Stories from the Field

Student to Steward: UC Berkeley Climate Program Director Ethan Elkind

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students sit in Yosemite Valley

Ethan Elkind’s trajectory from a NatureBridge student in the 1990s to a leader in climate research today is not typical, but it is illustrative — a significant, transformative NatureBridge experience played a role in Ethan’s life that went beyond spurring appreciation of nature. Ethan is the Director of the Climate Program at the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment (CLEE) at UC Berkeley School of Law. His focus over the years has been on climate justice, transit, and other environmental law topics.

We sat down with Ethan over a video call and talked about how NatureBridge informed his worldview, the biggest victories he sees in climate policy and why he’s thankful for one particular meteor hitting Earth millions of years ago.

I want to start with what your childhood was like in terms of the outdoors. 

I grew up in California. My family would go up to the mountains a lot; the Tahoe area. Lots of hiking and hanging out by creeks. As I got a little bit older, a junior in high school, I started backpacking up to Yosemite, which was fantastic. And then in high school was my first NatureBridge experience — that was my first time seeing Yosemite Valley.

Tell me about that first experience.

It blew my mind. The valley still blows my mind. I always think of it as like nature's greatest hits all in one place. You've got El Capitan and Half Dome and Yosemite Falls — the grandeur of it is amazing. I've been fortunate in that I've been able to go back pretty regularly since then. My NatureBridge experience also came at a really special time in my life and in the life of my peers because it was our senior year. There was one night where we backpacked into a cabin by a sequoia grove — just us and our NatureBridge leader — and we were just able to talk about our anxieties and hopes and fears and dreams about going off to college. So it really came at a pivotal moment in our lives and was almost as important for our psychological well-being as for just enjoying the outdoors and learning science. In fact, I still take my kids to some of the places that the NatureBridge guide showed us in Yosemite Valley.

What are some of those places?

There's a granite boulder that has a bunch of holes in the top where the Miwok would process their food. It was right by the restrooms, and you wouldn't know it was there unless you climbed to the top of the boulder. You can't see the holes from the ground. Nobody would think to climb up there. But our guide brought us up there and it felt like an almost unceremonious spot [by the restrooms]. At the same time it felt like this kind of hidden-in-plain-sight jewel of the valley. It's really fun for kids, too, because it’s a tough climb up, and then when you want to come down, you slide down this natural granite chute. When I went back to Yosemite with my kids years later, I went looking for the boulder again, and after searching for a bit I found it. Luckily, the National Park Service moved the bathrooms and they've made it into a beautiful heritage trail. So I have pictures of my kids on that boulder every year up until COVID hit. I was also told by our NatureBridge guide, Clint — he was a great guy from west Texas — Clint told us that it takes about a century with that kind of granite to grind a hole one inch deep. Well, some of these holes are a foot deep, so you really get the sense of the history; that’s at least multiple centuries of people living there, processing their food up there. Incredible piece of history.

You were a professional musician for a while before going to law school. So how did you go from music to law?

I always loved music, and a lot of my songs are about nature and history and things like that. I wanted to give music a go and pursued that out of college, but I just realized that wasn't 100% of what I wanted to do with my time. I had an interest in environmental policy and trying to address some of the environmental challenges I was seeing. So basically, I abandoned the professional music path, and then decided to go to law school. I still play music, I still write songs, I still play with people around town and play with my kids, but my full time professional job is now working on environmental law and policy at UC Berkeley Law School.

You direct the climate program at the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment at Berkeley. What led you to want to focus on climate specifically?

I actually hadn't really heard of climate change when I first went into law school. I think I'd heard about the greenhouse gas effect, but that’s it. I went in more for more general environmental preservation and environmental protection. That's why I went to law school, but then, in the course of law school, climate change was really emerging. I was there from 2003 to 2006, and I heard a presentation from Ken Alex, who's now a colleague of mine and was Governor Jerry Brown's eventual senior policy advisor on climate change. He came to my law school and gave a presentation about climate change and that really alerted me to it. I didn't go into climate right away, though. I went into a general environmental law clinic at my law school, and began researching rail, transit and urban development. 

