Long before “An Inconvenient Truth,” Dr. Alex Hall was passionate about the subject of climate change, and since 2008 has been sharing that passion with undergraduate and graduate students at UCLA, where he is an associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Our little gem of a department was started during World War II to do weather forecasting and has evolved over time to focus on the study of the atmosphere and the ocean and the natural physical environment,” says Hall, noting that its 15 faculty members teach 40-50 graduate students working on their Ph.D.s, about a dozen undergraduate majors, and general education students seeking to fulfill their science requirement in courses like the popular one on climate change that Hall taught to 180 students last semester in addition to his graduate seminars.
“Typically, our graduate students will do a year and a half of coursework and proceed to write a Ph.D. thesis, which might take three or four years. They’ll go on to research positions at labs around the world, faculty positions, or nonprofits as scientists in residence. Some will end up in the commercial sector. There’s a whole industry associated with weather prediction,” says Hall, offering insurance companies as an example. “The thing that makes me proudest is that as a result of my work and contribution, there are other people who are interested in this field, and will continue to do this work.”
In addition to his teaching duties, Hall (right) is an advisor to the Los Angeles Regional Climate Change Collaborative, “a network of municipalities, academic institutions and businesses in the Los Angeles region with a goal of fostering knowledge of how these entities can adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” describes Hall, who is working on a project involving high-resolution computer projections of climate models analyzing temperature change projections that we might expect by the year 2050. The soon-to-be-announced findings will be the first in a series of studies, such as another analyzing greenhouse gas emissions. “LARC is translating a lot of this science into actionable information and policy, developing the collaborative networks that are required to take the raw information and make it useful. We’re taking that information and laying a foundation for people to make informed decisions,” Hall explains.
“In Los Angeles, we have an amazing variety of climates even within this small region,” he continues. “We’re looking at all the aspects of environmental change such as land use change, exploitation of marine resources, air and water quality, all kinds of environmental issues that combine to place a significant stress on the natural environment that have to be understood in tandem with one another. The emerging challenge is to take a more holistic, more local approach to understanding the natural environment. Up until now the science of climate change has focused on very large-scale factors, and I think the challenge for the field is to scale it down to a size that are relevant for people and ecosystems.”
Hall recently returned from Morocco, where he attended a meeting of the International Panel on Climate Change. “Its goal is to bring together scientists from all over the world to develop a consensus on the science behind climate change and to write a report about that. The reports appear roughly every five to seven years. Two come out in 2013 and 2014 and we’re very busy preparing that,” he notes.
An Illinois native who inherited his scientist father’s love of the subject, Hall majored in physics at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and combined his fascination with climate change and physics background in earning his Ph.D. in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences from Princeton. He gives credit to an inspiring professor at Pomona and his thesis advisor at Princeton whose “enthusiasm and interest in the subject rubbed off on me even more.”
These days, Hall practices what he teaches by making a concerted effort to reduce his carbon footprint. “The main source of carbon emissions in Los Angeles is automobile transportation and we can reduce our carbon emissions pretty effectively by supporting this emerging public transit network,” says the professor, who chose his house based on its proximity to buses he can take to work. “There are apps you can get for your smartphone that tell you when the buses are coming so you don’t have to wait for them,” he notes, extolling an added communal benefit of bus riding: “You get to feel like you’re part of the community.”
He’s encouraged by the expanding subway system, and although the limitations of the subway and bus lines prevent him from completely giving up his car — which he bought in 2002 and has 50,00 miles on it — Hall is committed to doing as much as possible. “If you take public transit at least one day a week that would have a 10-20 percent reduction in overall carbon emissions,” he points out. “Making choices like that, we can all make a difference.”
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This is the final installment in a five-part series about UCLA’s Institute of Environment and Sustainability.