Climate change is already happening, but scientists need to do a better job of getting that message to the public, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco said Friday.

"I think scientists have seriously underestimated the importance of explaining what we know about climate change and climate variability in ways that are understandable to most people," Lubchenco told reporters in a wide-ranging interview to mark her first anniversary on the job.

Lubchenco, a marine ecologist who gave up scientific research to helm NOAA, said a report released earlier this year by the Obama administration makes it clear that climate change is already affecting the United States. Hotter temperatures, an increase in heavy downpours and rising sea levels are among the effects of "unequivocal" warming, that analysis found.

But explaining that to the public is proving difficult in the wake of recent revelations of errors in the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, furor over e-mails apparently stolen from a British climate research unit last fall, and an unusually cold and intense winter in many parts of the country.

Lubchenco also said she believes it "is clear there is a well-orchestrated and fairly sophisticated effort under way to confuse and sometimes cherry-pick or distort information."

The answer for scientists, she said, is to focus on helping the public understand what researchers do and don't know about how the climate is changing and how it might change in the future.

Lessons to be learned from 'Climategate'

"I think a whole new scale of effort is in order," Lubchenco said. "It's clear that we have our work cut out for us. It's clear that there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding, and I think we need to tackle that head-on. ... I think the confusion has caught many people by surprise. And yet this is too important to not be communicating more effectively."

Lubchenco said she considers NOAA to be a "trusted source" of information for the public, a role that she's hoping to reinforce with a proposed new NOAA climate service.

That plan -- which still must garner congressional approval -- would provide user-friendly information to help communities and businesses to adapt to climate shifts, creating a source of information on everything from projections of sea level rise to maps of the nation's best sites for wind and solar power (ClimateWire, Feb. 9).

"There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the criticisms of the IPCC, and we are taking those to heart as we are designing this climate service," Lubchenco said. "I think it is important to be very explicit about what we know and how certain of it we are, what we're uncertain about, and to have mechanisms for making that information relevant to the decisions that people are making."

But that doesn't mean advocating for specific policies.

"I don't think that scientists should dictate choices," she said. "We're not trying to convince people of something. We're trying to inform them."

Science chief still waiting for her 'team'

Lubchenco also said she's hopeful this will be the year Congress approves an organic act for NOAA, which would codify its functions and organization for the first time. Unlike other federal science agencies, NOAA hasn't been authorized by law. It's been running under the 1970 executive order President Nixon used to create the agency.

Now, outgoing House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) has expressed an interest in getting an organic act passed before he retires at the end of this year, and Lubchenco told his panel last week that lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee are also considering organic act legislation.

In the meantime, the NOAA chief said she's focused on getting three key positions filled.

"What's been both difficult and surprising is how long it's taking political appointments to get through the system here at NOAA, but it's true of lots of other places," she said. "Not [having] a full team in place, it's hard to get as much done as you would like."

Lubchenco is waiting on Senate confirmation for assistant secretary of observations and monitoring, assistant secretary of conservation and management, and the newly elevated position of chief scientist, which Lubchenco sought to put on par with the assistant secretary jobs.

The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing for the administration's nominee to fill the conservation slot, Florida A&M University researcher Larry Robinson, on Thursday.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500