Jim Ayers, the onetime top aide to former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D) and now the Pacific region leader for conservation group Oceana, draws on a deep well of both political and environmental experience. That’s a combo we like at Grist, especially in folks willing to talk shop with us.
Ayers did that today, stopping by for lunch at our Seattle office and serving up knowledge on the terrifying, fascinating intersection of climate and ocean woes.
He was in town for a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which voted yesterday to close Alaska’s northern coast to commercial fishing. The move gives fisheries managers more time to study the waters opened by global warming and the retreat of sea ice. Ayers fielded our questions about the decision, about Alaska’s political players and who’s likely to fill the power void left by former Sen. Ted Stevens (R), especially on Northwest fishing issues. (Short answer: It’s your time to shine, Patty Murray.)
A few highlights from the discussion:
* I asked Ayers about Jane Lubchenco, the Oregon marine biologist President Obama picked to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). After writing this week about Lubchenco and the challenges she’ll face in turning a career in research and conservation into political leadership, I had the humbling experience hearing Ayers summarize in a sentence what it took me about a thousand words to say:
“Jane’s great,” he said. “But the real question is going to be, ‘Is she a warrior as much as she’s a preacher?'”
* Ayers noted that Lubchenco must deal with the awkward fact that NOAA falls under the Department of Commerce. Richard Nixon put it there in 1970, creating a rather unbalanced organizational chart, with NOAA taking up roughly 60 percent of the department’s budget and a third of its staff. You could argue the Commerce secretary should have some scientific credentials, but keep on arguing — Bush appointed a cereal executive and Obama’s recent pick of Judd Gregg seems based on bipartisanship-ness and financial chops more than any environmental merits. That basically amounts to more work for NOAA in getting its message across, Ayers said.
* And that message? The atmosphere is trapping heat, and the oceans are turning acidic. Both processes are driven by carbon dioxide emissions. Oceana has been sounding alarms on both fronts, though Ayers said the acidification message could prove tougher to get across to the public.
First, it requires a basic understanding of pH levels. Sure, that’s sixth-grade science stuff, but is that too much to ask of American adults? “By the time you mention pH, they’re ready to turn to the sports page, or change the channel,” Ayers said.
Second, can folks handle any more massively terribly freaky news about another complex global problem? Haven’t they had enough with the economy, climate change, Middle East violence, Jessica Simpson’s on-stage meltdown?
That’s the big question for anyone working for social change, of course. Ayers didn’t offer a quick answer, though he gave the impression he’s spent a good deal of time thinking about it. Here’s hoping he stops by again next time he’s in town.