Yes, you wrote Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City, focused on the history of the LA Metro. Is LA a metro town yet? What's it going to take for LA and other cities to get there?

It's not just LA; this is the story of a lot of newer cities in the U.S., like Las Vegas, Austin, Boise, Reno — the list goes on. We really built our cities and towns around cars, and it's hard to go back and retrofit them around things like rail transit. The good news is there are a lot of neighborhoods in LA that are very transit-friendly and increasingly more bike-friendly. So LA is getting there. It's not as fast as I would like to see, but there are pockets of LA that are very convenient to live in; very transit-oriented. And the rail buildout has been pretty spectacular in LA. They're dedicating more resources to rail than any other city in the U.S. 

It seems like there is always pushback and backlash, especially when it comes to moving away from cars and toward more environmentally-friendly forms of transit.

There's always a contingent of people who don't want to see any change, and that’s fine. But they don't represent the majority. There's a counter-organizing movement trying to get more housing built near transit, like the YIMBY movement, for example. It's just slow. In California, we're very decentralized — a lot of authority and veto points at the local level. We didn't get into that governing system overnight, and it's going to be hard to change it and help accelerate the projects that need to happen because of climate change, quality of life, affordability and everything else.

My NatureBridge experience also came at a really special time in my life and in the life of my peers because it was our senior year. There was one night where we backpacked into a cabin by a sequoia grove — just us and our NatureBridge leader — and we were just able to talk about our anxieties and hopes and fears and dreams about going off to college. So it really came at a pivotal moment in our lives and was almost as important for our psychological well-being as for just enjoying the outdoors and learning science. In fact, I still take my kids to some of the places that the NatureBridge guide showed us in Yosemite Valley.
Ethan Elkind

You mentioned just a few of the various areas that you're looking at as part of the climate program at Berkeley. The problem is vast and far-reaching. What are some of the most promising inflection points you’re noticing and working on in the climate program?

Fortunately, we have seen some real success stories. I would say solar energy and wind energy are pretty amazing success stories. When I first started working full-time on these issues back in about 2009, the prices were much higher. It was very expensive to go to renewables. Now, it's often the cheapest alternative, and outcompetes a lot of coal and natural gas fired power plants. It’s been amazing to see the price declines on those technologies, and we've done a great job of managing the grid with bringing these resources on. The other big success story is lithium ion batteries, which power our electric vehicles. I started working on them in 2010 and the battery prices have come down almost 90% since then. You're seeing 10% of new car sales in California as zero emission vehicles. I mean, we're not where we need to be, but we've made incredible progress. It's not a pipe dream; it even gets bipartisan support.

How has California played a role in this national trend?

I think the success is due to strong policy, first and foremost, and California is a great example of being a leader in this. We set mandates for businesses and said, “you've got to buy a certain amount of renewable energy; if you're an automaker, you've got to produce a certain number of electric vehicles or zero emission vehicles.” It wasn't just the mandate; we took the next step and provided subsidies for research, provided incentives for consumers, tax credits and cash rebates. It really took a concerted policy response by governments like those in California. States and cities have taken the lead and eventually that's trickled up to the federal government. 

Maybe it's because of the question I just asked, but you seem fairly optimistic about a lot of the progress. Is that largely true for you? 

I'm a little bit of two minds here. I am very excited about the policy wins that we've had, and the technological wins that have come as a result of those policies mean that we can reduce our emissions where we need to and it wouldn't bankrupt our society to do it. At the same time, if you look at where emissions are going, there isn't a lot of reason to be optimistic. 

As an academic, but also as a parent, how do you have these conversations with your children about climate change?

They're pretty well-educated; the schools are doing a good job at explaining the science to them, I think. The younger generation is hyper aware of this; Gen X and older are not quite as steeped in it. It wasn't an issue when we were younger. So I try to explain to my kids about climate change, but they know a fair amount. We still travel up to the Sierra Nevada, and I'll tell them it's pretty likely you guys aren't going to see snow up here again when you're older. I just want to make note of it so they can appreciate what we have now while we have it, because it's not going to be here forever. I don't want to bum them out, but I also want them to understand the challenges they’re likely to face; get them thinking about a problem that their generation is sadly going to have to carry the torch for at some point and try to solve.

