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.

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.

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?

“There is a lack of appreciation for how important the ocean is in the whole climate system.”

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 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.

“The president made it clear that he thought that good government depends on good science.”

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 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?

“I think all too many scientists assume that everybody knows what they know.”

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 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 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.