The Future of Insurance Podcast – Dr. Richard Spinrad

Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere & Administrator, NOAA

Season 3, Episode 14, September 6, 2022

Guest Bio

Richard (Rick) W. Spinrad, Ph.D., was sworn in on June 22, 2021 as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and the 11th NOAA Administrator. Dr. Spinrad is responsible for the strategic direction and oversight of the agency and its over 12,000 employees, including developing NOAA’s portfolio of products and services to address the climate crisis, enhancing environmental sustainability and fostering economic development, and creating a more just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive NOAA workforce. 

Most recently, Dr. Spinrad served as a Professor of Oceanography and Senior Adviser to the Vice President of Research at Oregon State University (OSU). He was also Vice President for Research at OSU from 2010-2014. 

Dr. Spinrad served as NOAA’s Chief Scientist under President Barack Obama from 2014 until 2016. He also led NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and National Ocean Service from 2003-2010. While at NOAA, Dr. Spinrad co-led the White House Committee that developed the nation’s first set of ocean research priorities and oversaw the revamping of NOAA’s research enterprise, including the development of the agency’s Scientific Integrity policy.

Prior to initially joining NOAA, Dr. Spinrad held leadership positions at the U.S. Office of Naval Research and Oceanographer of the Navy, where he was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Award — the highest award given by the U.S. Navy to a civilian. He has held faculty appointments at OSU, the U.S. Naval Academy, and George Mason University; served as Executive Director at the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education; was President of Sea Tech, Inc.; and worked as a research scientist at OSU and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. He also developed the National Ocean Sciences Bowl for high school students. In the international arena, Dr. Spinrad served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission from 2005-2009.

He is the recipient of Presidential Rank Awards from presidents George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama. Dr. Spinrad is past president of The Oceanography Society (TOS) and the Marine Technology Society. He is a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, Marine Technology Society, TOS, and the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST), and an IMarEST Chartered Marine Scientist.

Dr. Spinrad received his B.A. in Earth and Planetary Sciences from The Johns Hopkins University, and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Oceanography from Oregon State University. 

Highlights from the Show

  • NOAA has been around in various forms since 1802, when President Thomas Jefferson setup a survey of the coast to understand the risks to shipping, coastal communities and more, and it was President Nixon who established NOAA by brining together the various environmental intelligence organizations
  • In the late 20th and early 21st century, NOAA added advanced capabilities and tools like satellites
  • Today, NOAA is an almost $7B agency with over 12,000 people (which only costs about $0.06 a day per taxpayer)
  • Lives, Livelihoods and Lifestyles are all impacted by weather and ability to forecast what will happen with it to know what its impact will be and how we can respond
  • In inflation adjusted numbers, in the 1980s, there were 82 days between $1B disasters or worse; today, it’s 18 days
    • There were 21 billion-plus-dollar disasters, and we’re at 9 now (early August)
    • Hurricane Ida last year brought $30-40B in losses, and this isn’t an anomaly anymore
  • They rolled out the website that could help insurers and reinsurers in looking at the forecasted impacts of heat on health and other factors around the country
  • The hazards aren’t new – floods, draughts, hurricanes, etc – but we’re putting so much more energy into the system, which is resulting in unprecedented scale of these hazards
    • In the last 30-40 years, we’ve been adding the equivalent of 2 Hiroshima atomic bombs worth of energy into the oceans every second
  • They’re now understanding the teleconnections, meaning the impact of weather activity in one part of the world’s impact on the activity in another, like weather events in Australia and how that ties to weather events in New England
  • One of the ways insurance companies can engage with NOAA on this is to think about what kind of forecasting and predictions are most helpful, like the timeframe we’d need to see data for
  • There’s a lot of value in talking about the future of insurance and prediction, and Insurance is a sophisticated participant in that conversation
    • Government has responsibilities to say where people can’t build (for example)
    • From there, it’s up to the market to decide the cost of risk where we can build, which means insurers understanding and pricing that risk
  • The impact of Climate Change is a foregone conclusion at this point, and the science has gotten so good that it can tell you exactly what impact you’ll see by when (like 10-12 inches of sea level rise in Norfolk, VA by 2050)
    • Rather than giving up, we need to think about what we can do to adapt and protect given that fact, while we have time to mitigate
    • Dr. Spinrad did this himself with a prior home he had in Oregan that didn’t have a fire exposure initially, but did over time, so he cut back brush and trees to reduce the risk
  • Part of NOAA’s responsibility is around communication, and being the authority to turn to so people know who to trust for clear, actionable information, like going to the top doctor for a second opinion
  • Get involved and collaborate with NOAA at

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