Tackling new terrain: climate change and global health


A new initiative involving more than 25 collaborations on campus and off could position the UW as a major player in addressing global health and environmental issues arising from climate change.

The initiative, “Climate Change and Global Health: Adaptive Solutions for Human Health and the Environment,” is one of six new interdisciplinary centers, programs, and initiatives to receive funding from the Department of Global Health.

Already, the department has been approached to help coordinate a bi-national conference on climate change and global health a year from now in Washington, D.C. Faculty from across the UW are holding meetings every two weeks to advance this issue.

“This notion of pulling together faculty from all of the UW is causing quite a stir,” said Richard Fenske, the initiative’s co-PI and associate chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. “I’m not aware of something thing like this having been done, where there is an opportunity for people to branch out in a multidisciplinary way.”

The climate change initiative involves matching funding from the College of the Environment and significant supporting funding from the colleges of the Built Environments and Engineering, and from the schools of Public Health and Nursing. Faculty and scientists from Environmental & Occupational Health, Epidemiology, Family Medicine, Global Health, History, Landscape Architecture, Material Sciences & Engineering, Political Science, Psychiatry, Urban Planning Schools, Aquatic & Fishery Sciences, Forest Resources, International Studies, Law, Marine Affairs, Medicine, Oceanography, Public Affairs as well as Conservation International, Nature Conservancy, EcoAdapt, and Washington State University are all collaborating.

“Without this wide base of support, such an endeavor would not have been possible,” said Tom Hinckley, the other co-principal investigator and interim director of the School of Forest Resources. “This foundation speaks to the strength of the University of Washington in being able to undertake such an initiative.”

The initiative proposes a two-year framework focusing on food security and water resources. The program aims to facilitate the work of 10 faculty fellows to realize new approaches to water and food security at the intersection of ecosystems and human health.

“The overarching concept in this project is that ecosystem health and human health are inextricably linked,” said Julia Parrish, member of the initiative’s leadership team and associate director of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. “They’re like a yin-yang symbol; so many approaches to public health … aren’t, in our view, looking broadly enough at what’s happening in the local and global environment.”

The fellows, coming from a wide range of disciplines, were selected as experts in their fields who are capable of putting their individual talents into a larger framework.

“My interest in the program is really to influence behavior,” said Joachim Voss, a faculty fellow and assistant professor in Biobehavioral Nursing and Health Systems. “While I think we have very little influence on changing the climate, I think we have great opportunity to change the activities that contribute to climate change.”

Researchers admit it’s a daunting task. From defining food and water security to dealing with the slow growth cycles of trees, the challenges are plentiful. Finding interconnections among the many disciplines is proving to be both exciting and challenging.

“All these fellows are enthusiastic because they see it as something that’s different but also something they care about,” Fenske said. “We’re pulling together faculty and trying to forge teams to provide support for them so that they can work on something that they otherwise won’t have time or the opportunity to do.”

It\’s hoped that work from the initiative will act as a spring board for creating a new center at the UW dedicated to developing and evaluating climate change adaptation strategies which go beyond food and water.

The group presented a poster at the Consortium of Universities for Global health Meeting held September 19-21, 2010, on the UW campus.

Among the faculty fellows working on this initiative are:

  • Benita Beamon, Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering
  • Soo-Hyung Kim, School of Forest Resources
  • Josh Lawler, School of Forest Resources
  • Celia Lowe, Department of Anthropology
  • Scott Meschke, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences
  • Julian Olden, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences
  • Ben Spencer, Department of Landscape Architecture
  • LuAnne Thompson, School of Oceanography
  • Joachim Voss, Department of Biobehavioral Nursing and Health Systems
  • Judd Walson, Departments of Global Health, Epidemiology, Medicine, and Pediatrics

This program is one of six collaborative programs and initiatives receiving funds from the Department of Global Health. The department is also providing funds for the Center for Global Promotion of Women’s and Children’s Health, the program on Global Medicines Safety, and initiatives on Implementation Science for Global Health, Global Injury Control, and Development of an African-based Diploma Course in Tropical Medicine and Global Health.