she said.
“We’re organizing, base-building, getting policy implemented and putting down infrastructure. … Big stuff that people think is not even possible is happening,” she said.
Yeampierre spoke about the trajectory of UPROSE, which came together in 1966 as a grassroots effort led by the Puerto Rican community of Brooklyn’s industrial Sunset Park. Now, she says, the nonprofit mobilizes residents of all races and every generation who are working to secure their own futures by restoring balance to the planet.
“It means returning the sacred to the mother,” she said, describing a distinctly spiritual and matriarchal dimension of climate adaptation. “Land, air, water, animals, plants, ideas and ways of doing things and living are purposefully returned to their original purpose.”
The movement is powered by young people of color motivated not by a “woke moment,” she said, but because “it was a matter of survival for them to organize.
“Climate change is like nothing we’ve ever experienced. We need to approach this with deep humility, and hold on to each other, share information and build from the bottom up.”
That has not been the approach of government officials, corporations and even the Big Green environmental organizations that use a top-down approach to drive the climate agenda, Yeampierre said.
“It’s easy for people to put a green patina on something … to satisfy their liberal guilt,” she said. “But you don’t get to speak for our communities. How dare you? …
“When you compromise justice, you’re literally compromising our lives. You’re basically saying how many of us can live, how many of us can get sick, and how many of us will die. And I don’t think that the privileged have a right to do that.”
Yeampierre’s UCLA talk was part of the University of California Regents’ Lecturer program and the Harvey S. Perloff Environmental Thinkers Series. The lecture was part of a weekslong commemoration of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning’s 50th anniversary, including appearances by several thought leaders on sustainability. Upcoming speakers include Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University, often described as the father of environmental justice, and Dolores Hayden of Yale University, a scholar of the American urban landscape.
Urban Planning faculty member Kian Goh, who researches social movements and climate change in cities around the world, moderated the conversation with Yeampierre. Goh is associate faculty director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, which co-sponsored Yeampierre’s lecture.
During the talk, Yeampierre stressed that the United States is at a crossroads as civil rights enshrined for half a century are under attack.
“Whether it’s our voting rights, our reproductive rights, or even our ability to save ourselves from the impact of extreme weather events … we’re here this evening because we know we’re in a moment of deep reckoning, and that the lives of our people are at stake.”
Watch the lecture on Vimeo.