NOAA Head Jane Lubchenco On Ocean Policy What is on the horizon for the U.S. role in ocean management? Jane Lubchenco, newly-confirmed administrator of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), discusses her top priorities for ocean policy — from forming a National Climate Service to ending overfishing.
NPR logo

NOAA Head Jane Lubchenco On Ocean Policy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
NOAA Head Jane Lubchenco On Ocean Policy

NOAA Head Jane Lubchenco On Ocean Policy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Up next, the future of ocean policy in the Obama administration. The head of the nation's top science agency for climate, oceans and the atmosphere joins us. We've been talking about her. It's time to bring her on.

Jane Lubchenco is a marine ecologist. She was confirmed last week by the U.S. Senate as the undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and new administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Dr. Lubchenco joins us from Aspen. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. JANE LUBCHENCO (Marine Ecologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): Hi, Ira. It's great to be with you again.

FLATOW: How are you feeling about this job so far?

Dr. LUBCHENCO: I'm on a very steep learning curve.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LUBCHENCO: But I'm energized, inspired and really delighted to have this opportunity.

FLATOW: Do you think that all these years as an ocean scientist prepared you for the politics that are involved in this kind of work?

Dr. LUBCHENCO: I think that the politics, I still have a lot to learn about some of the politics, but I have a wonderful opportunity, having interacted with members of both parties over the years, lots of people on the Hill, a lot of other agencies. So I think I'm well-positioned to take on this challenge.

FLATOW: The president said he wants to restore science to its proper place. I'm sure you must be in agreement with that.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: I absolutely do agree, and the fact that the president nominated his science team so early on in the process, I think is a clear statement that he is acting, not just saying those words. He's made it clear that he believes that good government depends on good science and being nominated so early on and as part of the science team, I think is a clear statement that science is back, and science will guide our decisions.

FLATOW: Do you think it's proper and fitting for scientists to speak up and tell the administrators and politicians what's on their minds?

Dr. LUBCHENCO: I believe that scientists have an obligation to share what they know in ways that are relevant and understandable to decisions that people are making. They can talk and should be communicating more effectively about what we know, what we don't know, how certain of it are we and what the likely consequences of different policy choices might be.

So, all of that is in the guise of science informing policy. Science should be at the table, and that's part of the role of scientists, regardless of what hat they wear. In the administration, obviously, we have an obligation to do more than just share the science, but to make policy and management decisions based on that science.

FLATOW: We're going to have to take a short break, Dr. Lubchenco. Stay with us, all of you. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We'll be back with Jane Lubchenco, who is the new administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. You know it as NOAA. We'll talk about her views on where science research should go and science priorities about oceans and atmospheres. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking to Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who's joining us from the Aspen Environment Forum there in Aspen, and she is the new NOAA administrator.

Dr. Lubchenco, you know, over the last several months, we keep seeing new reporters suggesting that the sea level's going to be rising, slated to happen, rise much faster than the IPCC predicted.

We hear scientists telling us that things are - the glaciers are melting faster. Are we underestimating some of the effects of climate change here?

Dr. LUBCHENCO: I think that it's been very challenging to understand all of the ways in which climate change will affect sea-level rise. We know for sure that over the 20th century, sea-level rise rose approximately six inches.

The challenge comes in predicting exactly how much more is in stock for us. There are a couple things about sea level rise that - where the physical processes are well understood and there are other areas where it's less well-understood.

On the well-understood part of it, we know that when seawater is warm, it expands and that thermal expansion helps contribute to a rise in sea level. That's pretty easy to understand and predict. We also know that many of the small glaciers on land are melting because of warmer air temperatures. And that is also contributing to sea level rise and is a fairly well-characterized physical process.

So those two parts of it are pretty easy to understand. And the predictions that were in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report were a reflection of those processes. The biggest uncertainty comes in the third area, and that is exactly how climate change will affect the great, big, huge ice sheets on Greenland and in the Antarctic.

