The head of the United States’ top oceanic and meteorological agency reassured employees late Monday that the $5.9 billion institution would not be abandoning its traditional focus on climate change research and marine conservation.
The move by Timothy Gallaudet, the retired rear admiral and oceanographer who is the acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, came after media outlets revealed a leaked presentation, which he delivered internally last week, that had listed proposed changes to NOAA’s mission statement, including removing the word “climate” and adding a new emphasis on economic and national security goals.
Gallaudet said his presentation, an attempt to align NOAA with the strategic objectives of the larger Department of Commerce of which it is part, was not a “a final, vetted proposal” and “was not reviewed by the Office of the Secretary prior to the meeting.”
He added it was “not intended to exclude NOAA’s important climate and conservation efforts, which are essential for protecting lives and the environment.”
The message also said Gallaudet and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross support the agency’s mission statement — still officially unchanged — which is “to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.”
The Washington Post and numerous other media outlets had reported on Gallaudet’s internal presentation, which caused considerable controversy within the earth and ocean sciences community.
Former NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco said the proposal “ignores the best interests of the American people, core congressionally mandated responsibilities, overwhelming scientific evidence, and plain common sense.”
Gallaudet’s presentation came as a surprise because during the Trump administration NOAA has released information and updates about climate change on a regular basis and also prominently publicized a major government-wide report late last year, affirming that humans are the leading driver of the warming of the planet.
Yet despite Gallaudet’s reassurances, his presentation — which also talked about dramatically growing the U.S. aquaculture industry and using the agency to help address a “seafood trade deficit” — nonetheless signals that very high-level thinking is going on at the agency about how it can shift its operations so as to better serve the policy goals of President Trump.
“I think he is caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Andy Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which first exposed the presentation.
“He has walked the presentation on the mission back, which is certainly a good thing. But the priorities listed in the presentation also don’t include climate or conservation. And neither does the President’s [executive order] on ocean policy. So I feel like Gallaudet is trying to be sensible but is under a lot of pressure.”
One individual familiar with NOAA, who spoke on condition of anonymity to maintain agency relationships, reported some employees don’t want NOAA to become more like the Environmental Protection Agency, where climate change is viewed as considerably more politicized, due to the agency’s overt regulatory mission.
“Climate people are hunkering down hoping to stay under radar while concentrating on core mission to preserve data, do science, and deliver services,” wrote the individual.