YPCCC Partnerships: Interview with NOAA’s Frank Niepold

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an agency of the US government that works to predict changes in climate, weather, ocean, and coasts, provides services that share knowledge and information with others, and conserves and manages coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. Its dedicated scientists and workforce use cutting-edge research, high-tech instrumentation, and technical assistance to provide citizens, planners, emergency managers, and other decision-makers with the reliable services and information they need.

Aqsa Mengal and Alison Thompson from YPCCC’s Partnerships Program had the opportunity to sit down recently with Frank Niepold, Climate Education Coordinator and Climate-Ready Workforce Program Manager at NOAA’s Climate Program Office, to learn more about NOAA’s climate communications and education work and partnership with YPCCC.

A photo of Frank Niepold

Aqsa: Thank you, Frank, for meeting with us today! To start, can you tell me a bit about yourself and your role at NOAA?

Frank: I am the Climate Education Coordinator at NOAA in the Climate Program Office. In recent years, the role has expanded beyond the Climate Program Office because NOAA has an extensive amount of climate education work going across its departments, so in many ways, I serve as a Climate Education Coordinator for NOAA as a whole. I also serve as a climate education, engagement and capacity building coordinator with the US Global Change Research Program. For this role, we are currently coordinating climate education across 30 agencies. It’s important to note that education has a massive set of capabilities and covers a broad range of fields. This includes conservation education, environmental education, STEM education, formal and informal education, resilience education, adult education, and career and technical education. My primary focus is community education, which blends education and engagement. Moreover, I also represent the US government in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change National Reporting requirements every four years. So, my work is on an international, national, and sub-national level for the nation. In each of these roles, I am working extensively through partnerships and blending education, capacity building, and engagement in my work across the country.

Aqsa: As a follow-up to that, what led you to where you are now in terms of your professional and personal journey? How did you get involved in climate work?  

Frank: Back in the day, I was an artist and I was focused on the connection between art and the environment and how humans interact with the environment. After a while, I started getting frustrated with art. I found that education was a more powerful modality than art, and I started looking into the intersection of education and the environment. Very quickly, I was drawn into the biggest issue in environmental history: climate change. Over time, I have found that climate is the ascendent issue I need to focus on. 

My early career journey started at NASA, but I had difficulty working in climate through NASA, so I looked to other federal agencies. I wanted to work with an agency that stayed focused on climate and protecting our home planet. Eventually, an opportunity popped up at NOAA for the agency’s first and only climate education fellowship. I got selected and was ecstatic. It was supposed to be a temporary opportunity, but it’s been 18 years, and I am still here! I didn’t realize that as someone with an art, science, education, and federal service background, I could be so well positioned for this role, but it was a perfect fit. So, I became and still am the Climate Education Coordinator. I also manage a climate workforce program at NOAA, a Justice40 program called Climate Ready Workforce. My lighthouse for this work was climate and my desire to do as much work as quickly as possible in this field.  

Aqsa: Your personal journey is incredibly inspiring! Looking at NOAA more broadly, what are NOAA’s goals for climate action?  

Frank: Early in his presidency, President Biden released Executive Order 14008. This Order made climate the policy of the nation, essentially stating that climate is an all-of-government issue requiring action by all the agencies in the federal government. It has truly activated so much of our government, so just discussing NOAA isn’t sufficient because the work is conducted across 30 agencies, and we’re working in partnerships that extend beyond NOAA. 

The big initiative that NOAA is currently trying to advance is building a climate-ready nation. Building a climate-ready nation requires partnership and collaboration. While each agency will address climate differently, the reality is that we’re all working to support our nation in implementing climate goals. Whether it’s our equity and justice work through Justice40 or supporting climate adaptation workforce programs in the government, major programs across agencies collaborate to create a climate-resilient and low carbon nation. At the end of the day, it’s really about building the capacity, understanding, and actions to address the climate crisis across the government and nation. That isn’t something any single agency or program can achieve by itself. It requires innovation and collaboration. We now have the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which provide funding and motivation to achieve climate goals. We’re getting much closer to sufficiency than I’ve seen in my 28 years of working in the federal family, but we’ve got a ways to go! To achieve our climate goals, we will need a lot more people joining us with new skills and capabilities, which means that the door has to be open and we need to bring in a full force of new effort into our talent and capability.