And those dynamics are not well-understood, are very, very difficult to make precise predictions about, and many of the different projections that we are seeing about possible sea level rise in the future, those uncertainties are due in large part to the challenges in understanding exactly how these great ice sheets are behaving.

They've been changing a lot faster than people thought they would. And they're melting. There is so much water that could possibly be released if they melted and went into oceans that it has huge potential. And so we see fairly considerable ranges in terms of projections. And I think what all of this really brings to the fore is the extent to which there are some parts of climate change that we know and understand fairly well.

There are others about which there is greater uncertainty, and it's quite likely that we will continue to be uncertain for a period of time. And yet we need to move ahead and set in motion plans to adapt, that will be based on reasonable estimates, understanding that they're going to be somewhat uncertain for years to come.

FLATOW: Well, we have a weather service. You know, when farmers want to know when to plant, or what they think the weather's going to be, or people want vacation or whatever. We have a weather service that predicts the rainfall and the heat and temperature of the day.

I understand you're saying we need something like a climate service now that would tell cities - if cities are going to prepare for rising sea levels and things like that, they need to know what the climate's going to be.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: That's absolutely the case. I think, you know, climate change is now threatening so many aspects of our lives that affect economic prosperity, human health, national security, ecosystems and environment. And I really believe the nation needs to develop and communicate authoritative, regular and useful information to guide decisions about adaptation.

This National Climate Service would provide just those types of services, and we are envisioning it as analogous to the National Weather Service. I believe it's an idea whose time has come. We have climate-scale models - or climate models at the continental scale that are able to make reasonable forecasts for climate-scale phenomena, i.e., 20 to 30 years.

We are working very hard in moving toward improving the ability to do regional-scale forecasts. And our plans with our new supercomputers will put us on a track to be able to do that in the not-too-distant future. So it's our hope that we can utilize that regional scale information to provide businesses, governments, citizens with information about sea level rise, inundation predictions, but also drought warnings.

Warnings for ocean acidification, where, for example, to cite a renewable energy facility - if you're building a wind farm, you would want to know not just where the winds have been good for the past 100 years, but where they're likely to be good the next 100 years. So there are a number of new ways that climate is affecting our lives that if we had some reasonable forecasts for 20 to 30-year horizons, we could be doing a much better job of making decisions about land use, about water management, about crops, about a whole suite of different things.

FLATOW: Interesting. Is there money allocated for this already, or do you have to go - to set up the National Climate Service - do you have to create some new budgetary line for this?

Dr. LUBCHENCO: We are in the early stages of designing what this would look like, talking to other agencies and it's an idea whose time has come, as I said, and we will undoubtedly, to do it justice, need significantly greater resources than we have at hand.

FLATOW: Now, it seems almost like the lines are blurring between environmental protection, and oceans, and atmosphere and things like that, that it's hard to work as, I would think, just in your own little bailiwick without affecting something else.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: I think we are beginning to appreciate the extent to which humans depend on nature and are affecting changes in nature that in turn have consequences to us. We've heard that loud and clear from scientific studies from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but also the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

And I think that we're beginning to see that, in fact, that is playing out in the real world. When I had the opportunity to serve on the Pew Oceans Commission a number of years ago, we spent a fair amount of time going around the United States talking to citizens who live on the coastal areas. We also spoke to folks in the interior and simply said to them, among other things, what do you want from oceans? What do you get from oceans?

And what I heard back was essentially five basic things. We want clean beaches, we want safe healthy seafood, we want stable fisheries, we want abundant wildlife and vibrant coastal communities. And when you think about the fact that half of Americans live in the coastal areas and the other half often goes there to play, we begin to appreciate the connectedness between the land and the ocean, and our lives and livelihoods and the environmental changes that are affecting the oceans and the land.

FLATOW: You've always been a very strong proactive supporter of the oceans. Will you be that strong and proactive in your new job?

