a planetary perspective from kathryn sullivan, head of noaa


A planetary perspective from Kathryn Sullivan, head of NOAA

climate change, nature & conservation

The first American woman to spacewalk talks climate change and more in advance of her EARTH NOW: EARTH 2050 keynote speech.

Sullivan is Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the first American woman to walk in space. She’ll be at UCLA on October 18 to deliver the keynote speech of EARTH NOW: EARTH 2050, a massive, three-day environmental symposium at the Luskin Conference Center.

I recently spoke with Sullivan to get her takes on climate change, dealing with the politics of Washington—and what it’s like to look at our planet through a window.

We are in the middle of a year marked by record global temperatures and increasing extreme weather events. How has 2016 affected your thoughts about climate change?

I have long paid close attention to conditions and scientific observations of the Earth and different phenomena. If you’re not someone who pays attention to that routinely, the headlines are probably very striking. For those of us who do this for a living, it’s another dot on an all too well-known curve that confirms the many ways our planet is changing—principally because of increasing carbon dioxide and heat retention in the atmosphere. That produces all the cascading effects we’re seeing. A hotter atmosphere can hold more moisture, just like a hotter day can be more humid. And as you shift the mean temperature to the right, you’re going to find more weather events that we used to consider extreme happening more frequently. It’s another year in which both the foundational data of global temperature, surface temperature and ocean temperature confirm basic physics first elucidated almost a century ago by a Swedish scientist. If anything, it reinforces and accentuates the sense of urgency the science community feels to make sure society is responding in appropriate ways—reducing the carbon load we inject into the atmosphere and preparing our societies, countries and businesses for very different conditions than we’ve seen in the past.

What is the single most concerning observation you’ve made this year, and why?

That’s a little like asking your doctors, when you’ve gotten a very complex diagnosis, “what’s the single thing that you’ve observed and tested that concerns you the most?” It’s the whole set of things that constitute the condition and the syndrome that you’re in. Continually rising temperatures certainly are a concern. I guess if I were going to flag any single thing—and just because it’s kind of a capstone illustration—it might be that the level of carbon dioxide detected at our atmospheric baseline observatory at the South Pole passed the 400 part per million level in the last year. That’s the last of our six stations to pass that milestone. That’s a notable point.

What do you think the biggest challenge will be going forward as the global community tries to stem climate change and deal with its effects?

The big challenge is going to be threefold: Mustering the political will to stay the course by making more direct and consistent connections between climate risk and economic decision making. It will be essential step for societies to shift toward designing, living and operating in a more resilient fashion. And then perseverance—humans don’t do long term trends very well. We have short time frame fields of view and very linear, simple ways of thinking about the world around us. This is neither a short-term nor a linear kind of problem. It’s also going to take some consistent leadership in business, in general society and in political society to carry forward the efforts and actions it will take to reduce the carbon burden in the atmosphere and make our societies more resilient.

What gives you the most hope for the future?

One is the negotiations in Paris last November—the number of countries that came to the table and the fact that each country made and declared its own commitment. You can debate the adequacy and boldness of them, but you had individual nations coming to the table having determined commitments to pursue and making them public and transparent. That is significant. Those commitments give civil society and many other players the ability to step in and help hold the nations of the world accountable. I think the provisions of the Paris agreement that focus on adaptation and resilience are significant and give me some hope.

On the oceans front, the other thing that gives me hope is when John Kerry shifted from being a senator to being Secretary of State. He’s long been passionate about ocean issues and has done an awful lot to move ocean health issues, from healthy fisheries to ocean acidification. He moved those issues from the realm of science and environment ministers to the power base of the country—the national security, defense, economic and diplomatic agendas. That’s potentially a game changer.

You were the first American woman to spacewalk and have logged 532 hours in space. As far as personal reflections go, what surprised or surprises you the most?

I came back with a set of yin and yang impressions. On the one hand, you see massive systems like the Gulf Stream and the hurricane. That can make you feel dwarfed by it all and make you think ‘how can paltry little old me’ or even ‘how could paltry little old us’ have any kind of impact on planetary systems of this scale and magnitude. But at the same time you also see very, very fine-scale, really elegant patterns in those systems. It’s like an elegant filigree. That yin and yang of scale and power but elegant finery and intricacy is impressive. It gives you a sense of the unity and oneness of things. Everything in the news that is about clashes and contests. You instead see all of Africa as a magisterial continent. You struggle to remember that there are people down there who are angry at each other, or that there are wildlife populations being poached to extinction.

The opposite side of that coin is that you also see the hand of man on the planet—the gray smudge against a green background that is a city, carved out from a forest or a jungle; highways, lines of light seen at nighttime. We are a powerful species. We leave very vivid fingerprints on the planet. And those are the ones you can see. As an earth scientist, I would also look at the atmosphere and the ocean… river plumes discharging into the sea, for example. All the colored sediment from the valleys serve as tracers out in the water, letting you see very fine scale aspects of current and the circulation. But also knowing that there are other chemical compounds and biological compounds in that pretty tan plume. And some that is extra nutrients that produce an overabundance of aquatic plants that are going to consume all of the oxygen in that part of the coastal ocean, and that are going to squeeze out the fish that would otherwise live in those waters.

In your current role, how do you deal with the widely-publicized political pressures and powerful special interests of Washington D.C.?

NOAA is a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ outfit. We’re about data and the careful analysis that turns those data into actionable information that people use in countless ways. The simplest, most well-known form of that is our daily work to transform billions of measurements of the atmosphere globally into a weather forecast. We’re the guys that fuse together those billions of measurements with detailed knowledge of how the atmosphere works, gained through decades of very sophisticated research, and convert that into what you get on your smart phone or in your newspaper—a weather outlook you can bank on, and that you do bank on. Every major airline banks their daily systems operations on it. If you’re a mariner anywhere in the coastal waters and the Great Lakes, you’re counting on that same knowledge, skill and reliability anchored in deep public trust for your charts. And that’s what I stay on. I’ve had five different presidential nominations or assignments through the course of my career. Three have been for Republican presidents and two have been for Democratic presidents. I’m one of those people that deeply believes that science is a nonpartisan enterprise of great importance to the safety, operation and vitality of our country. And I aim to bring great science to our decision makers.