Challenges for NOAA…other federal agencies…and the rest of us

Today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) rolled out the President’s FY2012 agency budget at a stakeholders’ meeting. Similar scenes are playing out across the city. The occasion provides opportunity to take stock of the challenges facing this important agency and our larger community.

The focus is on the budget, and the dollar figures certainly matter. However, the main challenges are far more substantive.

To see this, go back a few years, to when Dr. John Knauss was the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmospheres (that is, the NOAA administrator). That would have been from mid-1989 to early 1993. In those days, he would occasionally exhort his senior staff. “Our job is to ensure that NOAA is as relevant fifteen years from now as it is today.”

How are NOAA and our larger community doing by that yardstick? Relevance is a subjective notion, but let’s give this a try. To start, how relevant was NOAA back in those years? Well, here were a few things going on at the time(forgive a bit of oversimplification, but we’re trying to paint a picture in a few broad strokes). The beginning of the period? The March 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, its aftermath and cleanup dominated the headlines and NOAA’s attention. NOAA chemists were still working hard on the science of the ozone hole and the Montreal protocol. The end of the period? That saw the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the start of today’s well established, Nobel-prize-winning, and oft-maligned IPCC process) adopted at an Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in June of 1992. Some 170 nations participated; 108 sent their heads of state, including George Herbert Walker Bush (yes, that’s right, Republicans led the charge on climate change; something to remember as we regard today’s mudslinging and stereotyping on this topic).[1]

One hundred heads of state gathering at Rio to talk about climate change? That sounds like a pretty big deal. What on earth precipitated such a meeting? Basically, two concerns. The first was a long-term series of measurements of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, dating back to 1957 and the pioneering work of Charles David Keeling. The measurements, by the 1990’s under the purview of NOAA, showed a year-by-year rise of CO2, consistent with what was known about fossil fuel emissions. The second was a set of global climate computer simulations showing that a doubling of CO2 would lead to global warming of a few degrees Centigrade over the 21st century. Arguably the best and most influential modeling of that day came out of NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey.

Put these events together, and you’d say that for a ten-thousand person agency, NOAA punched above its weight. Relevant? Oh, yeah.

So, is NOAA equally germane today? Well, just a quick note to start. John Knauss took the reins at NOAA only in mid-year 1989. The NOAA position wasn’t considered so momentous in those days and he was named late in the Bush administration’s confirmation process. By contrast, today’s NOAA administrator, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, was named in December, 2008 by President-elect Obama, along with John Holdren, his pick for science advisor. She was one of the President’s earliest nominations! So, over the twenty years, the NOAA position had risen in importance, and had come to be aligned with overall US science priorities as a whole.

Today’s NOAA pertinence (continued)… Coincidentally, we’re just coming off the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which evoked many comparisons to the Exxon Valdez event. As in 1989, the Nation turned to NOAA in 2010 for answers to big questions: how bad is the spill? What is its volume? What are the impacts? What processes govern the oil plume dispersal? How can and should we respond? How will we be able to determine that the Gulf has returned to normal? What should be our policy with respect to Gulf oil extraction in the future? How about oil and gas exploration in the Arctic Ocean in coming years? NOAA science and services have played a critical and visible role in response to the spill. Today also, NOAA’s chemical oceanographers are looking at ocean acidification.

And where stands that pesky climate issue today? And how about NOAA’s role in the worldwide climate dialog, climate decision-making and policy formulation? Today the climate issue is much more than the abstraction of a greenhouse gas rise and a few degrees of warming. Today the climate issue is seen in terms of specific, quantifiable impacts on climate-sensitive sectors. All of us are more aware of our climate vulnerabilities! Just about every activity looks like climate matters: from water and agriculture, to renewable energy, to transportation and even retailing. Do you know, in March of 2007, Sports Illustrated ran a special issue on the impacts of global warming? None of us gets to escape the issue!

Along the way, climate discussions have gotten much more pointed. Nations, including the US, are assessing their climate vulnerabilities, in some cases for the second or third time. Corporations are folding climate considerations into their larger strategies for risk management. Public awareness has grown by leaps and bounds. And NOAA continues to be a focus of attention and influence. And – we’re all too aware of this one – climate became important enough to be controversial.

Adding all this up? If you’ve been a NOAA employee over the past twenty years, good on you! You’ve answered John Knauss’ call. NOAA is indeed as relevant today – not just in absolute terms, but in relative terms – relative to a much richer, more complex, more globalized society – than it was in the early 1990’s.

Tomorrow, a closer look. Turns out NOAA’s relevant today, but in a slightly different way than it had been back then. And that has implications for NOAA’s future prospects, including its likely role in human affairs.


[1] The situation isn’t unlike the series of events leading up to the 2008 global financial-sector meltdown. Democrats remind us that the debacle occurred on George Bush’s watch; Republicans point out that the origins of the closely-related housing bubble go back to the earlier Clinton administration. In the same way, the climate change issue isn’t a Democratic (Al Gore) invention…any more than the Internet is. The sweep of history and events on the real world is non-partisan!

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2 Responses to Challenges for NOAA…other federal agencies…and the rest of us

  1. Pingback: NOAA’s relevant today, but perhaps no longer so dominant. | Living on the Real World

  2. Pingback: What will it take to keep NOAA as relevant in 2026 as it is today? | Living on the Real World

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