09 Jul 2009: Interview

NOAA’s New Chief on Restoring
Science to U.S. Climate Policy

Marine biologist Jane Lubchenco now heads one of the U.S. government’s key agencies researching climate change — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Lubchenco discusses the central role her agency is playing in understanding the twin threats of global warming and ocean acidification.

by elizabeth kolbert

Last December, when President-elect Obama named Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the reaction among climate scientists was an almost audible sigh of relief. Much of what is known about the climate comes from research supported, either directly or indirectly, by NOAA. But the agency, tucked inside the Commerce Department, has long suffered from status problems, and during the Bush administration, NOAA staffers frequently complained that their findings were being ignored, or, worse still, suppressed. The appointment of Lubchenco — a marine biologist from Oregon State University — seemed to signal that the new administration planned, finally, to take NOAA’s work seriously.

Lubchenco
Jane Lubchenco
Lubchenco is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a MacArthur “genius” award-winner, and founder of the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, which trains environmental scientists to be more effective communicators. Indeed, last month the administration released a report, produced under NOAA’s leadership, detailing the effects that global warming is already having on the U.S. and the impacts it is likely to have in the future.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, conducted by New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert, Lubchenco spoke about the science of climate change, the complexities of communicating it to policy makers, and what she referred to as global warming’s “equally evil twin,” ocean acidification.

Yale Environment 360: My first question is about the climate impacts report that you all came out with very recently. What is the message that you were hoping people would take from that?

Jane Lubchenco: I think the take-away message is that the evidence is in: Climate change is real, it’s causing changes in our own backyard, many of those changes are increasingly challenging to society, and therefore there is urgency in moving ahead with reducing heat-trapping pollution as soon as possible.

e360: Just a few days after you released the report, the House did, in fact, pass the Waxman-Markey bill, so I suppose you could say that some people got the message. On the other hand, a lot of scientists would say that the bill is not really commensurate with what the science is telling us needs to be done. Can you talk about the bill, and its strengths and shortfalls?

Lubchenco: It’s pretty clear that choices made now will have far-reaching consequences, and that the more we reduce emissions now the less severe the impacts will be, and that’s what the science tells us. The societal choices
Listen to the full interview (44 min.)
are how much to reduce and how rapidly, and clearly there was a lot of politicking, and we’ve only begun. I think the role of science here is to be as clear as possible about what’s at stake, and to inform the decisions that members of Congress are making, but also to inform the understanding of the people that they are elected to represent.

e360: You’ve spent a lot of time talking about communicating science to a lay audience, and during the debate on the Waxman-Markey bill I couldn’t help noticing that there were still congresspeople calling global warming a hoax. So there does seem to still be a communications gap here. I wonder whether you have any different insights about the communications challenge that maybe you didn’t know a couple of months ago?

Lubchenco: I think that what most members of the public are interested in is…will it affect me? Will it affect the things I care about? Can I do something about it? And I think the report that we released last week is very helpful in beginning to address the first parts of that — the
There is a lack of appreciation for how important the ocean is in the whole climate system.”
information about, for example, different parts of the country experiencing increasingly heavy downpours, but recognizing that that plays out much differently from one region to another, ranging from an increase of 9 percent in extreme heavy downpour events in the Southwest to a whopping increase of 67 percent in the Northeast. I think that information that is credible and solidly-grounded in good measurements is very useful for people to see, but I believe it also corresponds to what many people are experiencing, as well. And I sense that we are moving towards increasing recognition of the reality of climate change, and the fact that it is affecting the things that people care about. What also needs to be communicated is that something can be done about it, and that’s both something that individuals can do, but something that governments should do as well.

e360: Several years ago, you and I spoke about the issue of ocean acidification, which has always been a sort of stepbrother of global warming, although by some accounts equally serious.

Lubchenco: Yeah, I call it the equally evil twin.

e360: You’re a marine ecologist, this is really your world. Even if you don’t want to believe in global warming, there’s just no getting around the effects of CO2 on oceans. And yet we don’t hear a lot about this. Why can’t this penetrate?

Lubchenco: I think that oceans in general for many people are still out of sight, out of mind, and there is a lack of appreciation for how important the ocean is in the whole climate system, how important it is to people’s everyday lives, and what the real risk is. The oceans are indeed becoming more acidic, as a result of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and that acidity represents a very real threat to much of the life in oceans, ranging from the smallest microscopic plants, to coral reefs, to things that form shells — mussels, oysters, clams — but even things like lobsters and crabs. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface in terms of really understanding the full range of the impacts of ocean acidification, and it also affects physiology, not just the making of shells and skeletons.

e360: Can you talk a little about that?

