Now’s the Time for NOAA

NOAAS Ron Brown – its global-class research vessel named for the late Secretary of Commerce

by Margaret Spring and Justin Kenney

Preparing to take office on January 20, President-elect Joe Biden is building the most qualified and experienced team of experts that any president has assembled to address the climate change crisis. As excited and hopeful as we are about the Biden Administration’s extraordinary climate team, there is a major nomination still missing: the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The need for a credible and accomplished leader at the helm of one of our nation’s most trusted scientific institutions has never been more important. This is especially true considering that in his four years in office, President Trump failed to confirm an administrator for NOAA. This is quite problematic for a government office charged with studying and stewarding the atmosphere, ocean, and living systems they support.

NOAA’s mission includes understanding and predicting changes in climate, weather, the ocean, and coasts, as well as conserving and managing coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. As the government’s preeminent science and management agency for our ocean and climate, NOAA is a trusted and valued partner to emergency managers, business owners, farmers, fishermen, and each of us who rely on NOAA information and services every day. 

Through NOAA’s dedicated experts and its vast assortment of ships, satellites, weather stations, observing systems, and other technologies, it is a critical part of our environmental intelligence network, and any national and international climate effort, a case well made by the Climate 21 project. NOAA scientists lead the National Climate Assessment and are vital to many other science and policy efforts as part of its mission. NOAA also hosts a federal climate portal,, which serves as a major national climate data and information hub.

The ocean is central to our understanding of the climate crisis and environmental security. And it is central to finding solutions. The IPCC’s 2019 “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate” makes clear that greenhouse gas emissions are making our ocean warmer, more acidic, and less productive. At the same time, the ocean holds the key to critical climate solutions, as world leaders have outlined in the recent report from the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy.

The outgoing administration underfunded NOAA and undermined its experts, making it difficult for the agency to fulfill its critical science and stewardship functions. A few examples that made national headlines include the White House efforts to weaken the findings of the fourth National Climate Assessment, and the notorious “Sharpiegate” debacle, when President Trump doctored a map of Hurricane Dorian’s path to incorrectly suggest it would hit Alabama. It’s time for the Biden Administration to right the ship.

NOAA has an enviable reputation as a trusted source of science, including in national crises such as we experienced during Deepwater Horizon. That’s one of the reasons why President Obama nominated Dr. Jane Lubchenco as NOAA administrator as part of his all-star science team.  President-elect Biden can do the same by adding the NOAA Administrator to his climate and science teams, recognizing NOAA’s key role in the administration’s priorities of restoring scientific integrity and taking climate action.

Today, the Biden Administration is poised to reclaim U.S. leadership on climate change. But there is other important work to do too. This month, the United Nations launches the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (the science we need for the ocean we want), which the U.S. must help to lead. It must also assert leadership in other international negotiations critical to restoring ocean health for centuries to come. These will address sustainably managing high-seas fisheries and other activities; eliminating illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing and fishing subsidies; protecting ocean wildlife; preventing ocean pollution – especially plastic pollution; conserving and protecting ocean and coastal habitats — part of the international effort to conserve 30 percent of Earth’s land and ocean by 2030; greening marine transportation; regulating deep seabed mining; and supporting ocean-based solutions to climate change such as offshore wind development. We need U.S. leadership in these negotiations now, especially from NOAA.

We are pleased that the incoming administration is nominating Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo as Secretary of Commerce, given she hails from the “ocean state” and is a strong proponent of climate action. It will be important that she champion a front and center role for NOAA on the administration’s climate and science teams. Since the agency represents 60 percent of the departmental budget, it’s only right that it be a visible and active player at the White House.

With an experienced captain and crew at the helm, NOAA can take bold, inclusive, science-based climate action. And at this unique moment in history, President-elect Biden has the opportunity to continue to honor his pledge to appoint “the most diverse team in history” when he names the next NOAA administrator and other appointments.

So to the Biden team, we urge you: Let’s get expert, inspirational and courageous NOAA leadership in place at this critical agency at this pivotal time.

Margaret Spring and Justin Kenney served at NOAA in the Obama Administration.

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