Healthy planet, healthy people 

How  can we  recover  from a health crisis during a climate crisis? Five UW experts weigh in. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, catastrophic on many levels, has starkly exposed the structural, social, economic and political factors that prevent equitable health outcomes for people around the world. While communities everywhere grapple with the devastating losses of life, livelihoods and connection, another catastrophe is well underway. Climate change continues to devastate the health and well-being of people all over the planet.

To commemorate the opening of the UW’s new Hans Rosling Center for Population Health, we asked five of the University’s leading voices on climate change and decarbonization to discuss how we can move forward from the pandemic in ways that deliver environmental resilience and positive health outcomes for all.

Accelerating our global response to a worsening crisis 

Amy  Snover
Director, Climate Impacts Group and University  Director, NW Climate Adaptation Science Center

Colockum Tarps Fire / WA Department of Natural Resources

Colockum Tarps Fire / WA Department of Natural Resources

As pandemic stay-at-home orders went into effect around the world, we saw headlines celebrating clean air and drops in global greenhouse gas emissions. These changes seemed a thin silver lining during a dark time.

But they were only temporary improvements, not actual success in addressing the root cause of climate change: the centrality of fossil fuels in the global economy. In fact, many responses to the pandemic have slowed our responses to climate change. The next international conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was postponed, and essential funding to tackle climate risks in California and Washington is at risk.

Unfortunately, climate change is not on hold; it continues to accelerate. The year 2020 is on track to be the second warmest year on record. Climate change–fueled wildfires, hurricanes and heat waves affect much of the country, the Greenland ice sheet is reportedly melting past the point of no return, and until we eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions (not just release them more slowly), it will only get worse.

The current global unraveling has shown how we, and the systems we depend on, are all connected. Weaknesses in our health-care system, in social and economic justice and in the stability of our climate make life more precarious for us all.

Rebuilding our collective lives post-pandemic requires attending to all of the intertwined systems that we depend on. Responses to COVID-19 must incorporate solutions for climate change and racial justice. Recovery investments must accelerate decarbonization, not pause it — and advance preparation for rising climate stresses, not punt on it. In a world of compound risks, we must insist on compound solutions. We don’t have enough time, money or planet to do it any other way.

Making climate-friendly design central to our rebuilding efforts  

Kate Simonen
Professor of Architecture and Founding Director of the Carbon Leadership Forum

The UW Foster School of Business’ Founders Hall, scheduled to open in 2021, will be constructed with cross-laminated timber — a state of the art engineered wood that is healthy for people and the planet.

The UW Foster School of Business’ Founders Hall, scheduled to open in 2021, will be constructed with cross-laminated timber — a state-of-the-art engineered wood that is healthy for people and the planet.

The  global  response  to COVID-19 brought drastic changes: Factories closed, transportation stopped and construction paused.  National greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 26%. The scale of change is impressive, but  the social and economic costs of this change are devastating.

Governments often use construction spending to spur economic recovery — but that must be done in a way that reduces carbon emissions. Around the world, significant energy and materials are used to construct and operate buildings. The Carbon Leadership Forum at the UW works toward decarbonizing the  built environment.

We have climate-friendly building solutions ready now. Core principles were agreed upon at  Carbon Smart Building Day in 2018, and we  have all the expertise we need  to achieve them — for new and existing buildings, with attention to health and equity.

To create the future we want — in which all people can live in healthy, equitable and just societies — we can’t simply cease building. We must build to house, educate and employ people. We must also radically reduce carbon emissions and develop ways to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it. We can use biology (trees, bamboo) and chemistry (novel concretes) to achieve this. Interventions within the building sector have a ripple effect — spurring innovation in manufacturing and heavy industry, creating local jobs, building healthy homes and reducing occupants’ energy costs.

We will need to invest to recover from COVID-19. If we invest strategically, we can build meaningful climate solutions that benefit a wide cross-section of society.

Pushing our cities to be smarter, healthier and more efficient for all

Cynthia Chen
Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering and Director, THINK Lab (Transportation-Human Interaction-and-Network Knowledge)

Bicyclists on the Arboretum Trail

As we start to  ramp up our economy again, can  we sustain the pandemic-level reduction in carbon emissions? I believe we  can, in three steps.

One: Align technology with community demands. This pandemic has increased walking and bicycling  in many wealthier countries, including the  U.S.  We must sustain those increases and encourage low-carbon transit.  We can make our built environments more amenable for walking and biking,  removing  barriers (e.g., electric bikes that overcome steep hills) and deploying them close to public transit. Electric vehicles and on-demand flexible transit are also efficient, convenient  solutions that keep carbon emissions significantly lower than conventional combustion vehicles.

