Skip to main content area Skip to sub-navigation
Skip to main content

Commencement Address

May 19, 2014

“From Rats to Sharks: Tales of Public Service” - Jane Lubchenco ’69

President Tiefenthaler, CC faculty, administrators, and staff, families and friends, and class of 2014: Happy graduation day! 

I’m sure that many of you are excited this day has finally arrived.  Me, too, but for a slightly different reason.  Little did I know when President Tiefenthaler invited me months ago that so many Commencement speakers this year would become targets of campaigns by students and other powerful groups to disinvite them from speaking.  In the last couple of weeks, Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and John Kerry, First Lady Michelle Obama, former chancellor of the University of California-Berkeley Robert Birgeneau, the head of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, among numerous other less well-known people, have all had students or powerful organizations lobby various schools to disinvite them.  So… my thanks to you, the CC class of 2014 for not asking President Tiefenthaler to disinvite me!

Class of 2014, today is YOUR day.  It’s a transition to an unbounded future.  I know that idea is a little scary, but you’ll be fine.  

CC has prepared you well.  It has a stellar track record of producing grads who have contributed significantly to their families, their communities, and the world.  

My own CC education was outstanding, and so was that of my four sisters who graduated from CC after I did.  ‘A dynasty in one generation’ a 1980 article in the CC Bulletin called the five of us.  Over a 15-year period, both prior to and under the Block Plan, we had different majors, different classmates, and overlapping faculty, but with uniformly stellar education. 

My sister Annette was a religion major, class of ’73, Mary: biology, ’75, Peggy: environmental sciences, ’77, and Carolyn: economics, ’80. 

My sisters’ subsequent lives have been rich and full — as moms, daughters, wives, and active citizens, as psychotherapists, an attorney, a business woman, and a middle-school and university science teacher.  The CC education we received decades ago is still relevant today.  Mary, Peggy, and Carolyn are here today and we collectively celebrate our love of learning, a la CC — a love of learning for the sake of learning, across multiple disciplines, and an intense respect for critical thinking and evidence-based approaches.   

During the four years I was at the helm of NOAA, I also saw firsthand how a number of CC alums excelled at their tough jobs as leaders in the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, NASA, and the U.S. Geological Survey.  They, too, spanned multiple decades and majors ranging from political science and physics to economics.  They uniformly praise the education they received at CC.  

You, too, have the smarts, you have newly honed skills — and now, it’s your turn.  Class of 2014, it’s time to unleash your passion and follow your hearts.  My words for you today are to 1.) be willing to take risks, 2.) challenge conventional wisdom, and 3.) be of service to others.   

My goals today are two-fold: to give you a window into public service and to inspire you to be hopeful and fully engaged in creating solutions for our common future.

Your time will not be easy, but it will be important. 

You grads know full well that we live in a new geological era — the Anthropocene.   Unprecedented rates and types of change are so powerful and pervasive that they have literally changed the physical structure, the chemistry, and the biology of the oceans, the land, and the air — the whole planet. 

You grads know, too, that many of the rates and scales of change are increasing.  For example, in the ocean, impacts of climate change and ocean acidification, overfishing and destructive impact of some fishing gear, chemical and nutrient pollution, and habitat loss are collectively resulting in depletion and degradation of oceans at a global scale.  Those and other problems present immense challenges as we seek to provide even basic necessities for a growing human population while restoring the life support systems of the planet. 

We all definitely have our work cut out for us.

But, and this is a very important but:  the news is not all bad.  At the same time the rates of degradation are increasing, so too are the rates of creation of innovative and effective solutions.   Solutions that enable us to achieve economic and environmental progress.  Solutions that remove perverse incentives.  Solutions that unleash opportunity. 

And herein lies your opportunity.  Your knowledge, creativity, and passion are needed as never before.  You millennials will chart our future.

We’re already witnessing more and more breakthrough solutions that are having demonstrable impact.  For example, in the U.S., after decades and decades of overfishing, we’ve turned the corner on overfishing and have policies in place that are returning fishing to sustainability and profitability.  The result? More fish in the ocean, more seafood on the plate, and healthier coastal communities.   

Likewise, some communities, states, and regions are creating novel solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in ways that enable economic growth. 

Some solutions involve new technologies, some entail simply doing things more efficiently, and others result from changing incentives that drive behavior.  Each of these approaches is ripe for your engagement and creativity. 

I’m here to tell you that the environmental challenges we face are indeed daunting, BUT, make no mistake, they CAN be tackled and they CAN be solved.  And you will play a key role in creating those solutions IF you are smart and strategic about what you do.   

I’ve seen firsthand how very difficult change can be; but I’ve also seen firsthand that solutions are indeed possible. 

NOAA, the federal agency I led for four years, is the nation’s ocean, climate, and weather agency. NOAA is responsible for everything from weather forecasts and warnings to climate records and assessments, to fishery management and healthy oceans and coasts — all of which depend upon good science.  

And despite daunting and unprecedented challenges during those four years — the most extreme weather ever recorded in U.S. history, a dysfunctional Congress, the economy in a tailspin, the worst oil disaster in U.S. history, and hyperpolarization of climate science — despite those challenges, we were able to accomplish an impressive amount.  Here are five major accomplishments:

  1. We’re ending overfishing in U.S. waters and are aligning economic and conservation incentives in ways that have transformed U.S. fisheries;
  2. we put policies in place to protect the integrity of science so it can no longer be suppressed, distorted, or manipulated for political reasons;
  3. we helped create the nation’s first National Ocean Policy that puts stewardship of our oceans and coasts front and center;
  4. we fixed a vital weather satellite program that was a national embarrassment; and
  5. we designed, launched, protected, and nurtured the National Climate Assessment — released just two weeks ago — the most comprehensive, credible summary of climate impacts in the U.S., by region and by sector.

