April 25, 2023

Alumni Spotlight: From Waste Research to Climate Policy Change, Nicolás Díaz Huarnez, MPA ‘20

We had the opportunity to connect with Nicolás Díaz Huarnez, MPA ‘20. As a student, Nicolás supported research for Zero Waste Washington, which led to the passage of the 2022 Organics Management Law in Washington state We chatted with Nicolás about his experience at the Evans School, the work his are currently doing in Chile, and his passion for waste management and its connections to climate change. His current role is with Global Methane Hub as a Project Manager for the Waste and Circular Economy Program. The hub is a global philanthropic effort to address methane emissions in alignment with the Global Methane Pledge which has been subscribed by more than 160 countries to reduce methane emissions globally by 30% by 2030, compared to 2020 emissions.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What led you to pursue your degree at the Evans School?

Before coming to the Evans School, I wanted to connect science and policy for addressing climate change. I was accepted into the Fulbright program and chose to go to Evans because of its strengths in the environmental policy courses Seattle and Washington state are also very inspiring places to live and to work on environmental policy. 

Climate change is one of the most pressing threats to governments and people’s livelihoods. I have been working to connect efforts from policy, science, and from everything that’s been done in practice to overcome climate change, and, with time, I have deepened my focus to address the challenges posed by the management of waste.

While you were at Evans, you were involved in a research effort that led to the passage of the 2022 Organics Management Law in Washington state. Can you share a bit more background about your involvement in this cause? How did your Evans education inform and contribute to your approach to this work?

At Evans, I applied to The Cynthia L. and David S. Harrison Endowed Fellowship for Environmental Policy and was selected to take part as an intern with Zero Waste Washington. They do amazing work—it was a very good match for my interests, and they needed someone to focus on organizing a lot of data to assess the landscape of segregated waste collection and drop-off programs across the state and develop a report on this. In addition to the environmental policy concentration, I also took classes on quantitative analysis, and I ended up combining the work from those courses with the project at Zero Waste Washington. 

It wasn’t easy to do an analysis of all jurisdictions across Washington state. I remember looking at more than 300 jurisdictions, so it was very detailed work. This project allowed me to understand the complexity of setting goals at the state level and the implementation at local jurisdictions. This process was a good learning experience of how challenging it can be to align efforts on a larger scale.  

Because of the pandemic, I had to return to Chile with my wife and our two kids. I had just finished up my studies, but I reconnected with Zero Waste Washington before coming back to Chile and joined on to support a follow-up report that was much more focused on organics. 

This second report was very detailed, too, and it contributed to the 2022 Organics Management Law that Washington passed (HB 1799). We worked with data from the State Department of Ecology and conducted more than 60 interviews with representatives of the public and private waste sector across the state. This was a great combination of what I learned at Evans in terms of understanding the policy process in the U.S. it is very different from my background here in Chile. I think this work was needed to push decision makers across the state to rethink the way it was targeting and dealing with compost and to share the experience from all the advancements that the City of Seattle was leading by then. We were showing what was required to take this big step at the state level given its climate commitments.  

This law is great for Washington state, and we really need to address organics everywhere. I hope this work can permeate the rest of the country and beyond. We need this type of legislation now since we don’t have 100 years to address climate change but less than a decade to avoid its worst consequences.

The Evans School’s values are equity, courage and service. In what ways are these values part of the work you have done and continue doing?

It takes courage just to talk about climate change. Standing and speaking and doing something about itand in the case of policy makers and everyone that works on public issues, it takes courage and commitment to work towards those types of targets and goals. 

Equity is a cornerstone of what we are doing because you cannot think about waste or emissions without thinking about justice or development or human rights, especially in the waste landscape. It is important because you are talking about people that are exposed to the burden of society because of historical inequities. It is an integral part of whatever you are working on from a public policy lens.  

When you come in against these challenges from a public standpoint, you have to believe in what you are doing and be consistent. Although it can be hard sometimes to stay consistent, it’s about being mindful of what you are trying to address through your work, and the way that this work relates to what you are doing as a citizen, as a person, and, in my case, as a father when considering the inter-generational implications of climate change. 

I’m very happy to know that this is being highlighted as part of Evans’ alumni profiles, because it is critical. When you try to advance this type of agenda, you really need to commit to the values, too.

Could you share some resources that inspire you, either personally or professionally?

I follow the Freakonomics podcast. It’s very interesting because it’s not only economics, but it also covers how policy intersects with common problems that you find on a daily basis.  

For everyone working on climate, please go and read the most recent IPCC report. Also try to connect with the people that are organizing around where you are. Get to know not only what’s being thought about and done on the global landscape, but also at the local level.  

It’s always important to connect with different opinions to challenge your potential biases and explore new approaches. It can give you a more complete idea of what the challenges and the problems are. And continue to grow as a person, because I think that’s a key part of understanding your place in the world. In Chile we have a saying “who looks for something finds it.” I use that advice all the time.