Towards Theory + Practice
Dr. Michael Méndez is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Planning and Policy at the University of California, Irvine and a Visiting Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). He most recently served as the inaugural James and Mary Pinchot Faculty Fellow in Sustainability Studies and Associate Research Scientist at the Yale School of the Environment. Michael has more than a decade of senior-level experience in the public and private sectors, where he consulted and actively engaged in the policymaking process. This included working for the California State Legislature as a senior consultant, lobbyist, a member of the California State Mining & Geology Board, and as vice chair of the Sacramento City Planning Commission. In 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Dr. Méndez to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. The board regulates water quality in a region of 11 million people.
During his time as a scholar, he has contributed to state and national research policy initiatives, including serving as an advisor to a California Air Resources Board member, and as a coauthor of the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s study on “Climate Vulnerability and Social Science Perspectives.” Michael is a member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's Board on Environmental Change and Society (BECS), and is on the board of directors of the social justice nonprofit, Alliance for a Better Community. He also serves as a coauthor for the forthcoming National Academies of Sciences’ consensus study, "Accelerating Decarbonization in the United States: Technology, Policy, and Societal Dimensions," and a coauthor of the upcoming National Climate Assessment (NCA5), the U.S. Government's premier report on climate change impacts, risks, and adaptation across the Nation (a Congressionally mandated, interagency effort). Michael is also a panel reviewer for the National Academies of Sciences' Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP).
Dr. Méndez’s award-winning book, “Climate Change from the Streets,” published by Yale University Press, provides an urgent and timely analysis of the contentious politics of incorporating environmental justice into global climate change policy. Although the science of climate change is clear, policy decisions about how to respond to its effects remain contentious. Even when such decisions claim to be guided by objective knowledge, they are made and implemented through political institutions and relationships—and all the competing interests and power struggles that this implies. Méndez tells a timely story of people, place, and power in the context of climate change and inequality. He explores the perspectives and influence low-income people of color bring to their advocacy work on climate change. In California, activist groups have galvanized behind issues such as air pollution, poverty alleviation, and green jobs to advance equitable climate solutions at the local, state, and global levels. Arguing that environmental protection and improving public health are inextricably linked, Michael contends that we must incorporate local knowledge, culture, and history into policymaking to fully address the global complexities of climate change and the real threats facing our local communities.
The book was awarded the Harold and Margaret Sprout Award by the International Studies Association (ISA). The Sprout Award is given to the best book in the field of international environmental studies and politics - "one that makes a contribution to theory and interdisciplinarity, shows rigor and coherence in research and writing, and offers accessibility and practical relevance." It also received the Betty and Alfred McClung Lee Book Award by the Association for Humanist Sociology. The McClung Lee Award is given to the best book in the field of humanist sociology that seeks to "uncover and address social issues, working with others to lessen the pain of social problems." Additionally, the book was listed by the United Nations Foundation as one of the “Climate Books for Changemakers.” Climate Change from the Streets was also a finalist for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning’s John Friedmann Book Award.
Dr. Méndez's new research focuses on climate-induced disasters and social vulnerability. This research has been supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Faculty Award. In conjunction with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), this project explores the disparate impacts of extreme wildfire events on undocumented Latino/a and Indigenous migrants. In 2021, he became the first Latinx scholar to receive the National Academies of Sciences' Henry and Bryna David Endowment Award for his wildfire and migrant research. The David Endowment makes an annual award (research grant) to a "leading researcher who has drawn insights from the behavioral and social sciences to inform public policy. The DBASSE Advisory Committee selects a prominent behavioral or social scientist to make a presentation to an invited audience at the National Academy of Sciences and publish an article in Issues in Science and Technology."
Méndez received his PhD from UC Berkeley's Department of City and Regional Planning, where he was a Ford Foundation Fellow and UC Chancellor’s Fellow. He has a graduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he received the Department of Urban Studies & Planning’s Award for Best Master Thesis and the Excellence in Public Service Award, and two Advocacy Planning Awards from the American Planning Association (APA). Michael received his B.A. from California State University, Northridge (CSUN), where he received the Bobbi Paine Outstanding Graduating Senior Award from the Department of Urban Studies & Planning, and the Outstanding Undergraduate Thesis Award from the CSUN Association of Retired Faculty. His research on the intersection of climate change and communities of color has been featured in national publications including Urban Land (published by the Urban Land Institute), the Los Angeles Times, Politico, Bloomberg News, NPR, the American Planning Association’s Planning Magazine, USA Today, and Fox Latino News.
Through a combination of social theory, fieldwork, and engagement with civic leaders, the objective of Michael's teaching is to provide students with a critical understanding of urban problems and the methods needed to address environmental health inequities in neighborhoods.
At UC Irvine and Yale, he has taught courses on environmental policy, sustainability, health, and environmental justice, with a particular focus on community-engaged learning with state and local policymakers. During his time at the University of Washington, University of San Francisco, and UC Berkeley, Michael served as the instructor for the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, Urban Sustainability & Environmental Governance Practicum, and the Climate Action Planning Studio, respectively. Currently, he serves on the advisory board and as a research mentor for the Global Sustainability Scholars Network at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Michael also served two years as a research mentor for the Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) administered by the graduate division at UC Berkeley. SROP is an intensive academic program for undergraduate students from traditionally disadvantaged communities interested in exploring careers in academia. In the program, he developed pedagogical approaches that required students to engage in community-based research projects with local environmental justice groups.
LIVED and EMBODIED EXPERIENCE
As a youth, in Pacoima, Sylmar, and Lakeview Terrace, Michael was surrounded by people resisting environmental racism. Whether protesting the siting of landfills or organizing to demand the cleanup of toxic properties, they sought to understand how these situations originated, to develop alternatives, and to imagine new environmental futures.
This has focused his work on what the conceptualization of environmental justice and climate change has meant to activists, policymakers, experts, and scholars alike.
Moreover, Michael's experience as a teenager working in his parent's Rudy's Bike Shop -- the first Latino-owned bike shop in the San Fernando Valley (a region of over 1 million people), also influenced his worldview. For more than 25 years, Michael's parents struggled to keep the shop afloat to support sustainable and affordable transportation options for low-income immigrant families in Pacoima. Through this work, he saw first-hand the structural inequities and adversities in the built environments for people of color.