Why NOAA Matters for U.S. Climate Policy
The federal agency tasked with weather forecasting and research has played a growing role in climate policy, but also faced controversy during the Trump administration. What does NOAA do?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a federal agency tasked with weather forecasting and a range of environmental research, has drawn controversy over its role on climate issues. President Joe Biden is seeking to reinvigorate its mission after defunding efforts by the Donald Trump administration.
What is NOAA?
NOAA is an agency within the Commerce Department that was created in 1970 under President Richard Nixon to consolidate a number of existing scientific agencies. With a 2021 budget of $5.4 billion, it counts over 12,000 employees, including more than 6,700 scientists and engineers. It also manages a fleet of fifteen ships and nine manned aircraft [PDF]. NOAA’s newest administrator, oceanographer Richard W. Spinrad, was confirmed by the Senate in June 2021.
NOAA consists of six major offices: the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS); the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS); the National Ocean Service (NOS); the National Weather Service (NWS); Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR); and the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO).
The agency serves three distinct needs:
Weather forecasting. The agency owns nine satellites and operates seven others. It also manages nine forecasting centers under the umbrella of the NWS. The medium-range American forecasting model known as the Global Forecast System (GFS), which releases its data to the public domain, is considered one of the primary sources for global forecasting.
Basic research. NOAA’s research arm, OAR, focuses its efforts on weather, climate, ocean exploration, and more. Ocean studies are a priority for NOAA’s fleet of ships and aircraft, including Hurricane Hunter aircraft, which fly into storm systems to collect data.
Natural resource management. NOAA offices manage access to the United States’s oceans, including by providing the navigation charts that cargo ships in U.S. waters rely on. They also maintain water-level sensors, clean up oil spills, protect endangered species, conduct marine research, and regulate commercial and recreational fishing.
What is NOAA’s role in tackling climate change?
Primarily, NOAA uses its massive data-collection capacities to better understand and predict looming climate shifts. In particular, OAR’s Climate Program Office seeks to observe and model climate variability. Globally, OAR coordinates research with scientists and policymakers in multiple countries as well as in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.
Another of its climate efforts is the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), a multiagency partnership created in 2006. NIDIS looks for emerging signs of drought across the country, allowing for proactive responses to potential disasters such as the ongoing megadrought in the western United States.
NOAA’s research is critical for giving local decision-makers better tools to respond to climate change, says CFR Senior Fellow Alice C. Hill. “We are going to need enormous investments in providing basic localized information regarding the impact into a particular area,” she says.
To do so, NOAA is requesting an additional $110 million in funding [PDF] for climate research, which it says will improve NIDIS and help build severe weather–resilient infrastructure.
What was Trump’s stance on the agency?
In recent years, NOAA’s climate responsibilities have expanded, notably with the 2014 launch of the multiagency Climate Resilience Toolkit, a clearinghouse for climate resilience information.
However, the Trump administration sought to cut funding for NOAA’s research, which clashed with Trump’s public skepticism about climate change. Congress ultimately rejected the desired 13 percent cut, which was consistent with broader efforts by the administration: it also proposed double-digit cuts to scientific agencies including the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Energy, among others.
The administration also sought to hire researchers who are skeptical about the severity of climate change as part of efforts to reorient the agency’s priorities. One example was the appointment of the University of Delaware’s David Legates, long controversial in academic circles for questioning the central tenets of climate science. Trump faced separate accusations of politicizing NOAA’s forecasting after a Twitter spat over Hurricane Dorian’s expected path in 2019.
What has Biden proposed?
Biden has sought to elevate climate issues. His proposed $6.9 billion budget for NOAA would be a nearly 50 percent increase from what Trump had outlined for fiscal year 2022.
The administration says it hopes to improve NOAA’s forecasting capabilities, requesting $2 billion to put toward next-generation satellites. CFR’s Hill says that improving modeling data is something policymakers sometimes underestimate. “Multiple measurements make it far more precise, and that improves your ability to forecast future weather,” Hill explains.
Meanwhile, House Democrats say the increased funding would boost climate research, improve weather forecasting, and refine modeling of sea-level rise. Separately, a bipartisan infrastructure bill working its way through Congress would give NOAA nearly $500 million in additional funding to better forecast flooding and wildfires. But both the budget proposal and the infrastructure bill face further negotiations before reaching Biden’s desk.