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America's Young Minds: A Neglected Renewable Resource

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Seven years ago, I had the privilege of working with former Vice President Al Gore to produce the film An Inconvenient Truth. At the time, awareness of global climate change was growing, but urgency around solutions was lacking. The film helped create a moment where that all changed. It wasn't just the Oscar, Grammy and Nobel Prize honoring the film. It was about the millions of people who experienced it and made personal commitments to do their part for the planet.

I believed at the time that among those millions had to be policymakers who could not help but make a similarly sincere pledge to do their part to save civilization from calamity. I was wrong.

In the U.S. Congress, they continue to debate issues that scientists settled decades ago. In Copenhagen, the world's diplomats haggled and blustered while precious time slipped away.

To be sure, governments will remain critical to any comprehensive effort to save our planet. But waiting for governments is no longer an option. It is time for other institutions to step up. And one place that is happening is our universities, which can serve as powerful agents of change.

America has some of the top research institutions in the world. They understand the issue to its core - from climate change to biodiversity loss, to air, water and soil pollution. Increasingly, professors from different disciplines like law, policy and chemistry are working together on finding a more sustainable way of living without sacrificing quality of life. The green chemistry movement is a great example of that. This integrated, multi-disciplinary approach is where real, practical solutions can come from.

Over the last four years, I've been a member of the Board of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES). I have been blown away by the breadth and depth of the research occurring at the university a mile from my home. Professors are doing incredible research on the impacts of climate change locally and in rainforests in Ecuador and Cameroon; studying how urban lifestyle can impact health outcomes; exploring cost effective ways to turn wastewater into safe drinking water.

And, of course, they are training the next generation of environmental leaders. The IoES created the Environmental Science major just five years ago and now there are nearly 300 majors on campus. Nearly all past graduates are at work in government agencies, consulting firms, corporations and environmental groups where they are helping drive reform.

To build on this success, UCLA IoES faculty and Board have been working towards the goal of building the IoES into a full-fledged school -- the first of its kind in Southern California. In the same way the universities were home to the research that helped cure diseases, launch the internet, develop cutting edge industrial designs and come up with the policy ideas that shape our world - now we need them to help lead the way to an environmentally sustainable future.

Al Gore concluded "An Inconvenient Truth" by noting that political will is a renewable resource. I still believe that is true. But we all now know that the realm of politics by itself is not yet up to the task of addressing our world's climate crisis. So we must look for other such renewable resources. The minds that fill our universities are a good start. We will need to tap that potential if we are to overcome the challenges we all face.

Thursday night, over 300 people came to the stunning new home of Tony and Jeanne Pritzker to raise money for UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES). Guests included Owen Wilson, Quincy Jones, Lawrence Bender, Jared Leto and pop sensation, Lana Del Rey and Vicci Martinez, a finalist from The Voice, performed. The event was hosted by Extra's Jerry Penacoli. Also attending were former Governor Gray Davis and Senate pro-tem Darrell Steinberg.

Honorees at the even were Dan Emmett, a long time environmental leader and philanthropist, and Southern California Edison, a leader in energy conservation and renewable energy use. The event raised approximately $500K for UCLA IoES.