Alex Hall is a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and faculty director of the UCLA Center for Climate Science. He was a contributing author to the 2007 IPCC Fourth Scientific Assessment of Climate Change Working Group I report and was selected to be coordinating lead author of the Los Angeles regional chapter of California’s forthcoming Fourth Assessment of Climate Change. Prior to participating in a Zócalo/UCLA Downtown panel titled “What Will California’s Coastline Look Like in 2100?” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in L.A.’s Little Tokyo, Hall spoke in the green room about California gardens, swimming in circles, and his epic bike ride along the California coast.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past year?
It’s called California Native Plants for the Garden. It’s kind of the bible for native plant gardening in California. I have read it probably about two or three times just as a reference because I really love gardening, and I love working with native plants. I keep going back to it. It’s one of those books that every time you read it, it’s different. It’s a reference book, but I read it for pleasure.
What’s your favorite plant?
There really is a wonderful plant for California gardens called lemonade berry. It’s a great plant because it always looks good, and it can be shaped into any form you want. It can be a hedge, or shrub, or tree. If you want it to grow, you can give it some water. If you don’t want it to grow, you just don't. So it’s a really useful plant especially for novice gardeners, or people who are starting with native plants, because it’s such a versatile shrub. It grows these berries that, if you put them in your mouth and just kind of lick them, taste like lemonade.
What surprises you most about your life right now?
Well, I just finished a bike ride down the coast of California. It was called the California Climate Expedition, an educational kind of ride that the Center for Climate Science at UCLA, which I’m part of, organized. It was an incredible experience. The most amazing thing about it was the other riders: connecting to them, and getting to know them. I think I had come to see people as the problem when it comes to sustainability, but interacting with these riders and getting to know them made me really see that people are the solution and human connection—the strengthening of human connection—is the way to address sustainability. I have this newfound love for people that I didn’t have before. I felt like I had an affinity for people before, but I went through a little period of disillusionment for a while with what’s been happening globally, politically.
What do you wake up to?
An alarm. I’m a night owl. I have to force myself to go to bed, otherwise, I stay up, and I’ll keep on staying up, and staying up, and staying up.
If you didn’t live in Los Angeles, where would you be?
I think I might live a rural lifestyle. I grew up in a very small town. I like gardening and being in contact with nature, and I could see myself living in a small community, maybe, with patch of land, and a farm, and restore some habitat.
How often do you swim in the Pacific Ocean?
Probably once or twice a year. There’s a New Year’s swim that a bunch of friends and I do sometimes. But I’m notoriously bad at ocean swimming. I’ve been made fun of by my friends for it. I get disoriented. One time I was asked to take turns leading groups of swimmers into the ocean. It was my turn to lead the group, and I swam, and swam, as fast as I could. There were a lot of fast swimmers with me, and I was really trying to be a good leader. They started yelling at me at one point, and they were telling me to stop. It turned out I had swum in a circle.
What Southern California beach could we find you at?
The one that I usually end up going to is down in Manhattan Beach. That’s where a lot of ocean water swimmers go; they go from pier to pier, from Manhattan to Hermosa.
What’s one thing the average person can do to help combat climate change?
I think that nobody is average, and everyone has a different environmental footprint. One thing we can all do is think about it. Think about what we all do and take an inventory of how we use resources, try to see how we can improve.
I have taken the approach in my own life to change one thing per year. I try to tackle one sustainability practice and to change my life that way. Over time it becomes sort of a radical transformation. I think it’s a good to think about the most important you think you can change. If you’re a person who drives a lot, maybe it’s an electric car. If you eat steak every day, maybe it’s not doing that so often. If you do a lot of air travel, maybe consolidate those trips.
What’s your greatest extravagance?
I have a really big sweet tooth. Sometimes I will eat ice cream sundaes for dinner. It sounds like it will make you sick but it’s really satisfying.
Where would we find you at 10 a.m. on a typical Saturday?
Definitely working in the garden. There are so many wonderful things to do in a garden, and the weekend is a good time to do them. Morning is a good time, too, because it’s not too sunny.
What keeps you up at night?
I just get consumed by what I’m working on so I will—it’s a really creative period for me—stay up late at night. I have a hard time letting time go and declaring the day to be done.