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White House appoints former NOAA leader Jane Lubchenco to key climate change role

Jane Lubchenco. (Joy Leighton) (Joy Leighton)
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The White House has appointed Jane Lubchenco, a well-known marine scientist at Oregon State University and former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to a high-level position coordinating climate and environmental issues within its Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

The announcement scheduled for Friday marks another step in the Biden administration’s all-of-government approach to tackling climate change.

Lubchenco is serving in the renamed position of deputy director for climate and the environment, which in previous administrations had been known as the head of “energy and the environment.” The renaming signifies the emphasis the Biden Administration is placing on climate change.

Lubchenco’s portfolio encompasses a broad set of issues that President Biden asked OSTP officials to address in a letter on Jan. 15. In the letter to Eric Lander, nominated to serve as presidential science adviser, Biden tasked OSTP with finding climate change solutions that will help improve the economy and health, “especially in communities that have been left behind.”

OSTP is also responsible for overseeing the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates climate research among 13 different agencies. Every four years, this program produces the U.S. government’s definitive report on climate change science and impacts, known as the National Climate Assessment.

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In an interview, Lubchenco said her aim is to seek to promote solutions to global warming that would have tangible benefits for working class Americans, in keeping with Biden’s “Build Back Better” campaign.

“I frankly relish the opportunity to represent a president who values the science,” she said, noting that for Biden, complex issues such as climate change are ultimately about people on the ground. “I really like that he always brings policy back to people. … It’s very grounded in what’s real.”

Lubchenco will be the top climate scientist at OSTP, serving under Lander, a prominent geneticist. She will work with the White House climate adviser, former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, as well as the myriad federal agencies that conduct climate science research, from NASA to the Energy Department.

“Dr. Lubchenco is deeply devoted to practical, science-based solutions that have a meaningful impact on the everyday lives of American families,” McCarthy said in a statement. “I’m looking forward to working alongside her in this historic, newly named role to battle climate change and improve the lives of Americans for generations to come.”

Lubchenco is among the most prominent women in climate science, and in addition to running NOAA from 2009 to 2013 under President Barack Obama, she also served as the first U.S. State Department science envoy for the ocean, from 2014 to 2016. Recently, she advised the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a group that brings together 14 heads of state, including the leaders of Australia, Canada, Japan, Indonesia, Norway, Palau, and Fiji, to commit to sustainable oceans management.

“I am a scientist, but I am also focused on practical, sensible solutions and outcomes that will actually bring benefits,” she said.

“This elevation of one of the nation’s most distinguished scientists to the forefront of the climate crisis is yet one more example of President Biden’s pledge to use science to inform pragmatic, evidence-based policies to ensure the welfare of all Americans, including children and grandchildren for generations to come,” said Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academies of Sciences, in a statement.

Biden’s ambitious goals on climate change, including achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, will require large expenditures in research and development as well as the deployment of renewable energy technologies and ways of enhancing natural and human-made systems that remove carbon from the atmosphere.

In the shorter term, the administration faces the tough task of crafting and passing an infrastructure program that also supports energy innovation and climate change adaptation measures, given the narrowly divided Senate.

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“Part of what I am focused on right now is thinking about ways that we can achieve the president’s goals of reducing emissions as rapidly as possible but doing so in ways that help recover the economy,” Lubchenco said.

She recently helped organize a report for the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy that found that ocean-based activities, such as restoring and protecting coastal habitats where mangrove forests thrive, could contribute as much as 21 percent of the emissions cuts needed to limit global warming to 1.5-degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. This is the threshold that world leaders and climate scientists recognize at which dangerous climate change impacts are likely to begin to occur.

Emission reductions that large, the report stated, would equal the yearly emissions from all of the world’s coal-fired power plants.

“That was a startling number,” Lubchenco said.

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When thinking about cutting carbon emissions to prevent damage from global warming, people tend to focus on land-based activities, Lubchenco said. “The ocean has been pretty much out of sight and out of mind.” Meanwhile, it’s the oceans that have been absorbing 93 percent of the added heat coming from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, with waters turning more acidic and hostile to many species in the process.

A major question facing society, she said, is “How do we use the ocean without using it up?”

“The lens that I bring to a lot of these issues is understanding how the pieces are connected and how they affect people.”

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