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NOAA Chief: Rigorous Research Can Slow Climate Change

By Adrienne Frank

Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) spoke at the Katzen Arts Center, Nov. 19. (Photo: Bill Petros)

Climate change is unavoidable.

Over the course of the century, the global community will have to contend with more intense downpours, warmer temperatures, diminishing water supplies, and more 100-degree days. Texas, for example, which currently sees 10–20 days a year over the century mark, is projected to see more than 100 triple-degree days by 2080.

The predictions are dire, but Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said continued scientific research can help slow climate change, allowing people around the world to prepare and adapt.

“Because of the fierce urgency of our problems, now is the time to think creatively,” said Lubchenco, who spoke Nov. 19 as part of American University’s Environmental Science Distinguished Speakers Series. “Climate is now changing at an unnaturally rapid rate, but stronger and earlier action can slow down the rate of some of those changes.”

Lubchenco—the first woman and first marine ecologist to lead NOAA—stressed the importance of “relevant, accessible, timely, and sustained climate services,” scientific information that “offers untold economic, environmental, human health, and national security applications.”

“Imagine,” she said, “coastal communities that are able to plan for sea level rise.”

She called for:

  • new tailpipe standards for automobiles
  • efficiency standards for household appliances
  • aggressive investment in clean energy

“This is an exciting time, internationally as well as nationally, as we anticipate the needs and match up what science can deliver.” It’s also an “exciting time for policy entrepreneurship,” said Lubchenco. “As Albert Einstein said: ‘The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.’ ”

Underscoring the urgent need to “act sooner rather than later,” Lubchenco also detailed a June report that summarizes the current impact of climate change on the United States. The interagency study is “the most authoritative assessment of climate change—not just a report of what might happen, but [a report] of what’s already happened,” primarily as a result of the burning of fossil fuels. Among the findings:

  • Average U.S. temperatures have increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 50 years.
  • Every region of the country has seen more rain in very heavy downpours.
  • We are seeing less snow and more rain, which alters the amount and timing of river flows.
  • Sea level has risen.
  • Glaciers and melting and permafrost are thawing.

Lubchenco said rigorous scientific research is our best hope for combating climate change— what President Barack Obama called “one of the defining challenges of our time.”