It was a surprise.

Few people have done more to combat air pollution than Mary Nichols, but here she was, at breakfast in a coffee shop on Larchmont Boulevard, saying that California has more pressing problems than climate change.

Nichols, quick to smile but quietly forceful, is a fierce fighter for the environment. A professor in residence at the UCLA School of Law and a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, she is chair of the California Air Resources Board — for the second time. Forty-five years ago, fresh out of Yale Law School, she filed the first lawsuit under the Clean Air Act. Since then, she has reduced diesel emissions, taken steps to repair the ozone layer, decreased acid rain, curtailed particulates in the atmosphere and, most recently, overseen sweeping changes to cut greenhouse gases and slow global warming. She drives an electric car.

So it came as a bit of a shock to hear her say: “Fixing the budget may be more important for the moment.” She paused over a soft-boiled egg. “Housing, education — these are serious problems. There’s a need to address them.”

But then Nichols pointed out an important difference. Education, housing, the state budget are, one would hope, short-term troubles. On the other hand, climate change, although it can seem remote and incremental, is “an existential issue for the world.”

California, she said, should never relinquish its leadership in charting the course against it, because climate change has implications for mankind.

The long fight for clean air

Last spring, Nichols delivered a commencement speech at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont. President Maria Klawe introduced her by passing along gratitude from an alumnus, who recalled that in his days as a student he could rarely see Mount Baldy, and who thanked Nichols for getting rid of the smog that hid it.

Rarely flustered, Nichols seemed taken aback to be given credit for the view, but she accepted the compliment and shared it. Credit, she told the graduating class, belonged not just to her but also to “a few thousand other people.” Because of a combined effort, she said, “We can see Mount Baldy on most days from this campus. The Air Resources Board, back in the 1970s, had to fight to get to that point. We thought we knew what could be done. …But the lobbyists and the lawyers…told us it couldn’t be done.”

Tenacity is one of Mary Nichols’ defining characteristics, particularly on behalf of important causes. As a student in Ithaca, N.Y., during the 1960s, she demonstrated for peace. With a group from Cornell, she went to Tennessee to register voters. During law school at Yale, she visited California and saw firsthand that the environment was in danger.

“We got to Los Angeles in the late afternoon,” she told the L.A. Times. “I remember descending into the basin, driving west toward Sunset Boulevard and being astonished by the peculiar color of the air. It was a kind of flaming orange – not a natural color but a peculiar Day-Glo, chemical kind of orange.” When she moved to L.A. in 1971 with her husband, she joined the Center for Law in the Public Interest to lead its battle against air pollution.

She sued California under the Clean Air Act to force the administration of then–Gov. Ronald Reagan to meet the EPA’s anti-pollution requirements. Nichols won, but she discovered the frustrations of using litigation to compel improvement. She encountered foot-dragging by both industry and government. Reagan was unwilling to force faster progress.

But Mary Nichols did not give up.

In 1974, she met with Jerry Brown, 36 at the time, who had picked his way through a crowded field and been elected to the office that Reagan had won from Brown’s father eight years earlier. Young Gov. Brown was a strong environmentalist (see the Q&A in this issue). He and Nichols hit it off. They shared — and still do — an unusual blend of philosophical curiosity and a pragmatic approach to politics. Brown offered her a spot on the Air Resources Board, and she accepted.

She focused squarely on smog. Under her leadership — and with support from Brown, who elevated her to chairman a few years later — the ARB demanded improvements in pollution control for automobiles, which the Clean Air Act allowed specifically for California. Car companies balked. General Motors and later Ford famously complained that if Nichols and her agency had their way and companies were required to install catalytic converters, it would bankrupt manufacturers. Nichols did not back down; both Ford and GM, it bears noting, are still in business.

Nichols dove ever more deeply into the complexities and politics of air quality. In 1993, President Clinton put her in charge of the Office of Air and Radiation at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington.

The chief threat then was acid rain. Congressman Henry Waxman and others secured a set of amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 that allowed EPA to develop a cap-and-trade program. Nichols and her colleagues refined and implemented the program. She also confronted ozone depletion and a growing awareness of the dangers of particulates in the air.

Those were important achievements, but not the crowning moments of Nichols’ career, which has otherwise been rooted in California. “I had a great staff and a fearless boss, Carol Browner,” Nichols said of her time in Washington. “But I found the federal government mired in bureaucratic intrigue…And I missed California.”

Read the complete story in UCLA Blueprint's Spring 2016 issue.