Dr. LUBCHENCO: Oh, absolutely. But I, also, as an ecologist, appreciate the connections between the oceans, and the atmosphere and the land. And part of my responsibility as administrator is to focus on both the land, and the ocean and the atmosphere, all three of those. And NOAA has responsibilities to conduct science, to provide services and to be a good steward in managing marine resources.

And those three major parts of what we do: the science, the services and the stewardship, all involve interactions and integration of the land, and the oceans and the air.

FLATOW: Here's a question from Second Life from CTYankee(ph) writes, does NOAA have a position on deep ocean CO2 sequestration? There is talk about that that might be a place to permanently sequester carbon dioxide.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: There are a whole suite of possible options for taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and essentially burying it. That is one of them. There is no position that I'm aware of that we have on this. I should qualify that by reminding you that this is my sixth day on the job.

FLATOW: Come on, you have (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LUBCHENCO: Well, there's a lot that I'm still coming up to speed on.


Dr. LUBCHENCO: But that said, I think that climate change is so serious that we need to be doing everything possible to reduce emissions as fast as possible, and also preparing for changes that will come that are inevitable because of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

I think there are a whole suite of types of geoengineering proposals that are out there that need to be examined really, really carefully so that we don't inadvertently cause more harm than we are trying to fix.


Dr. LUBCHENCO: I believe that should be based on science…


Dr. LUBCHENCO: …and that that's where that dialogue should be at present.

FLATOW: Right. With so much to do, how do you set priorities for what you'd like to do first?

Dr. LUBCHENCO: Well, the - as the administrator, I am obligated to uphold the rule of law and to base decisions on the best possible science, and to take guidance from the president. So, those are sort of the parameters. Obviously, there is a lot of potential within those boundaries.

NOAA has three responsibilities for science, services and stewardship -give us some good direction. What was said by your earlier guests about the importance of investing in science is absolutely the case. And NOAA has long been a leader in this arena, but we need to be doing much more on that front to really understand how the oceans and the Earth system work and are changing. That science needs to be factored into the policy decisions that we're making.

FLATOW: What sciences specific, if you can pin that down a little bit more for us.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: Well, for example, if we truly want to have that litany of things that I suggested earlier was what we heard from Americans that they wanted from oceans, the clean beaches, et cetera - for us to be able to make the policy and management decisions that are needed to accomplish those end points, we need to have a more comprehensive understanding about how ocean ecosystems work.

We talk a lot about managing on an ecosystem basis, but we don't really have the fundamental understanding of ecosystem-based science to really underpin those decisions. There is a huge amount that we don't know about oceans that is desperately needed to inform the kinds of management decisions, especially in light of climate change and ocean acidification.

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

So, if we're thinking about how - what is the right limit on a particular fishery, what is the right coastal zone management policy, what is the right choice for aquaculture. We can't think of those individual decisions in a vacuum. They need to be - or they should be understood in a more holistic fashion relative to how they impact the ecosystem, and how they interact with one another.

So, historically, you know, we have made different decisions or made decisions about drilling for gas or oil separately from aquaculture, separately from the desire to protect marine mammals, separately from the desire to stop overfishing and recover depleted fisheries.

Those collective activities need to be thought of in a more comprehensive, holistic fashion. So one of…

FLATOW: Let me just jump in and remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: So one of our goals is to create a mechanism for having more comprehensive ecosystem-based planning that will take stalk of the range of activities that can coexist with one another to minimize conflicts, but also ensure that the ecosystem that many of whom depend on remains healthy or can be recovered.

FLATOW: So you have a lot of research to do is basically what you're saying, and restoring funding for that research.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: That's correct, but we also have significant responsibilities to make immediate management decisions that are based on our current knowledge, and put us on a path, for example, to be recovering many of the fisheries that are indeed in serious trouble.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. And what kind of - and immediately, do you have a decision about our fisheries or any path that you would like to tell us about?

Dr. LUBCHENCO: Well, I think one of the most exciting opportunities that we will have will be to think differently about fishery management. The problem is that fisheries globally are, in general, not doing particularly well. Fewer fish mean fewer jobs. The challenge is to rebuild healthy oceans and the communities and ecosystems and economies that depend on them.

