Friday, December 19, 2008

Obama's NOAA Appointment May Have a Profound Impact Upon Alaska


President-elect Barack Obama has announced the appointment of oceanic climate change expert Dr. Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For Alaskans, at least, this may be his most important administrative appointment yet.

Dr. Lubchenco first came to my attention in the summer of 2002, when she was being interviewed about the dead zones showing up off the Oregon coast. She is a professor of oceanic biology and zoology at Oregon State University, so not only was she then one of the best-versed experts on the effects of climate change on the oceans, she had a high level of local knowledge.

Prof. Lubchenco is an unabashed environmentalist. She named a program she administers the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program. According to Oregon State University, the program, "teaches outstanding academic environmental scientists to be effective leaders and communicators of scientific information to the public, policy makers, the media and the private sector." She will be managing that program until she takes her new job in January.

Lubchenco got her bachelors degree at Colorado College, her Masters in Zoology from the University of Washington, and her PhD in Ecology at Harvard.

At the University of Washington, she was one of the important proteges of Dr. Gordon Orians, an early critic of environmental practices by big industry.

Orians was one of the first to question the efficacy of Agent Orange, its health hazards on applicators in Vietnam, and its long-term effects on foliage, water tables, animals and people. Orians' 1967 Scientific American article on Agent Orange, written after he had done weeks of field work with U.S. forces in the combat zones there, was the first to openly and courageously confront the problem. I was serving in the U.S. Army when his article came out. It made me question whether or not I was in yet another way, helping enable war criminals.

Orians and E.W. Pfeiffer from the University of Montana returned to Vietnam in 1969 to study the effect of continued use of the herbicide there, writing about it in 1970, and speaking widely about the immense environmental devastation caused by the chemical.

It was at this time that Lubchenco was beginning study with Orians. There were a number of other notable young students in Orians' orbit at that time, most notably the endangered species and biodiversity expert, Douglas H. Chadwick, and the paleontologist and mass extinction expert, Peter Ward. She has described that time as pivotal in her ecological thinking.

In a detailed, lengthy set of audio interviews, recorded in 2004 by the National Academy of Sciences (if you link to the article, click on the individual parts of the interview, not the first HTML reference), Lubchenco goes through her childhood, education and professional journey.

By and large, the oceanic science community is extremely positive about her appointment. She is an incredible networker, has experience testifying in front of congressional committees, and may be one of the best academic/scientific administrators active today.

NOAA, and its components, The National Weather Service, The National Ocean Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, are very important to Alaska. This was realized more than once, over the years, by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, far less so, by Rep. Don Young, and Sen. Frank Murkowski. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been more supportive of these organizations' missions.

I spoke with one of Alaska's foremost oceanic scientists, Dr. Riki Ott, this morning. She is excited about Lubchenco's appointment. Ott says that "Dr. Lubchenco has the ability to get people excited about science. She makes scientific knowledge seem fun, and can help people easily understand some fairly complex ideas."

Ott went on to describe watching other scientists respond enthusiastically to Lubchenco at a conference on climate change and oceanic pollution a couple of years ago, remembering how capable and gregarious Dr. Lubchenco came across to their colleagues.

The Anchorage Daily News appears to not much care about getting the word out on yesterday's announcement - at least today. Wesley Loy posted an ADN Highliners blog entry about Lubchenco's appointment yesterday evening. It hasn't yet been turned into an article, and has yet to get a single comment. (Levi Johnston's mom's bust, though merits Page A-3 top-of-the-fold coverage in today's print edition, plus headliner treatment on their electronic edition. 622 comments and counting....) Keep dumbing us down, Patrick Dougherty.

An important point on Dr. Lubchenco is that she understands that we need to act soon, particularly on ocean acidification, and on stopping the massive amounts of pollutants entering our oceans from rivers, large and small. Many of her talks describe holistic approaches that would throttle the actions of industrial giants producing oil-based fertilizers, and of such crops as those from Monsanto-produced seeds which are made to work hand-in-hand with products like Roundup.

I'd love to be present at her first joint operating group meeting with Tom Vilsack.

images - Dr. Jane Lubchenco; the NOAA Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Auke Bay, by John Hudson

14 comments:

Steve said...

I'm not sure where all the background information comes from, but this is the sort of piece that helps inform us about who our policy makers are and how they developed to be the people they are. It even has links to audio interviews. This is what journalism should be about.

Thanks, Phil.

Philip Munger said...

Some of the background information on the period when Dr. Lubchenco was earning her MS at the U of W comes from my personal experiences at that time. I was working in broadcast news, knew or knew of the people I mention in the post, and had a deep respect for Dr. Orians' courage at that time.

The rest is referenced in the html links.

Unknown said...

I'm glad you brought up the agribusiness problem because it's going to be harder to solve than most people think. Millions of livelihoods are in some way dependent on the kind of increasingly intensive industrial agriculture enabled by Monsanto Seed's technology. The economic barriers to change seem insurmountable when nearly the entire physical state of Iowa is Round-Up Ready (tm). They made us wear gloves handling those treated seed in the factory. I remember the chemical smell made me woozy if I stuck my head directly over a bucket. I think my shoes and jeans might still have some green stain on them after three years or so.

Anonymous said...

Excellent informative post, Phil. Thanks. It makes me feel somewhat hopeful.

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