THE BLOG

The Next Secretary of Commerce or Weather?

03/04/2013 05:15 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2013

Now that the Obama Administration has announced its nominees for Secretary of Energy and EPA Administrator , it's time for new, visionary thought to be given to the seemingly lower-profile post of Commerce Secretary.

While most Americans cannot even name the Secretary of Commerce, it is a vital cabinet position. Given that U.S. business is still recovering from one of the worst recessions in the nation's history and the threat of weather and climate disruptions are creating great uncertainty in a more competitive global marketplace, a new list of qualifications should be written for the nation's top business advocate.

Three key qualifications should be: 1) Understanding of the potential impacts of weather and climate change on U.S. business and local economies; 2) Expertise in information management and intelligence; and 3) Proven leadership in change management.

As noted in a recent Senate briefing, "The fingerprint of events like the drought, Superstorm Sandy, and urban floods are traceable to increases in food prices, higher insurance rates, and changing property values."

On the heels of the nation's warmest year on record -- where drought and wildfires singed major agricultural production, Sandy shut down the country's most vibrant financial hub, and coastal regions supporting tourism, energy production, and international commerce continue to be stressed -- the next Commerce Secretary will need to assume a more proactive role in working with U.S. industry on weather and climate issues.

Supply chain disruption, retail trends, transportation, and energy usage are all tied to weather and climate activity. One just needs to look at the Mississippi River to understand why. In a typical January, companies such as Archer-Daniels-Midland move as much as $2.8 billion worth of cargo on the river. However, with the impact of drought, Mississippi barge traffic was almost halted, disrupting an array of commodities, such as grains, chemicals, petroleum, and coal. Just last week, Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), announced the formation of a bipartisan caucus in response to issues surrounding drought and low water levels on the Mississippi River.

Improved and accessible environmental information will be key to better anticipating and responding to these changes. The wealth of information that exists within Commerce's bureaus and other Federal agencies could provide U.S. business with a competitive advantage to better manage risk as well as new economic opportunity in the development of intelligence products that more and more companies need every day. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, which many do not realize is housed within the Department of Commerce) not only operates weather satellites, but also delivers weather services, maintains the nation's climate records, is developing an operational ocean observing capability, conducts an active program on coastal studies, and houses a relatively small, but much-in-demand national drought information system.

Retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral David Titley recently stated in an interview, "... from a national security perspective, climate change is all about water: where it is or isn't, how much or how little there is..."

The same can be said about water from an economic security perspective too. NOAA's weather, climate, and ocean forecasting capabilities grow more valuable each day as agricultural companies manage risk around drought, and manufacturing companies try to better understand future water supplies that enable the production of everything from wine to Coca-Cola to Intel processors to renewable energy.

The kind of earth science and environmental data that NOAA and other federal agencies collect could provide U.S. business as well as government leaders the kind of long-term forecasting and intelligence needed to improve business operations, manage risk, and better guide infrastructure investment. This should involve greater participation from two of Commerce's other bureaus: the U.S. Census Bureau with its valuable socio-economic data; and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), which should drive progress with data and technology standards.

To meet the needs of U.S. business, the next Commerce Secretary will need to elevate the role and contributions of the department -- especially NOAA -- to President Obama's climate strategy. Secondly, he or she will need to establish a mechanism to engage with broad U.S. industry to better understand business' environmental intelligence needs. Thirdly, the Secretary must also work with business leaders to develop innovative and cost-effective strategies to collect, produce, and deliver environmental intelligence -- building upon the model established in the weather sector today. Lastly, the incoming Secretary should also play an active role internationally, not only positioning U.S. business in the environmental information marketplace, but also actively working with other governmental agencies to accelerate agreement on data sharing and integration standards.

Just as U.S. weather and climate are related to complex physical processes that are global in nature, the U.S. economy is intrinsically tied to this global complexity. The next Commerce Secretary will have the challenge and opportunity to view the two in a more synergistic manner. After all, the nation's weather and climate agency was placed in Commerce for a reason, right?