Seattle's Sally Jewell, the secretary of the interior under President Barack Obama, will help guide a new University of Washington initiative to bring faculty research to bear on climate-change planning.

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Sally Jewell, the Obama-era interior secretary and former CEO of REI, is throwing her weight behind a new University of Washington institute that aims to tackle climate change by having faculty scientists plan for a warming world.

Jewell served for nearly 12 years on the UW’s governing board of regents, so she knows a thing or two about how academics often fail to serve up practical solutions for real-world problems — even though they have the know-how. Providing that know-how is the goal of the new institute, called EarthLab.

Its rollout comes on the heels of a United Nations report this month that painted a dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change, and a prediction that those effects could come much sooner than previously thought.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

Jewell, a mechanical engineer by training (she earned her bachelor’s degree at UW), worked for 20 years as a banker before leading REI. She’s viewed as a pragmatic leader who works well with both the business and environmental communities. In her role with EarthLab, she’ll chair its advisory council and raise awareness in the community.

EarthLab is founded on the idea that climate change is already happening, and will soon become more severe and disruptive. So it’s essential for governments, utility companies, tribes and other decision-makers to do long-range planning that takes into account a world with more flooding, worsening droughts and rising sea levels.

But many officials don’t have the expertise to work climate change into their planning. “This is really about applied research to solve big challenges,” Jewell said.

The UW’s College of the Environment has been doing this kind of work for years. For example, its Ocean Acidification Center aids the shellfish industry by helping protect and plan for marine ecosystems affected by changes in the ocean.

UW scientists have helped the Port of Bellingham plan a waterfront redevelopment by taking rising sea-level projections into account, and have aided the Department of Ecology with long-term planning to clean up and cap hazardous waste sites.

In this politically polarized era, not every community is receptive to the idea that it needs help from university researchers to plan for a changing environment, said Amy Snover, an assistant dean in the College of the Environment and applied research director of the UW’s Climate Impacts Group.

When talking to some community leaders, the UW scientists have found that they can’t lead a conversation with the words “climate change,” Snover said, because those words “evoke really strong political identities.”

Yet every community is vulnerable to a warming world. “Part of this has been the art of learning how to connect,” she said — including getting academics to speak in plain English.

On climate change, Trump is “making stuff up,” Jewell says

Jewell headed the Interior Department during a time when the U.S. president didn’t doubt the climate was changing. But President Donald Trump has dismissed the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and suggested that the scientists who wrote it had a political motivation. (One of the lead authors of the report is a UW researcher, Kristie Ebi.)

In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, Trump suggested that the climate could “change back.” What did Jewell think?

She hesitated, and briefly covered her face with her hands.

“He’s making stuff up,” she finally said. “The science is clear. It’s absolutely clear, and in intentionally putting his head in the sand, he is putting the lives of people at risk, especially future generations, including his own children and grandchildren.”

Jewell — who said she was not speaking for UW, but as a private citizen and former cabinet secretary — worries about the threat of budget cuts to government research, and says she’s concerned that important work is being shelved.

The federal government is “an increasingly hostile environment for scientists sharing their work,” she said. “And this has profound implications, not just for now, but for future generations.”

For example, during her tenure in Interior, the National Park Service created plans for how each park would need to adapt to a changing climate; the Trump administration has tossed all that work aside.

Jewell said UW President Ana Mari Cauce and new Provost Mark Richards are supporting the new initiative by shaking up how professors are rewarded and promoted. Traditionally, faculty members are promoted and gain tenure by doing narrow, focused research and publishing their work. Under EarthLab, scientists will be rewarded for devising real-life solutions.

Jewell said there’s a “happy secret” that a large number of people and organizations — government agencies at all levels — are working on climate planning.

“Our future resiliency really depends on their actions,” she said.