And I hope that we can reframe the debate and move from traditional fishery management that controls efforts in days at sea, types of gear, to more incentive-based management that gives fishermen a stake in the future.

FLATOW: Give me an example of that.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: This is a new type of management that is often called catch-share programs, and it provides a mechanism to make that protecting jobs and the environment go hand-in-hand concept of reality.

The concept of catch shares is that there is a total limit set on the amount of fish or a particular type of seafood that can be caught in a particular year, in a particular season. But the - each of the players, be they individual fishermen or communities, has a guaranteed fraction of that catch. And that fraction is guaranteed for, not only this year, but for years down the road.

FLATOW: So that's called catch and share. I have to interrupt, Dr. Lubchenco. Stay with us, okay? We have to go to a break.


FLATOW: We have to sell some products and pay the bills. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. I'm talking with Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who is the new head of NOAA at the - out there at the Aspen Environment Forum. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY on NPR News.

I'm talking with Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who is the new head of NOAA, and there's just a few minutes left to talk with her. There's so much to talk about. Dr. Lubchenco, last time you were on SCIENCE FRIDAY, you said that people were faced with a choice about saving the oceans and you called it mutiny for the bounty. Explain that concept and what you see NOAA as having a role in encouraging this.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: Over time, we have seen significant depletion and disruption of oceans. It is time to restore them to a healthy, productive state so that we can continue to benefit from their bounty. And I have suggested that having a mutiny for the bounty is an idea whose time has come.

That involves being more aware of changes in oceans and making decisions that will help protect oceans because they will bring economic and social benefit by doing so. That plays out a lot of different ways. We were talking about managing fisheries…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: …and some of the exciting developments in that arena by aligning economic and conservation objectives, and allowing fishermen to have a stake in the future of - an economic stake in the future and therefore be champions for good management practices and healthy ecosystems.

I think it's just really true that healthy ecosystems and healthy communities and jobs go hand in hand, and that's true in the oceans, as well as on land.

FLATOW: You've got to expect that there's going to be some pushback on this from fishing - fishing industries.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: There was a very interesting study done last - that was released last year about these catch-share programs, which suggested that of the ll,000 fisheries globally that were analyzed, those who are operated with some kind of catch-share program are actually thriving and doing well. Those who were operated or managed under more traditional management were, by and large, not doing well, were failing.

And I think there is renewed interest on the part of many fishermen in these catch-share programs. The United States now has 12 such programs in place and we expect to add four more by 2010. These are things like Pacific halibut and sablefish in Alaska, or red snapper in the Gulf, Georges Bank Cod Hook Sector is managed with catch shares, and there are others. But I think that this is a revolutionary new concept that has a strong potential to help recover lost bounty in oceans and thereby also recover many of the fishing jobs that have been lost because of past practices.

FLATOW: If the oceans are under threat from such things as acidification from CO2, runoff from farming, does NOAA have the power to cross those lines into, you know, the - where the EPA might have jurisdiction over CO2 regulations, or the Agriculture Department may have something over the runoff. Do you understand the point I'm getting at?

Dr. LUBCHENCO: Absolutely. Most of these issues are much larger than any single agency or department. And they will - their solution will absolutely require good collaboration and cooperation and a strong commitment and leadership at the highest levels. To really address the issues in oceans will require multiple agencies working together in concert.

Obviously, NOAA is a key player in that, is a lead, but we will be working closely with other agencies to find that common ground and to align our policies and practices for the benefit of Americans.

FLATOW: Well, Dr. Lubchenco, I thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: It's my pleasure, Ira.

FLATOW: And we wish you the best of luck in your new position, and we'll be following you and you have an open invitation to come back and talk to us anytime you like.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: I appreciate that. Thanks very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Dr. Jane Lubchenco is a marine ecologist. She's well-known in the marine world, and she is now the new head of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And she joined us from the Aspen Environment Forum.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.