Overseeing the Oceans

As head honcho of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from 2009-2013, Oregon State University marine biologist and distinguished professor Jane Lubchenco has a unique perspective on the way politicians regard climate change. In NOAA, “the politics loom large,” she says, and Congress continues to squabble over climate issues, barring progress toward reducing carbon emissions. Now she’s back in Oregon, and in her keynote speech on Friday, she plans to discuss her experiences at NOAA and share with audience members how science and politics intersect in Washington, D.C. EW caught up with Lubchenco from her office in Corvallis.

How did you address climate change during your time as NOAA administrator?

NOAA is responsible for providing climate services by congressional direction, and when I went to NOAA, we looked at how the agency was organized to provide these services and realized that the demand for information about climate change and adaptation was growing exponentially. We realized that we could be organized more efficiently in a way that connected the science to the services and the services to users, so I proposed to Congress that we do an internal reorganization within NOAA that would be budget neutral but would allow us to provide climate services more effectively. We proposed calling it the National Climate Service, analogous to the National Weather Service.

All of those arguments went nowhere, in part because the word “climate” was in the title. I had a really interesting experience, and in the end was not allowed to do that project. It continues being inefficient, because under some members of Congress’ watch, there was no way they were going to approve the National Climate Service. I was struck by how different the conversations were within Congress than other regions of the country.

Before you went to Washington, D.C., did you expect there to be such discord in Congress regarding climate change?

In Congress, it’s highly partisan, highly polarized. You can’t even say the word “climate” without a knee-jerk, immediate response on both sides. It’s difficult to have a reasonable conversation about it because it has become such a hot button issue, but that doesn’t serve anybody well.

I’m a scientist, and I firmly believe that science should not be partisan. Over the years I have worked a lot both with Democrats and Republicans, quite effectively, on a wide range of issues, and the tenor of those conversations in the past is very different than the tenor you hear in Congressional hearings today. It is so polarized that individuals can’t even explore ideas or ask questions without getting trounced or jumped upon by their colleagues for not towing the party line. That stalemate is really problematic, and it’s only going to change when the American public says, “Enough already,” and when the power of money to continue to create uncertainty and confusion in the minds of the American public is dealt with.

During the four years I was at NOAA, we saw the most extreme years of weather in the United States, as in record-breaking in every single category of weather. We saw 770 tornadoes, six major floods, three tsunamis, a prolonged heat wave, drought, wildfires and record-setting snowfall and blizzards. One thing NOAA tracks is weather-related hazards that cost at least $1 billion in damage, and the average number of events is three to four a year. During 2011, we had 14. In 2012, we had 11.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, some individuals like Gov. Christie and Mayor Bloomberg were making very strong statements of this as a harbinger of things to come with climate change, and more and more, Americans started asking, “What the heck is going on with all this weird weather?” I think the dialogue is really changing in this country based on people’s personal experiences. Their experience is trumping some of the noise that is out there. I think that the landscape is changing. The question is, will it change fast enough?

You’ve been a big advocate for science communication. What are your thoughts on communicating science to the public?

I think scientists really have an obligation as a community to do a better job of sharing what they know with the public and policy makers and doing so in a way that is credible and understandable. A lot of people are hungry for information, so I think having a trusted source of information that people can go to and believe in is really important. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat on an airplane with someone who learns I’m a marine biologist, and they want to know, “How do the oceans work?” or “Can I eat salmon?” All these questions come pouring out, so there is a hunger for information. Not just generic information, but information that they trust. That’s the key, having the information be understandable but also relevant.

How are you continuing your research?

I continue to be involved in many of the issues I was interested in before. For example, how do we think differently about managing fisheries in light of climate change and ocean acidification? The natural world provides a wealth of benefits to people that we take for granted and that are often not captured in policy and management, and yet are extremely important and valuable. How do we do a better job of valuing natural capital in our policies and practices? That’s the interface between economics and ecology, but it involves management and policy and law as well. I’m also involved in a project that I started right after I left NOAA to figure out lessons learned from the [BP] oil spill, what worked and didn’t work in respect to science and communication of science, and how we can build that experience and fold it into the next natural disaster that happens.

Interview has been edited for clarity and length.