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Under Biden, NOAA’s profile is set to rise as climate change takes center stage

Transition team is working to set goals and identify leaders for agency.

Satellite image of Hurricane Iota as it approached Nicaragua. (NOAA)

When President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is expected to rise to new prominence as the premier climate research agency in an administration that intends to place climate change at the top of its agenda.

The Biden transition team is mapping out key priorities and identifying potential leaders for an agency whose responsibilities also include weather forecasting, ocean research, the health of the nation’s fisheries and protection of endangered marine species.

NOAA’s next leader will have the critical task of shaping the agency’s climate research agenda so it can effectively serve as an information clearinghouse to policymakers charged with planning for the consequences of climate change and mitigating its effects.

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Jane Lubchenco, who served as NOAA administrator under President Barack Obama, said the next person to lead the agency should hold “strong scientific climate and climate-ocean credentials” and have expertise in climate change impacts and how to address them.

“The right person at the helm can harness that expertise and work in partnership with other agencies, Congress, tribes, states and communities to be much more effective in tackling climate change,” Lubchenco said in an email.

David Titley, who served as NOAA’s chief operating officer under Obama, said an ideal administrator would be passionate about NOAA’s mission, know and understand Washington, have leadership and management chops and be able to “[c]raft, communicate and sell a compelling vision for NOAA going forward, accounting for the massive changes in technology, climate and society.”

According to multiple former NOAA officials and environmental advocates who closely follow the agency, a leading candidate to run the agency is Monica Medina, who has twice held leadership positions at NOAA. She was NOAA’s general counsel in the Clinton administration from 1997 to 1999, and principal deputy undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere under Obama from 2009 to 2012. She currently serves as the founder and publisher of Our Daily Planet, an environmental newsletter.

“[Medina] has a record of getting things done — often against the odds — in ways that are good for people and the environment,” said Justin Kenney, who was communications director at NOAA under Obama and worked with Medina. “She not only values and listens to scientists, she actively works to preserve scientific integrity.”

Medina, unlike most past NOAA administrators, is not a scientist, and a complicating factor in her case is that she is married to incoming White House chief of staff Ronald A. Klain, though spouses often serve in different government departments. However, with her experience at the agency and political connections, she could be an asset for obtaining resources for the agency.

Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia, is another top contender to head the agency. Shepherd, a skilled communicator on climate science, would be NOAA’s first Black administrator. Shepherd is a past president of the American Meteorological Society, frequently appears as an on-air expert on the Weather Channel and previously worked on weather satellites for NASA.

Shepherd said in an interview that he has held conversations with transition teams regarding the leadership and direction of key weather and climate agencies, including NOAA and NASA.

“Theoretically the [NOAA administrator] job is quite appealing and there’s a lot of work to be done, but personally this may not be the right time for me,” he said regarding his interest in the NOAA position.

In addition, the Biden transition team has also reached out to Everette Joseph, director of the National Center of Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. Joseph, who is also Black, taught at Howard University, where Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris also attended school, and has taught at the State University of New York at Albany.

Margaret Leinen, who directs the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is another name frequently mentioned for the job. Before joining Scripps, her past work included a seven-year stint at the National Science Foundation, where she led research planning for the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates climate science activities at 13 federal agencies. She holds a PhD in oceanography.

Also in the mix is Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who founded the Urban Ocean Lab and is an advocate for the oceans’ role in solving climate change. She too would be the first Black administrator and would bring formidable communications skills to the job, as the current co-host of the hit climate change podcast, “How to Save a Planet,” on Gimlet.

Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in environmental science and public policy, and a PhD in marine biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She would also bring to the job a focus on diversity and inclusion, something that’s been a key challenge facing the atmospheric sciences in particular.

Other former NOAA officials may be interested in coming back to the agency as well, including Holly Bamford, who previously served as director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service, and Rick Spinrad, who completed a stint as NOAA’s chief scientist.

Kathryn Sullivan, a former astronaut who served as NOAA administrator during Obama’s second term, is on the Biden team’s review committee for the Commerce Department, which houses NOAA, and could seek to return to a high-level position in the administration. Other names could surface as the incoming administration sorts out other environment-related posts, such as the White House climate czar and leaders of the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy.

When asked about the incoming administration’s approach to NOAA, Jamal Brown, a Biden spokesman, pointed to a tweet from then-candidate Biden in which he criticized President Trump’s appointment of a prominent climate change contrarian to NOAA. “I won’t put a climate change denier — one who called the scientific community ‘a bunch of thugs’ — in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,” the tweet said.

NOAA’s stature expected to rise

NOAA’s anticipated high-profile role within the Biden administration comes as a stark contrast to the Trump administration, during which the agency largely flew under the radar and, for the first time in its history, went without a Senate-confirmed administrator for an entire presidential term.

The Trump administration’s first pick to lead NOAA, who ultimately withdrew his nomination citing health concerns, was Barry Myers, a former executive at AccuWeather, a company with a history of friction with NOAA’s National Weather Service.

Trump later nominated acting administrator Neil Jacobs, a meteorologist with a private sector background, but his nomination was never taken up by the full Senate. Instead, he served in an acting role.

Jacobs’s tenure at the agency was marred by a scandal known as “Sharpiegate,” which saw NOAA leaders violate the agency’s scientific integrity policy to retroactively bring its forecast for Hurricane Dorian in line with comments Trump made regarding the threat the storm posed to Alabama.

NOAA leaders violated agency’s scientific integrity policy, Hurricane Dorian ‘Sharpiegate’ investigation finds

Most recently, the Trump administration has again thrust NOAA into the news by hiring two scientists who question the seriousness of climate change to key posts in the agency and also detailing them to work on the National Climate Assessment, the government’s definitive report on climate change and its consequences in the U.S.

Climate change and restoring scientific integrity expected to be top priorities for new leadership

A transition team memo, obtained by The Washington Post, laid out how the Biden administration can set itself up for making progress on climate change from day one. It lists “reestablishing the central role of climate change in everything NOAA does” as a key goal. The memo also placed emphasis on the agency’s need to build public trust and invest in climate and ocean monitoring infrastructure along with weather forecasting accuracy.

A blueprint for the Biden administration prepared by issue experts and former Obama administration officials, known as the Climate 21 Project, instructs the incoming administration to shore up the agency’s scientific integrity policy to better deter against another Sharpiegate incident. It also identifies a need to rebuild the morale of the agency’s rank-and-file scientists and policy specialists.

“There is general agreement that strong agency leadership needs to be restored early in the next administration, in order to send a message regarding the importance of science and the role of NOAA in advancing the new administration’s climate agenda,” the report from the Climate 21 Project states.

The report notes that the leaders of the Commerce Department need to take interest in and advocate for NOAA’s priorities, something Andrew Rosenberg, a former NOAA official now at the Union of Concerned Scientists, echoed in an interview.

Julie Campbell, who owns a management consulting company in the earth science market and worked at NOAA for a decade, said additional areas of emphasis will probably include investments in data accessibility and cloud computing as well as operational efficiencies while “balancing mission critical technological developments in such areas as space remote sensing and new and exciting capabilities in observations and data sources in the commercial sector.”