Dinner Keynote
Global Oceans, Climate, and Security Conference
Boston, MA

Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., Under Secretary of Commerce
for Oceans & Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator

As Delivered

May 22, 2012


It’s a pleasure to join you today.  This conference is particularly timely.  Oceans are changing radically and rapidly.  Climate change and ocean acidification in particular pose serious risks to the social, economic, health and environmental benefits we derive from oceans. 

Tonight, I’ll touch on the importance of these issues and summarize some of the activities underway to address the challenges.  I’ll emphasize activities at NOAA and some of our many partnerships with academia, industry, and other agencies at the federal, regional, state, and local levels and efforts to monitor, measure, inform, and adapt to climate change and ocean acidification. 


Oceans are important to people around the world, both today and in previous eras.

When this nation was still young, in 1807, President Thomas Jefferson established the Survey of the Coast, the Nation’s first scientific agency.  He – along with the Congress that passed the bill with little debate - recognized that charting our oceans and coasts would protect the "lives of our seamen, the interest of our merchants and the benefits to revenue."  America’s charting efforts were and still are essential to establishing maritime boundaries.  Perhaps not so coincidentally, on the same day that Jefferson signed the Survey of the Coast bill, he also sent a letter to Congress asking for shallow gun boats to defend our coasts and ports. 

Today, the connections remain.  Just two weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, and I quote: “In the 21st century, the reality is that there are environmental threats which constitute threats to our national security. For example, the area of climate change has a dramatic impact on national security: rising sea levels, to severe droughts, to the melting of the polar caps, to more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief."

Today, oceans provide food, jobs and significant economic benefit as well.

Worldwide, more than three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods.  Marine fisheries directly or indirectly employ over 200 million people.

In the U.S. alone, the coastal economy represents $6of the US GDP, 44 million jobs, and $2.4T in wages.
Oceans feed the world. The FAO estimates that 2.6 billion people depend on the oceans as their primary source of protein.

Oceans are also our pharmacies, our playgrounds and places of solace.  Millions of visitors enjoy our Nation’s seashores each year.

Oceans regulate our climate and weather.  Witness the strong impact of El Niños and La Niñas on patterns of precipitation, hurricanes, droughts and more.

In short, oceans provide a plethora of benefits, but by and large, we take these benefits, or ecosystem services, for granted. 


Multiple threats to these benefits exist, but this conference is focusing on climate change and ocean acidification.

Monitoring by ships, buoys, satellites, planes, underwater autonomous gliders, unmanned aircraft, and even narwhals and seals carrying monitoring devices – show us the substantial changes underway in  our coastal and ocean ecosystems. 

Here’s the bottom line:  Compared to a century ago, oceans are now warmer, higher, stormier, saltier, lower in oxygen and more acidic. 

Let me take each of these in turn:

Temperature:  Global sea surface temperatures have warmed approximately 0.4°C since the 1950s due primarily to the burning of fossil fuels.  Sea surface temperatures are projected to increase another 1.8°C to 4.0°C over the twenty-first-century.  Warmer waters cause coral bleaching, range shifts, increases in diseases, altered productivity, and increases in invasive species.

Sea level rise:  By the end of this century, global sea level is expected to rise by more than 2 feet in a low emissions scenario or nearly 3.5 feet in a higher emissions scenario. Higher sea levels, especially in combination with storm surge, will increasingly inundate U.S. coastal communities and threaten coastal ecosystems and infrastructure, such as military installations.

Storms and Waves:  Extremes in wind speed and wave height are increasing on a global scale.  This was documented in a 2012 Science paper examining a 23-year database of calibrated and validated satellite altimeter measurements.  This has implications for shipping and security.

Low Oxygen:  We’re seeing decreased oxygen due to both warmer waters and run off of nutrients from the land.  Warmer waters are due to climate change.  Nutrient runoff comes from enhanced land-based activities: increased use of fertilizers, loss of native vegetation along streams and rivers and more concentrated livestock operations, which collectively have led to increased run-off of nitrogen and phosphorus.  This nutrient pollution causes increases in harmful algal blooms and areas of low-to-no oxygen (so-called ‘dead zones’).  The number of dead zones around the world has approximately doubled each decade since the 1960s.  A recent study identified more than 530 dead zones around the world, most in coastal waters at the mouths of rivers draining agricultural areas. 

Ocean Acidification: Oceans absorb carbon dioxide.  As CO2 in the atmosphere rises, so does the CO2 in the oceans.  More carbon dioxide in the ocean makes the ocean water more acidic.  Oceans have become approximately 30% more acidic over the past 150 years, and are expected to become more corrosive by the end of this century. 

Note that these changes have been detected directly from monitoring, not just modeling. The chemistry of ocean acidification is well understood and not controversial.

Impacts of ocean acidification will be particularly severe for many calcifying species, including shellfish, corals, and many types of plankton – species that are the critical food sources for ocean life. 

So I repeat: Compared to a century ago, oceans are now warmer, higher, stormier, saltier, lower in oxygen and more acidic.  Any one of these would be cause for concern.  Collectively, they shout out the need for action.

Societal implications of these ramifications of climate change include threats to food security, water quality and quantity, disease, energy security, impacts from extreme weather events, and economic security. 


Clearly, we need to act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as prepare to adapt to changes already underway.  The magnitude of this challenge requires an unprecedented level of coordination, cooperation, and creativity from all sectors.  I am encouraged by some of the progress that has been made to address climate change challenges through the actions of business leaders, government agencies, scientists, non-governmental organizations, journalists, and individual citizens. 

Here are eight activities underway by the Federal Government that are relevant to understanding and dealing with climate change. 

National Climate Assessment (NCA)

The Global Change Research Act of 1990 requires a National Climate Assessment at least every four years. The next National Climate Assessment due to the President in 2012, is well underway.  It is compiling and analyzing the latest science and information about current and future trends and effects of climate variability and change across the United States.  It does so in a way that is useful to resource managers.  The NCA breaks down climate change information by region and provides predictions for those regions. 

Interagency Task Force on Climate Change Adaptation

In 2009, the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, including over 23 Federal agencies and White House offices, was created to strengthen the Nation’s capacity to understand and prepare for climate change.  CEQ, OSTP, and NOAA co-chair the task force.

Through topic-based working groups, and over 35 listening sessions and outreach events, the Task Force identified five key adaptation areas: 

As a result of the Task Force’s work, all Federal agencies are now required to develop, implement, and evaluate climate change adaptation plans. 

NOAA’s Adaptation Team is doing just that.

In addition, the US Global Change Research Program has established a new Adaptation Science program to strengthen science in support of adaptation decisions at all scales.

Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring

In 2009, Congress passed the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act.  

NOAA leads the research and monitoring effort across the US government and has established an Ocean Acidification Program.

Our Ocean Acidification Program plans and oversees a long-term coastal and open-ocean monitoring program.  This is a growing monitoring effort that uses innovative technology.

In parallel to this monitoring, NOAA’s research on ocean acidification includes studying the response of coral reefs, fishes, crabs, shellfish and algae to changing ocean chemistry.  Responses to OA are species-specific and location-specific.  We need to understand these phenomena better.

Data/Climate Records

NOAA is responsible for keeping the nation’s climate records.  This is one of our many activities in providing the nation with critical environmental intelligence.

Environmental intelligence starts with observation systems – satellites, ground-based monitors, planes, ships, buoys, moorings, weather stations, tall towers, weather balloons, underwater gliders, and so on. 

Data Portal:  ocean.data.gov

The National Ocean Policy’s Framework for Effective Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning calls for the development of a robust information management system to allow easy access to and transparency of data and information necessary for coastal and marine spatial planning. Successful planning requires the synthesis of a broad range of data and information about ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes environments and the way people use these environments.

Ocean.data.gov is the National Ocean Council’s portal for data, information, and tools to support people engaged in planning for the future of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes. This is a one-stop hub to support planners and to provide useful information to the public. Right now and ready for use through ocean.data.gov, information on Arctic fisheries, marine mammals, near-shore impacts, bathymetry, salinity, temperature, and much more.

