WSU research addresses climate change on multiple fronts

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of monthly articles through 2024 about WSU’s research and other efforts to understand and confront climate change.

Here’s a question with a thousand answers: How do we create a livable future amid climate change?

Such a big challenge demands an equally expansive approach to solutions.

At Washington State University, more than 60 departments are active in climate-related research, work that in many cases has been under way for decades. It’s a priority rooted in the university’s land-grant mission of service informed by its science.     

“Climate change isn’t going to be solved by one person, institution, policy, or nation,” noted Deepti Singh, assistant professor in the School of the Environment who leads the Climate Extremes Lab at WSU. “It’s such a pervasive issue, affecting every aspect of our lives that it needs individual and collective action on many fronts.”

In agriculture and natural resources, for example, WSU scientists participated in the first comprehensive report on likely areas of climate risk in the state, said Chad Kruger, director of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. WSU has developed technologies and strategies to help growers reduce greenhouse gas emissions, restore carbon to the soil, and replace fossil fuels with biofuels.

Singh’s Climate Extremes Lab at WSU Vancouver advances scientific understanding of drought, wildfire, extreme temperatures, heavy precipitation, and the effects these events have on people’s lives and the resources they depend on. Understanding the risk can help people predict and prepare for such hazards.

The university has been at the forefront in developing sustainable fuels. Most recently, the U.S. Department of Energy tapped a consortium including WSU to develop a regional green hydrogen economy.

WSU is looking at the effects of higher heat on public health, from urban heat islands to farmworkers.

…The environment is one of the handful of major social problems that have huge ramifications for almost everybody.

Dylan Bugden
Boeing Distinguished Assistant Professor in Environmental Sociology
Washington State University

Scientists are developing environmentally friendly concrete, green infrastructure, smart buildings, and fiber and material recycling. 

Other research explores the societal effects of climate change, including politics and policy.

“It’s an overarching issue that affects the quality of your life, it affects the economy in profound ways, and how we organize our society,” said Dylan Bugden, the Boeing Distinguished Assistant Professor in Environmental Sociology in WSU’s Department of Sociology. “The environment is one of the handful of major social problems that have huge ramifications for almost everybody.”

Adaptation is a common thread in WSU’s climate work.

Singh said she was drawn to climate extremes research after living in Mumbai, India, where historic flooding in 2005 resulted in disruption, numerous fatalities, and disease outbreaks.

“It got me thinking that we are not really adapted to the climate we’re experiencing today, and that’s changing,” she said.

Singh and another WSU climate scientist, Kirti Rajagopalan, contributed key portions of the 5th National Climate Assessment, the U.S. government’s authoritative report on climate risks, impacts and responses.

An atmospheric scientist and one-time faculty member at WSU co-authored one of the first papers calling out the role that fossil fuels play in environmental change.

Elmer Robinson and co-author R.C. Robbins, both scientists at the Stanford Research Institute at the time, wrote a report for the American Petroleum Institute in 1968 that described rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere. The report said the likely cause was the burning of fossil fuels and that “the potential damage to our environment could be severe.”

That report and a supplement published in 1969 have subsequently taken on an important role in a wave of lawsuits filed against oil producers claiming they misled the public about the dangers posed by fossil fuels.

Robinson joined WSU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric Research in 1972 and stayed until 1985. He died in 2016.

WSU also focuses on the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable communities, whether those are Native American tribes threatened by sea-level rise or farmworkers laboring in ever-hotter temperatures.

“Communities of color, older adults, low-income communities, children. Climate change stacks the cards against them,” noted Elizabeth Schenk, assistant research professor at the College of Nursing.

Climate-focused activity at WSU is likely to expand as the challenges mount. Universities are integral to the innovations, adaptations, and mitigations climate change requires, with research that underpins technologies and informs policies, said Michael Wolcott, WSU’s interim vice president for research.

The problems of climate change are daunting. But, said Singh, “What gives me hope is that there’s so much more attention to the topic of climate change. You see people talking about it a lot more, and not just talking about it, they’re trying to do something about it.”

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