Lubchenco: Obviously, first and foremost the best thing to be done is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as rapidly as possible. It only emphasizes the importance of getting on with good legislation and committing to reducing heat-trapping pollution. But above and beyond that, gaining better information about what parts of the ocean are changing faster than others, how it really is affecting different types of life in the oceans, and what kind of strategies might be formulated to help ameliorate some of the impacts.

e360: There was just a report by NOAA folks last year, who were sort of shocked to find upwelling of surprisingly low pH water right in your neck of the woods, off the Pacific coast.

Lubchenco: NOAA has been in the forefront in the research on ocean acidification, and is working in close collaboration with the leading academics on this issue. And we have identified the urgent need to have more instruments in the water tracking and measuring the changes that are underway, so we can better understand the dynamics. And, as you point out, along the West Coast where there is upwelling, there appears to be an area that is already significantly affected, and we’re seeing much greater changes than I think anyone anticipated.

They’re seeing very low pH levels and the other chemistry that goes along with that, it’s not simply a matter of pH. There are other chemical changes in the ocean water that affect plants and animals, and the rate at which
The president made it clear that he thought that good government depends on good science.”
they can make shells, or the rate at which shells are dissolved. I just learned today of some very interesting work being done by NOAA and some academic scientists looking at some deep-sea volcanoes in the western Pacific where there is carbon dioxide that is bubbling up from beneath the ocean, and likely causing lower pH in the immediate vicinity of the areas where the bubbles are emerging. And so there are places where it is possible to investigate the consequences of lower pH on the immediate biota in the area. But setting that aside, I think there is great urgency in significantly ramping up research monitoring and research programs on ocean acidification.

e360: Toward the end of the last administration, there were a lot of complaints from scientists that [they were] basically being censored — government scientists. And a bunch of those came from NOAA — people being asked not to use the term climate change in conferences and stuff like that, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little about how you found the agency and how you send a new message out?

Lubchenco: This is definitely a new era. I think the president set the tone in announcing his science team so very early on in the series of appointments. The president made it clear that he thought that good government depends on good science, and it was his intent to restore science to its rightful place. NOAA is a stellar science agency, and there are superb, outstanding scientists here who are delighted to be valued and supported, and eagerly awaiting the new policies that the administration is in the process of prepping to ensure that the integrity of science is protected. I think that there is wide enthusiasm for policies that will really provide good guidance and ensure that science is not constrained, is not politicized.

e360: Can I talk a little bit about one of NOAA’s other major areas — fisheries. What can NOAA do about a problem that also worries a lot of people?

Lubchenco: NOAA is required by the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Management Act to end overfishing. The important issue is how do we actually accomplish that. Traditional fisheries management has really focused on controlling how many days a year fisherman can fish, what the size of the catch can be, and other related means to control their effort. And that is the way most fisheries are managed, certainly within the United States. There is increasing scientific evidence that an alternate form of fishery management, that has now come to be called “catch shares,” is in fact more effective and produces better results at achieving sustainable fisheries and healthy ecosystems.

e360: Can you explain a little bit about that for folks who aren’t familiar with how that approach works?

Lubchenco: The shares of the fishery are allocated to entities — those might be fishermen, or boats, or communities — and let’s say that fishermen have a guaranteed fraction of the catch that is their privilege to catch every year. So the total amount of fish that can be caught in any year is divided into these fractions. For example you might be allocated 10
I think all too many scientists assume that everybody knows what they know.”
percent of the total catch for the year, I might be allocated 5 percent of the total catch for the year. It’s like dividing up a pizza. The way most of them are done there is simply an allocation that is given based on past fishing history, but once you have that allocation, you can trade it, you can sell it. Many fishermen are concerned with the problem of consolidation, where a few people would buy up all the shares. You can structure the rules of fisheries to limit that happening... And the amount that can be caught in any one year is determined scientifically by what is sustainable for that fishery.

e360: And that’s distinctive from, like, if I have a fishing season that’s X number of days, and everyone just goes out and catches as much as they want, and perhaps catches more than the fishery can deal with sustainably?

Lubchenco: That’s right. The point here is to align conservation and economic incentives — that if you as a fisherman, or you as a community, that holds these catch shares, you have a vested interest in the future, not just the present, and it’s in your interest to see the value of your portfolio grow through time. You would like your 10 percent to represent more pounds or tons of fish in future years and so you have an interest in making sure that everyone is abiding by the rules, that other things that might be damaging the habitat or affecting the health of the system are minimized. And it completely turns the economics of fishing on its head.

