December 16th, 2014


University Distinguished Professor and Advisor in Marine Studies, Oregon State University


To quote Charles Dudley Warner, “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”  Dr. Jane Lubchenco was tasked with just that when President Obama named her to head up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2009.  It turned out to be the start of the most extreme four-year weather period in U.S. history.

“We had over 660 major tornadoes,” Lubchenco remembers.  “We had sixty Atlantic hurricanes, including Sandy, Isaac and Irene.  We had six major, just devastating floods.  Record-breaking snowfall, prolonged heat waves, wildfires -- you name it, pretty much every category of weather, we broke records.”

Lubchenco was at The Commonwealth Club to receive the Stephen Schneider award for Outstanding Climate Communication, honoring the late Stanford climate scientist and a founding member of the Climate One advisory council.  

There was one upside to all this crazy weather, Lubchenco continued, and that was a heightened public awareness of the very real effects of climate change.  Americans paid attention, she says, “because it was no longer, in their view, something that was way far down the road in the future or someplace way off in the Arctic.  They were actually experiencing something that they knew was weird.”

Describing the connection between climate change and recent extreme weather events, Lubchenco used the all-American analogy of baseball.  “If a baseball player starts taking steroids, he has a much better chance of hitting lots more home runs, and some really big ones,” says Lubchenco.  “Now, that doesn't mean you can point to any particular home run and say aha, that home run is because he's taking steroids.  But the pattern of a lot more and bigger is attributable to steroids…what we're seeing is weather on steroids.

“We’re not there yet to be able to say with any certainty in real time whether an event is caused by climate change,” she continued.  “But stay tuned, because the science is getting better and better, our models are getting better, and I think in the not too distant future we’ll be able to answer the question more directly in real time.”

Climate One’s Greg Dalton asked Lubchenco, a marine ecologist, to talk about the effects of global warming on the oceans.  “The oceans are definitely warming,” Lubchenco reported, “that’s true around the globe.” She went on to describe how warming oceans become more acidic as they absorb more carbon dioxide caused by human activity. “That's very problematic for a lot of marine life that makes shells or skeletons of calcium carbonate.  We've already seen oysters and other shellfish be seriously affected by this increased acidification.  And obviously, sea level is rising.  So there are multiple different ways that climate change is affecting oceans and that in turn, of course, affects people.”

There has been some good news regarding marine repopulation efforts, she says.  “The four years that I was at NOAA we saw very, very dramatic changes in U.S. fisheries,” That, she says, is thanks to new government legislation as well as teamwork between NOAA, non-governmental organizations and the fishing industry itself.

The discussion then moved from ocean depths to stratospheric heights. Lubchenco and Dalton were joined on the dais by Alex Bakir of Planet Labs. The company is engaged in deploying “microsatellites,” about the size of a digital camera, for mapping climate change and other applications.  

“What if you could launch many satellites that size?” asks Bakir. “What could you do? What if you could put a camera inside every one of them and operate hundreds of these things, what does that mean for the planet?  Our goal over the next 12 months is to take a composite image of the entire planet once every 24 hours.”

Lubchenco sees this nimbler, comparatively inexpensive technology as complement, not competition, to the array of multi-billion-dollar satellites operated by NOAA and NASA. Those massive satellites, she explains, are equipped to measure “things you can't see in the atmosphere -- ozone, the chemistry in the atmosphere, measuring rain, ocean color, sea surface heights…not just visible wavelength information but other wavelengths, radiation, calculating the earth’s radiation budget, the solar radiation.” All of this information, she says is critically important to understanding climate change.

Lubchenco says persuading a reluctant Congress to fund such expensive equipment has been a challenge.  Still, she got a laugh from the audience when she related that “one member of Congress looked at me and said, ‘Doctor, I don't need your weather satellites -- I have the Weather Channel.”

Both Lubchenco and Bakir are excited about using crowd-sourcing to enhance the scope of satellite data, through sites like Zooniverse and

“It’s a very powerful tool,” says Lubchenko.  “More and more scientists are using it to help analyze very, very large amounts of information where you really need people to do something specific, like identify something.”

So back to our Dudley quote: what can be done about the weather? Or more to the point, what can the average citizen do to address the impact of climate change?

“Being active in reducing your own footprint and making your own decisions is important,” Lubchenco reminded the audience.  “But really paying attention to the politics of it, having members of state legislatures, of Congress, having businesses and communities really show leadership” is key.

“Things happen because citizens make them happen. And, you know, California has certainly been a leader in much of that.  And it's making a difference.”


- Anny Celsi

December 16, 2014

Photos by Ed Ritger

The Commonwealth Club of California