NatureBridge will be constructing a climate lab in Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the near future, and there are so many early stage conversations about how to balance the optimism and the reality of what’s ahead; the hopeful and the harsh. How do you personally balance it?

Despair is kind of unproductive. We know the science on this, and we know it’s likely there’s going to be a lot of human and ecological suffering coming at us, which has already started in many places. But at the same time, humans are very adaptable. We don't want to think about the loss of things that we love — I love the snow in the Sierras. I love the oak trees and the redwoods and I don't want to see their range disappear. I don't want to see the sequoias die out. Not to get fatalistic about it or even...put a weird positive spin on it, but it's also kind of an amazing time to be on Earth. These kinds of radical changes don't come along very often — the archaeological and geologic record indicate we’ve only had five mass extinctions and a few big, calamitous changes over billions of years, and here we are, all getting to live through one of them. That’s interesting. So, if you're looking hard for a strange silver lining on this despite the tragedy...I mean, I don't know if that's the thing to tell the kids, but…[laughs].

Right, you don't realize the significance of the time you're living in as you’re living in it, but people years from now will read about this time period in a history book and see we lived through a global pandemic, a sixth mass extinction, climate disaster, etc.

Yes. Mammals wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for the dinosaurs really taking it on the chin when the meteor hit millions of years ago. That gave an opportunity for mammals to thrive and take over. Maybe it's kind of the end of the mammal age, but some other species out there could really crush it in the era of climate change.

I guess best of luck to them, right?

My problem is I like mammals. But even dinosaurs just evolved into birds or whatever else, so we'll probably still be around in some form.

That's good to hear, as I think we all have a vested interest in mammals to do alright. It strikes me that a lot of the work that you do is related to urban planning, cities, new urbanism, etc. How often do you think of the impacts of your work on non-urban settings like the wilderness and parks you mentioned earlier, like the Sierras?

We do do a lot of nature-based work, too, because nature is now looked at as part of the solution set for climate change, particularly for carbon sequestration. We actually talk a lot about forest health. For most people who live in the cities, the challenge is trying to make that connection and promoting a climate-healthy way to live; a lifestyle where you'd tread lightly. The problem is, most people are not going to adopt this kind of lifestyle because it’s just this abstract concept of saving future generations from calamitous environmental impact. I think we have to sell it on the benefits people get from living in an area where they can walk more, see their neighbors more, have better quality of life, less time spent commuting or less money spent on car payments and gasoline. So a big part of it is bringing nature to people in urban areas, because it's not a very healthy urban life if you don't have that connection. I saw that firsthand when I lived in San Francisco. We lived in a part of the city where there wasn't a lot of green space. It was about a mile walk to get to a park. And bringing green space back to people is also a climate strategy, too, because trees can absorb carbon, of course, but they also can be protection against extreme heat events and provide shade for people. That's all part of the mix.

You mentioned the importance of bringing nature to kids and bringing green spaces to urban areas. NatureBridge is taking care of the flipside of that by bringing kids into nature and into green spaces. With the organization celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, can you talk about what it’s meant to you?

It’s such an amazing program. It was really formative for me to be able to get that outdoor, hands-on education and basically get a guide to this stunning Yosemite Valley. I'm just so glad that the program exists because it makes nature real to people; it makes the world around them much more real. A lot of kids would never otherwise get that opportunity, if they’re coming from a lower income background or from parents who just aren't that interested in nature. Nothing can replace the value of exposure — no book, no documentary — being out there in nature can really change people's lives. Sometimes, you may expose a child to something that may become their career; in my case, it's become my life and career. But for other kids, maybe they’ve just become an informed member of society. Even if they don't end up backpacking and camping or working on climate change, at least they can now appreciate nature and maybe be supportive of efforts to protect it. So yes, I think NatureBridge is absolutely irreplaceable because now more than ever, it's urgent that we really communicate to kids in particular the beauty of nature, and how much we need to respect and sustain it.

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