Jane Lubchenco 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.

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.

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 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: 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?

: 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.

Elizabeth Kolbert, YALE environment 360, 9 July 2009. Full article.

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