Environmental science students, faculty continue work despite mental toll


Daniel Blumstein feels like he has been shouting into a void his entire career as an environmental scientist.

The professor of ecology and evolutionary biology coauthored a paper in January that examined the status of pressing environmental issues. Blumstein and his colleagues found, among other things, that the goals countries created to address climate change – from the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development goals to the Paris Agreement – are destined to fail. In fact, the paper stated the current environmental crisis could be lethal.

Summarizing all the data they collected opened Blumstein’s eyes towards dire environmental challenges, like dwindling biodiversity and overconsumption.

“It’s very depressing to continually realize what we’re doing to the Earth and realize that our responses are not of the magnitude and nature to really address them,” Blumstein said.

Some UCLA students and professors involved in environmental studies have found themselves bombarded by grim projections about the future of the planet. Nonetheless, the importance of their field has taught them to be resilient.

When Arely López decided to study environmental studies at UCLA, she said her mother worried it would be too depressing of a field to pursue.

López, a third-year geography/environmental studies and political science student, feels trapped by the doom and gloom of her courses – which encompass climate change itself and the urgency to combat it. It is extremely stressful to constantly learn about rising sea levels and that the Earth will soon be uninhabitable, she added.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that severe heat, heavy precipitation and declining snow will escalate the severity of natural disasters in North America. In 2020, California wildfires burned more than 4.2 million acres, making it the worst fire season in the state’s modern history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The politicization of environmentalism is another stressor for López.

“It’s almost controversial to say you’re an environmental science major or to say you’re studying environmental studies,” López said. “I think that sets us back in terms of progress we can make, because instead of trying to figure out solutions, we’re instead arguing about whether this is a problem or not.”

The United States is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, but only 57% of Americans say they believe global warming is mostly caused by human activities, according to a Yale study on climate opinions.

But López has found some positive sides to her major, such as community outreach and social justice.

López remembers her family evacuating because of wildfires in her Riverside County hometown, which sparked her passion to reduce carbon emissions and promote sustainability in her community. For instance, López is currently involved in the Better Watts Initiative, where she helps research remedies for lead contamination in the area.

Yifang Zhu, an environmental health sciences professor, approaches environmental issues with optimism. Zhu, who studies the effects of air pollution on public health, said she believes Biden’s presidency can bode well for creating federal actions that prioritize climate change.

Donald Trump’s administration decreased spending limits for environmental research, negatively impacting Zhu and her colleagues’ work, she said. Trump also pulled out of the Paris Agreement and cut back on environmental regulations regarding air pollution and climate change, which Zhu said upset her.

[Related link: Some faculty hope UC, US will take more aggressive action to combat climate change]

When faced with challenges as grandiose as air pollution, Zhu said she copes by articulating the issues in her mind and trying to figure out what she could do to deal with them.

Rena Repetti, a clinical and health…

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