Two: Coordinate capacity with community demands. People need mobility for the economy to grow strong, but the pandemic has shown  the benefits of flexible commute times. Organizing transportation to  minimize overcrowding and surge uses can sustain  lower  carbon emissions without hurting the economy.  It  offers people choices, provides financial and other  incentives, and  helps  systems such as businesses and transportation agencies work together.

Three: Let data inform our  policies and investments.  We have the data, sensors and tools to  measure and manage our transportation systems with precision and carbon efficiency. Along with our existing  data-driven designs and  policies, we need  an interdisciplinary army of engineers, economists, social and physical scientists, and policymakers working with our diverse communities  to make change.

The  COVID-19  pandemic  tells us that  we must  support economic growth. With the technologies we have now, we can also  sustain  reduced carbon emissions  —  if we act  now.

Moving society forward and leaving our unhealthy habits behind

Kristi Straus
Associate Teaching Professor and Associate Director, Program on the Environment

A bus downtown

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to slow down — enjoying nature, cooking, spending time with family. Across the globe, streets have been closed to vehicles and parking spaces transformed with café tables and tiny gardens. We’ve learned to work online, rendering much of our business travel unnecessary. Though initiated by necessity, these changes in the U.S. could be seen as a shift toward sustainability.

But that society — one of learning, growth and conscious consumption — depends on everyone having enough. And that is not the reality for many Americans.

COVID-19 exposes the intersections of race, money and health. While some Americans are able to “stay home, stay healthy,” many must work outside their homes, bearing the associated risks. People of color are more likely to be exposed to and die from COVID-19, because of unequal access to health and health care. While the forced slowdown brought some people joy, nature and community, it brought others job loss, eviction and sickness. The pandemic cannot end until we make great strides toward equity. I hope we can one day thank pandemic uprisings for delivering our country guaranteed health care and paid sick leave for all.

After the pandemic, I hope we’ll spend less time in traffic and more in our local communities, valuing time together over money and material goods. I hope sustainability is integrated into school curricula and our children reject the pre-pandemic hoarding of old.

With COVID behind us, we should find ways to ensure fewer vehicles are on the road, fewer factories are churning out trinkets, outdoor spaces are greener, communities are more connected, and a tightly woven safety net supports everyone.

Mobilizing Seattle’s innovation and manufacturing might for clean-energy leadership

Dan Schwartz
Director, UW Clean Energy Institute and Boeing-Sutter Professor of Chemical Engineering

 Technical Director J. Devin MacKenzie uses a printer to create flexible electronics at the UW Clean Energy Institute.

Professor J. Devin MacKenzie uses a roll-to-roll printer to create energy devices at the Washington Clean Energy Testbeds. UW Clean Energy Institute

COVID-19 has demonstrated that greenhouse gas emissions and economic activity remain tightly coupled. But carbon neutrality and prosperity can and must happen in less than two decades.

Seattle can be the climate tech hub that realizes this goal. A regional transformation of that magnitude, in that time frame, has been achieved before — with population health.

Over the last two decades, the Gates Foundation has been shaping leading health institutions like PATH, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and, most recently, the UW Population Health Initiative. Seattle and the UW provided fertile ground for growing science into solutions that change the lives of millions around the world. We witnessed the impact of that innovation as Seattle led testing and tracing efforts in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hiker descending a trail during sunsireToday, the seeds of climate technology thrive in Seattle’s fertile ground. Our information technology sector leaders, such as Amazon and Microsoft, have set aggressive carbon goals while investing in climate tech. Jeff Bezos’ $10 billion pledge to fight climate change is an opportunity for global impact. And since 2013, Washington state has invested over $100 million in clean energy science, engineering and deployment research.

To advance climate tech, our region must cultivate a balanced ecosystem of ideas, capital and human talent to scale promising climate solutions. Seattle is the place to build this future, with our industrial might in the aerospace, trucking and maritime sectors; history as natural-resource managers; expertise in tech sector hardware, software and global logistics; leading education and research institutions; and concentration of philanthropic potential through globe-changing businesses.

A purposeful population health innovation ecosystem was built in Seattle to benefit the world. Do we have the will to lead again in climate tech?

Population Health Initiative

The University of Washington is leading the way in addressing the interconnected factors that influence how long and how well we live, from health care and systemic inequities to poverty and climate change.

Learn more about the UW Population Health Initiative

Originally published October, 2020