The poster-child for traditional fisheries management run amok was the halibut fishery in Alaska, that was reduced to a single-day derby — the entire season, the entire year’s catch, was caught in a single day, a mad rush to catch fish, and then the market would be glutted. That was one of the first fisheries to go to a type of catch share, and it now is a very healthy fishery, and the benefits are that the fishermen can go out when they choose, when the weather is good, when the market price is right. Consumers are guaranteed to have good, fresh halibut, pretty much year-round, instead of having it only a couple days a year fresh and the rest of it is frozen. And so there are many benefits to both the fishermen, as well as to consumers.

e360: And does NOAA have the authority to make that kind of transition?

Lubchenco: The reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act does give the authority for fisheries to be catch-share fisheries, and it sort of spells out the conditions. The way the process works is that a fishery management council will look at a fishery and say, is it appropriate for us to be considering catch share? If so, they would recommend that to NOAA and the Secretary of Commerce, who would then approve it.

e360: Are you now in the process of considering those various fisheries?

Lubchenco: There are currently 12 catch-share fisheries in the United States. We mentioned one, the Alaska halibut, and there are a number of others scattered around the country. And in light of the scientific analyses that came out last year that I think blew people away in terms of how powerful a tool this is, we are now actively promoting the consideration of catch shares by fishery management councils. I don’t think it’s appropriate for NOAA to tell councils that they have to do this, but I would like to encourage all councils to consider them. Not all fisheries are appropriate for catch-share fisheries, and they are more likely to be useful for commercial fisheries than recreational fisheries. And there has been a lot of resistance to catch shares, because they are new, because there is fear of this initial allocation — there are inevitable winners and losers in the allocation — and because there is a lot of uncertainty about them. They also require having good monitoring, and good mechanisms for data collection, and so there have been economic impediments to implementing catch shares.

e360: Is this a model that we could apply to many resources?

Lubchenco: Yes, indeed, I think it has a lot of merits that are relevant for other kinds of resource management issues, and I think that fisheries has been a particularly challenging one in part because it’s easier to go with the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. But I’m very encouraged, and the New England Fisheries Management Council just last week approved moving toward catch shares for the ground fishery — the different kinds of fish that essentially live on the bottom of the ocean.

e360: Let me ask you one more question. Is there anything you know now, sitting on the other side of the table, that you wish you had known when communicating about science and policy that you might want to share with your colleagues who haven’t yet seen things from the other perspective?

Lubchenco: Being in this job has only reinforced the importance of communicating scientific information in a way that is understandable and relevant to the decisions being made, with concrete examples, and in as unequivocal a fashion as possible, while still remaining true to the nuances that are important. And I think all too many scientists assume that everybody knows what they know, and especially members of Congress, and members of the administration.

And so it’s critically important that more scientists become bilingual — able to speak the language of science, but also able to speak the language of

Yale e360 Interviews

Click below to read more interviews from Yale Environment 360.

Michael Pollan: What’s Wrong With Environmentalism
Elizabeth Kolbert: The Media and Climate Change
Thomas Friedman: Hope in a Hot, Flat Crowded World
Amory Lovins: Why Energy Efficiency is the Key
Freeman Dyson: Reluctant Global Warming Skeptic
lay people when talking to non-scientists. When we train graduate students, we train them to speak the language of science, and that language has real meaning. And all of the jargon terms are used for very real purposes. They are not just there to obfuscate or create a group of insiders. The terms are very specific and connote very important nuances and differences, but at the same time I think scientists need to be trained to be able to take the information, the product of the discovery that they are involved in, and translate that in non-technical terms. That’s not always an easy thing to do, but it’s incredibly important.

e360: One other question. Are there any other big issues on NOAA’s plate right now that I should have asked you about and didn’t?

Lubchenco: There are a number of other issues that we might follow up with at a different time — marine spatial planning and ecosystem-based management are two of them that loom large. Part of my goal is to have healthy, productive, resilient ecosystems along our coastal margins and in the open ocean, in support of healthy, productive, and resilient coastal communities. And so achieving those goals definitely requires addressing climate change, ocean acidification, and the fisheries issues, but it’s much broader than just those.

POSTED ON 09 Jul 2009 IN Biodiversity Climate Oceans Oceans Policy & Politics North America 

COMMENTS


Hi

We have a solution to both Ocean acidification and decline in fisheries.

We propose the use of Diatom Algae to absorb CO2 in the oceans and increase the dissolved oxygen level and the diatoms would be food for fish.

We have an unique patented micro nutrient powder that causes a bloom of Diatoms.

best regards

Bhaskar
www.kadambari.net
www.nualgi.com/new
Posted by M V Bhaskar on 10 Jul 2009


I'm confused. I thought warming seas would release their CO2 back into the atmosphere which
in turn would increase air temperatures.

Cooling seas would absorb more CO2 and thus wouldn't this effect put the corals at risk?