So, I know it is possible, even in tough circumstances, to solve problems and make good things happen.  That experience has given me new insights into what works and what doesn’t work in effecting durable environmental changes.  In the next few minutes, I plan to share some of what I’ve learned through five short stories.  

Stories, after all are the way folks in D.C. communicate.  You’ve all heard… stories are sticky… 

These stories revolve around my three themes: be willing to take risks, challenge conventional wisdom, and be of service to others.  


Dr. Jane goes to WDC. I had never imagined working for the federal government because I was having too much fun and doing rewarding things in the academic world, but when the president asked if I'd head NOAA, it turned my world upside down. I felt compelled to say yes, but I was hesitant; I was fearful.  I was painfully aware of everything I’d have to give up to go to D.C., but it was the right thing to do and five years later, I don’t regret it one bit.  My sister Peggy deserves huge credit for helping me make the decision.  And my husband Bruce made it possible by shouldering some of my research and advising.

You, too, should be willing to explore unanticipated options.  Choose opportunities that stretch you in new directions, options that enable you to serve the common good, to meet interesting people and to solve new problems. Don’t limit yourself to the comfortable choice; be willing to be vulnerable and take risks.

How marine biology was good preparation for D.C.  You may be surprised by how useful something in your background will turn out to be if you can figure out how to connect the dots.  For example, my background as a marine biologist, turned out to be excellent preparation for the rough and tumble world of D.C. politics. How you may ask?   I already knew how to swim with sharks! 

Seriously! Little did I anticipate that learning how to discern a shark’s intent from its body language would be useful in reading the signals from members of Congress!  Communication is about much more than words; body language, timing, and venue all provide hidden but real meaning that is there if you learn to read it.  For example it's hugely useful to be able to distinguish a real threat from a posture. The message? Use what you know, but apply it to new situations.


Wx Satellites – context: 90%; heritage program dysfunctional; fixing it meant taking on DOD, do or die; commun sci 101 …: ‘Dr., I don’t need your wx satellites, I have the wx channel.’  - early lesson in knowing where your audience is so you can provide information that is relevant.


About the Gulf Oil Spill – simultaneously a major disaster and a major communications challenge. 40th Anniversary Earth Day

  1. 1 of 6 Principals: USCG, DHS, DOI, EPA, NOAA, WH
  2. NOAA’s multiple roles:
    1. sci adv to CG
    2. forecast wx and oil movement -
    3. keep sea food safe
    4. protect marine mammals and turtles
    5. assess damage to natural resources
  3. VP invitation: come to Gulf w me
    1. Fishery closures and openings;
    2. Oil affects fish, shrimp and oysters differently
    3. Dispersants break down rapidly
    4. ‘Hey, wait a minute, I thought you were a scientist!’


Hurricane Sandy and wx on steroids

All the very weird weather over the last four years prompted many to ask 'is this evidence of climate change?' This came to a head with Hurricane Sandy. Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Christie were stating emphatically that Sandy is an example of climate change. 

Although the science of attribution is getting better and better, it is still the case that attributing individual events to climate change is fraught with challenges.

'What we are seeing is wx on steroids'

These four stories should give you a brief glimpse into the world I inhabited in D.C.   So, what do these experiences say about theories of change?  What factors contributed to success or lack thereof? Here are some preliminary thoughts:

The arenas in which we made progress were those where we took risks, challenged conventional wisdom, had strong partners (inside and outside government), were persistent but flexible, and where we could change incentives to change outcomes.

Good science is critical, but it’s not sufficient.  Good science plus good diplomacy plus good incentives are a powerful combination.

These outcomes and stories should give you a glimpse into life in D.C.  

In my remarks, I highlighted four stories:

STORY 1:  I took a huge risk in going to D.C., but my background as a marine biologist came in handy because I knew how to swim with sharks! 

STORY 2: We challenged conventional wisdom in rescuing a seriously flawed Wx sat program, but still had to communicate the basic rationale for that program: Member of House of Rep to Jane: ‘Dr., I don’t need your wx satellites, I have TWC.’  

STORY 3:  Being effective means being able to communicate to technical and non-technical audiences alike: VP Joe Biden to Jane: ‘Hey, wait a minute, I thought you were a scientist!’

STORY 4: Efforts to communicate clearly about climate change are inherently risky, but important:  'What we're seeing is wx on climate steroids'

Here’s one final story to round things out, it’s about my very first day on the job at NOAA.  Rats!  Thinking unconventionally — only a scientist.  Only a biologist.

So there you have it — Stories from D.C. from sharks to rats, with special emphasis on taking risks, challenging conventional wisdom and public service.

I’ll leave you with a few final thoughts:

You millennials, because of your numbers and your attitudes are primed to have immense influence on the direction of our country and the world.  Your votes — if you vote — will elect the next six presidents of the U.S.  Those of you fortunate enough to have an education like what you’ve received at CC are positioned to be leaders in your generation, and problem-solvers for multiple generations.  

The country needs environmental problem solvers across all areas of employment — government, industry, NGOs, and academia.  Now is your time.  You are our hope.  Be bold.  Take risks.  Think in unconventional ways, and give back by serving others as well as yourselves.  Oh, and tell a few stories and laugh along the way!