To hear the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tell it, NOAA represents America's best bet for solving widespread problems including poor air quality and coping with an expanding global population.
"Almost everything you do, NOAA's connected to it," NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr. said. "The ocean and the atmosphere, there's only one other piece and that's solid earth. Seventy percent of the world is ocean, and the atmosphere is 100 percent. We're talking about a significant piece that nurtures life on Earth."
Lautenbacher, a retired three-star admiral, is working to transform a 12,500-person agency that has sometimes struggled to get attention into one of the administration's key research branches. From assessing climate change to providing transportation-related weather forecasts, Lautenbacher is trying to position NOAA as an information center for U.S. and international officials.
"I will take all the heat in the world about getting the best science, looking for the truth and getting it to policymakers," he said in a recent interview.
Outside observers and administration officials say Lautenbacher, who took over NOAA in December 2001, has already achieved what is likely to be considered his legacy, bringing together 51 nations to establish a more sophisticated monitoring system for the land, sea and air. The proposed Global Earth Observation System of Systems, a network of thousands of weather stations, buoys, ships and aircraft, will take the globe's pulse and transmit the information 24 hours a day. If it goes as planned, the system could transform the way farmers plant their crops and shippers plot their courses.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt, who has worked with Lautenbacher on the effort, describes it as "Nobel Prize-winning work."
The system will "change the way we live, change the health of millions, tens of millions," Leavitt said. Lautenbacher, he said, is one of those people who "through the strength of their personality just keeps the process moving."
The United States rolled out its draft plan this summer. By mid-February, the project's international coalition will announce a 10-year plan to accomplish its mission.
A self-described "tsunami aficionado" with a doctorate in applied mathematics, Lautenbacher is a mix of scientist, naval officer and management guru. He speaks of creating a "corporate organization" at NOAA and makes his staff read the book "Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done." He also embraces "ecosystem management," an approach to managing oceans favored by both environmentalists and scientists.
"I like to think big," he said. "That sounds self-promoting. I think about focused objectives and outcomes in large-scale operations."
He is also a skilled banjo player who appeared on ABC's "Hootenanny" while at the Naval Academy and a furniture maker who rebuilt a deteriorating garage on the grounds of the Naval Observatory several years ago with the aid of a few friends. Although he is hardly a flower child, Lautenbacher learned early on to appreciate nature. He took the train with his parents from their Philadelphia home to hike several miles outside the city.
"I lived in the concrete jungle, and on weekends my family would escape," Lautenbacher said. "My parents today would clearly be considered environmentalists."
In many ways, Lautenbacher functions as an administration emissary on ocean and atmospheric issues. He persuaded French officials to support the global system proposal when the United States was launching its invasion of Iraq and did the same with Sudan even as the United States was scrutinizing that country's human rights record. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, he spoke late at night to several hundred people to make a pitch for the international monitoring plan.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was Lautenbacher's boss on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said his former aide is "not a screamer, not a shouter. He's just a persuasive person." Lautenbacher uses his analytic skills "in getting to the right answer, and then he persuades others of that right answer," Powell said.
William H. Hooke, a former NOAA veteran who directs the American Meteorological Society's Atmospheric Policy Program, praised Lautenbacher's ability to win support from the Bush administration for the monitoring plan.
"He's able to get his bosses, and by that I mean Cabinet-level people, to focus on this long-range problem in the midst of short-term concerns," Hooke said.
Still, some members of Congress and some environmentalists have criticized Lautenbacher for not moving fast enough on problems such as global warming and overfishing.
When Lautenbacher appeared before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee last month, committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the administration's stance on climate change "disgraceful." McCain said he was "deeply disappointed, particularly in you, but also [in] the administration's attitude towards climate change."
Lautenbacher defended the administration's position, saying it is investing in technology to slow the emission of greenhouse gases. He said in an interview that "it's a real exaggeration to say the science is settled" on climate change.
"The body of evidence says man is changing the face of the Earth. I don't think anybody disputes that," Lautenbacher said. "The question is, what's the forecast? I don't think that's settled yet."
McCain remains skeptical. "I think he knows better, but the edict went out" on climate change, he said in an interview.
Marine advocates such as Michael Hirshfield, Oceana's vice president for North America, said Lautenbacher is clearly knowledgeable on ocean issues, but activists are still awaiting more aggressive regulation from NOAA to protect deep-sea corals and reduce the incidental catch of fish and other species.
Lautenbacher is unfazed by the criticism. "There are extreme environmentalists on one side who say we're not doing enough, and then there are other people who say we're doing far too much." Most Americans, he said, are "in the middle. Most people do not want to destroy the environment, but most people want a healthy economy and society."