Posted by ian George on 10 Jul 2009


Comments have been closed on this feature.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Kolbert, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1999. Her 2005 New Yorker series on global warming, "The Climate of Man,” won a National Magazine Award and was extended into a book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, which was published in 2006. Prior to joining the staff of the New Yorker, she was a political reporter for the New York Times. She recently spoke to Yale Environment 360 about the responsibility of both the media and scientists to better inform the public about the realities of a warming world.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.
READ MORE

How Climate Change Could Jam
The World's Ocean Circulation

Scientists are closely monitoring a key current in the North Atlantic to see if rising sea temperatures and increased freshwater from melting ice are altering the “ocean conveyor belt” — a vast oceanic stream that plays a major role in the global climate system.
READ MORE

The Dungeness Crab Faces
Uncertain Future on West Coast

The winner of the 2016 Yale Environment 360 Video Contest explores how ocean acidification may be putting at risk a prized crustacean that is vital to the fishing industry and the marine ecosystem on the U.S. Pacific Coast.
READ MORE

How Growing Sea Plants Can
Help Slow Ocean Acidification

Researchers are finding that kelp, eelgrass, and other vegetation can effectively absorb CO2 and reduce acidity in the ocean. Growing these plants in local waters, scientists say, could help mitigate the damaging impacts of acidification on marine life.
READ MORE

A Tiny Pacific Nation Takes the
Lead on Protecting Marine Life

Unhappy with how regional authorities have failed to protect fish stocks in the Western Pacific, Palau has launched its own bold initiatives – creating a vast marine sanctuary and conducting an experiment designed to reduce bycatch in its once-thriving tuna fishery.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Interviews


What’s Killing Native Birds in
The Mountain Forests of Kauai?

by diane toomey
Biologist Eben Paxton is sounding the alarm about the catastrophic collapse of native bird populations on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. His group's research has uncovered the culprit: disease-carrying mosquitoes that have invaded the birds' mountain habitat.
READ MORE

Exploring How and Why
Trees ‘Talk’ to Each Other

by diane toomey
Ecologist Suzanne Simard has shown how trees use a network of soil fungi to communicate their needs and aid neighboring plants. Now she’s warning that threats like clear-cutting and climate change could disrupt these critical networks.
READ MORE

At Ground Zero for Rising Seas,
TV Weatherman Talks Climate

by diane toomey
John Morales is part of a new breed of television weather forecasters seeking to educate viewers on climate change and the threat it poses. In South Florida, where sea level rise is already causing periodic flooding, he has a receptive audience.
READ MORE

Unable to Endure Rising Seas,
Alaskan Villages Stuck in Limbo

by diane toomey
As an advocate for Alaska’s Native communities, Robin Bronen points to a bureaucratic Catch-22 — villages cannot get government support to relocate in the face of climate-induced threats, but they are no longer receiving funds to repair their crumbling infrastructure.
READ MORE

Why CO2 'Air Capture' Could Be
Key to Slowing Global Warming

by richard schiffman
Physicist Klaus Lackner has long advocated deploying devices that extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to combat climate change. Now, as emissions keep soaring, Lackner says in a Yale Environment 360 interview that such “air capture” approaches may be our last best hope.
READ MORE

Bringing Energy Upgrades
To the Nation’s Inner Cities

by diane toomey
Donnel Baird has launched a startup that aims to revolutionize how small businesses and nonprofits secure funding for energy efficiency and clean energy projects in low-income neighborhoods. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, he talks about how he plans to bring his vision to dozens of U.S. cities.
READ MORE

From Mass Coral Bleaching,
A Scientist Looks for Lessons

by katherine bagley
For climate scientist Kim Cobb, this year’s massive bleaching of coral reefs is providing sobering insights into the impacts of global warming. Yale Environment 360 talked with Cobb about the bleaching events and the push to make reefs more resilient to rising temperatures.
READ MORE

For James Hansen, the Science
Demands Activism on Climate

by katherine bagley
Climate scientist James Hansen has crossed the classic divide between research and activism. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he responds to critics and explains why he believes the reality of climate change requires him to speak out.
READ MORE

How Ocean Noise Pollution
Wreaks Havoc on Marine Life

by richard schiffman
Marine scientist Christopher Clark has spent his career listening in on what he calls “the song of life” in the world’s oceans. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains how these marine habitats are under assault from extreme—but preventable—noise pollution.
READ MORE

How to Talk About Clean
Energy With Conservatives

by diane toomey
Angel Garcia, of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, is working to persuade Republicans about the need for renewable energy. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains why his group avoids mentioning climate change when it makes its pitch to conservatives
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

“Ugandan
Ugandan scientists monitor the impact of climate change on one of Africa’s most diverse forests and its extraordinary wildlife.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale