EDITORIAL: A scientist in charge

By The Times-Picayune
December 26, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama has made several high-level appointments that could impact our region — including naming New Orleans native Lisa Jackson to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

But Ms. Jackson won’t be the only official in the incoming administration with a strong knowledge of South Louisiana‘s environmental challenges.

The president-elect has picked Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist at Oregon State University, to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ms. Lubchenco has solid credentials to run an agency that studies a number of issues affecting our region, from depleted fisheries to hurricane forecasting and global warming.  

Ms. Lubchenco is one of the nation’s top scientists in her field and has done extensive research into the impact of overfishing and global warming on marine life. She is also a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and its British counterpart, the Royal Academy.

Her expertise in several areas that affect Louisiana is particularly reassuring.

She is a leading expert on the risks fisheries face and understands the disastrous impact collapsed fish stocks would have in states like ours. Ms. Lubchenco was a member of the Pew Oceans Commission, an independent group of politicians, scientists and fishers who in 2003 called for significant changes to our country’s marine management system. She also has criticized NOAA for not doing enough to prevent overfishing.  

Ms. Lubchenco is an expert in hypoxia, the low-oxygen condition that creates the Gulf of Mexico‘s dead zone every summer. As such, she understands that fragmented government efforts have not curbed the flow of farming-related nutrients into the Mississippi River — allowing the dead zone to grow. 

Finally, Ms. Lubchenco’s expertise on the effects of global warming will help her appreciate the plight of South Louisiana. Our coast continues to sink even as ocean levels are expected to rise, making our region particularly vulnerable to climate change. Her expertise also should help her understand the need to beef up NOAA’s hurricane forecasting, an area critics said was underfunded during the Bush administration.

NOAA is only one of a number of government agencies that will play in a role in how the Obama administration responds to these and other environmental issues. But NOAA’s research likely will play a very important part in determining that response. Having as the head of the agency a scientist who understands Louisiana‘s challenges surely can’t hurt.