Climate Services: Extreme Events

Climate or long-range forecasts look ahead weeks and months; these are the forecasts that people, communities, and businesses need to prepare for many extreme conditions. These tools are critical for communicating uncertainty and risk. 

We know how very useful these tools have been recently. Two examples:

And we know that more and more communities are looking for and using these tools to plan, for example to adapt to a climate-influenced future.  Again, 2 examples:

Businesses also use climate forecasts and data strategically.  Three examples here:

Climate Service: Digital Coast

Four years ago, NOAA’s Coastal Services Center launched the “Digital Coast” initiative to address timely coastal issues, including climate change.  One of Digital Coast’s tools, the Sea Level Rise Impacts Viewer, creates visualizations of the potential physical, ecological, and socioeconomic impacts of sea level rise in order to inform the planning efforts of community officials and coastal managers.

While the need for good geospatial data forms the foundation of the Digital Coast, the basic premise of the site is the understanding that data alone are not enough. People need the associated tools, training, and information that turn data into information capable of making a difference. And people want this information in one connected package that is easy to use. Digital Coast does just that.

Users who make up the Digital Coast Partnership provide feedback and guide the development of the site. They let the Center know what issues were most important, what type of content they would find most helpful, and the primary barriers they needed addressed.

These tools are currently being applied in Texas and Mississippi and are serving as the basis of a new partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to better understand and prepare for the potential impacts of sea level rise on vulnerable populations, infrastructure, and ecosystems in Galveston, Texas. 

RISA (Regional Integrated Sciences & Assessments) Program

NOAA's Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program has been around for 15 years.  The RISA program supports 11 research teams that conduct interdisciplinary and regionally- relevant research to inform resource management, planning, and public policy.
RISA teams help build the nation’s capacity to prepare for and adapt to climate variability and change by providing cutting-edge scientific information to public and private user communities.

For example, the California-Nevada Applications Program (CNAP) has helped lead two state climate assessments for the state of California and is providing climate data, diagnostics and outreach for a new “San Francisco Bay Area Climate Impacts Report/Adaptation Planning Campaign”, organized by the San Francisco Bay Region Joint Policy Committee. CNAP is also working with California Sea Grant, University of Southern California Sea Grant, and others to survey coastal professionals regarding climate and sea level information needs for management and decision-making. To date, the survey has elicited over 400 responses, which are currently being analyzed.


Clearly, there is a plethora of activity underway.  Many of these activities are snowballing, gathering more energy and mass.  But, there continue to be significant information, disinformation and distraction hurdles to overcome. 

I know full well that social change is characterized by tipping points.  I believe that many of the good activities underway and the increasing awareness that more wild weather brings are bringing us closer to a tipping point when we will have the political will to make even greater progress.

Tonight I've talked about the importance of

And I've emphasized the big picture: the goal of healthy oceans.  As we look to develop and implement solutions, we need to keep in mind that climate change and ocean acidification interact with and exacerbate other stressors in oceans - overfishing, nutrient and chemical pollution, habitat detruction, invasive species and more.

In closing, I want to emphasize that local actions matter.

A recent study in Science offers some solutions for using local actions to buffer coastlines from the impacts of ocean acidification.  Land-based freshwater runoff can contain fertilizers and other pollutants that acidify oceans at the local scale.  By implementing policies to reduce coastal erosion and runoff and foster sustainable land use, we can decrease the impacts of non-climatic acidification and enhance resilience to climate-related acidification. 

Working at the local level can also help sustain ecosystem services, inform people about the activities in their own backyards that affect ocean health and provide momentum for positive actions thst promote healthy oceans.

in summary: Climate change and ocean acidification are under way, with major impacts on the health of oceans.  These impacts are or will be felt globally, but not uniformly across the globe - by people, communities, businesses, and nations.  As societies, we must develop the knowledge, tools, momentum and political will to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.  Climate change and OA interact with other stressors on oceans so we must take a holistic approach to ensuring healthy oceans.  And finally: local actions matter! Thanks!


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