Marilyn Raphael
Marilyn Raphael. | Image by Ashley Kruythoff/IoES


Talking solutions with Marilyn Raphael, director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability

art & culture, climate change, environmental justice, nature & conservation

Environmental news often focuses on the scariest problems, from climate disasters to extinctions.

While it’s important to understand these concerns, there are reasons for hope at UCLA, where faculty, researchers and students are finding solutions — technology to reduce environmental harms, ways of adapting to new climate realities, and strategies for battling environmental racism and injustice.
Marilyn Raphael, world-renowned environmental leader, climate scientist and director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, shared some environmental good news as we celebrate the planet we all depend on this Earth Day.  

Over the past few decades, we’ve witnessed a growing number of localized problems from worsening storms to urban heat islands, due to climate change. How are UCLA researchers and students addressing these problems? 

The ways we’re working to mitigate climate change are too many to list. But I’ll start in our own backyard — Los Angeles and California. We’re doing an enormous amount of research to understand and respond to wildfires, droughts and extreme flooding. Our faculty partner with state and local agencies so disaster prevention and response can be informed by good data and robust projections. It is difficult to conceive of flooding during a megadrought, but research shows that climate change is increasing the likelihood of flooding, and California must be ready for it. Cities like Sacramento, Stockton and huge parts of Los Angeles could be flooded during these extreme events. We need a plan for how we’ll react when that happens.  

Looking globally, we’re working in places such as the Congo Basin, where we help local populations learn sustainable agriculture practices that can sustain their communities while protecting the environments they depend on. Small island nations are another focus. These places are the worst hit by hurricanes, depleted fisheries and sea level rise.  

As a climate leader, how do we deal with the seemingly insurmountable problem of global climate change? What are the most promising ways that we can address this crisis in a meaningful way? And to what extent can we stop or slow it? 

From the start, I think it’s important to understand we now have unavoidable change. We do have a chance to slow it and make it less severe, but only if we act now. Globally, we have done nothing sufficient enough to reduce emissions to a level that will change our trajectory.  

One of the most important things we’re trying to do is to mobilize people with information and the means with which to engage with these issues in creative ways, from film to art installations. Few people get as excited about data as we researchers do. So we’re working on understanding and improving how people interact with their realities. 

Sustainable cities have got to be another part of our response. More and more people (55% of the world’s population live in urban areas – headed for 68% by 2050) are living in cities, which makes them one of our best chances at getting more sustainable. How people get water, power, food — cities can become more efficient at all of it, and we have researchers laying a strong foundation for them to do so. 

Can you share a couple of examples of new things being done to protect ecosystems and species? 

UCLA researchers are using genetics in new ways that make conservation more efficient and effective. The California Conservation Genomics Project is sequencing the genomes of thousands of organisms across the state to create the most comprehensive multispecies genomic dataset. That can then be used to identify local and regional conservation concerns and protect biodiversity.  

Genomic research is also being used to understand things like how climate change is affecting migratory birds, how animals disperse seeds in tropical regions and in numerous other ways. And that’s just genomics. We’re also combining field research with remote sensing data from NASA to look at the health of our forests, and we are engaging the indigenous groups who manage 25% of the world’s natural lands and have intimate knowledge of their environments stretching back millennia.  

Mental health professionals are seeing more and more people having trouble dealing with the realities and their perceptions about environmental threats. What would you tell someone who is having such feelings? 

Please, don’t just sit with your fears. Get out there and spend some time in nature — see what’s worth protecting. Spending time among oceans, mountains, forests or parklands is a salve for mental well-being, and there’s a growing body of psychological research to support this.  

Another way to deal with climate stress and anxiety is to think of one thing that you as an individual can do to help. This does not have to be a big thing; it can be a small thing. Then do that and engage your friends. Don’t focus continuously on the whole problem — it is impossible for a single person to do anything reasonable to solve it. We are part of a vast, interconnected system. Because of that connection, what we do as individuals has an effect. Just do what you can and have faith that someone else is doing what they can too.