Aqsa: Diving a bit more into audiences, who would you say is NOAA’s target audience?

Frank: We’ve worked on something at NOAA for a very long time called priority audiences, and recently, we’ve been expanding that to get a more complex understanding of those audiences in the general public. There is, however, no such thing as a general public. There are so many ways of dissecting audiences, which is something YPCCC helps us do well. Learners, for instance, are a very important audience. One in every four people in the US is a student, which is a large constituency that must be focused on. This also includes the people who teach and educate them. And there are of course layers to that, such as formal and informal education, education administrators, teachers, and many more. So the list may seem expansive, but there’s much more clarity in the ‘who’ than before. And while we know the number of people working on educational development and training for climate is in the thousands, unfortunately, they don’t know one another and are working in isolation as it relates to climate. So, we’re trying to build a framework to identify audiences and bring coherence to the work by sharing effective practices. There’s a lot of work to be done, but I hope you can appreciate that there’s a precision of audience emerging across time that is important.

Aqsa: It’s great to hear that your audiences are more clear now than they were in the past, and I’m sure this is only going to improve going into the future. For our next question, I’d love to hear how NOAA has utilized YPCCC resources or insights in your strategic communication, organizing, or advocacy work. 

Frank: Since I also work at the international level, for each of the national reports I’ve written for the UNFCCC, I have highlighted the work of the YPCCC. As I share those findings internationally, I have come to appreciate the leadership and the sustained work of YPCCC and its partners like George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication and others. Even though the federal government has not funded that work, our benefit from it has been immense. 

If YPCCC and its partners had not done the work they have, I wouldn’t be able to report effectively. At the national and subnational levels, we’ve had tremendous amounts of climate education grants and partnerships through different funders, and they benefit directly from the work of YPCCC and its partners. The SASSY tool has been beneficial. You can use it in so many ways: for a student program, a teacher program, a school program, and so on. Museums with climate change exhibits have used it to understand their audience – looking at who steps into their museum, zoo, aquarium, or park and their opinions on climate change. And if you’re doing curriculum work, you can look into the Yale Climate Maps and look at the question about support for teaching about climate, which is incredibly helpful. Resources like the Yale Climate Opinion Maps, the Six Americas research, and the Climate Change in the American Mind reports are helpful in guiding and shaping curriculum. So many resources can be tapped into to support climate work. I have been actively using the Meta research YPCCC did on international audiences with a partner working internationally. So you name the product, and, likely, we’re actively using it because without those data-driven resources, it’s tough to do this work.

Aqsa: That’s great, thank you! Next, what do you think NOAA does well that other climate communicators could learn from? 

Frank: I would say NOAA is great at audience focusing and building strategies and partnerships around audience focus. Having a detailed understanding of audiences and crafting strategies that achieve our goals is something NOAA does well and has done for a long time. But, we have more to do there as we look into deeper articulations of audiences. We have a major climate portal called climate.gov, and we took a very audience-focused approach. We’re not just creating content that we want to share, we’re sharing what our audience wants. So, that pivot is really important.

Aqsa: What has been NOAA’s single most exciting or surprising discovery you made in communicating or organizing around climate?  

Frank: The one I love the most and that surprised us came from the Wild Center’s Youth Climate Summit Program. Often, we find that as young people come to understand climate, they want to transform that understanding into action. And some young people will take that action themselves. After attending the summit program, youth in Homer, NY, told the town leaders that they wanted to become a climate-smart community. This is a New York state program that supports climate action in communities across the state. The town’s mayor agreed and said they would do that, but only if the young people led the process of creating the task force for the climate-smart community. The youth said yes, and they did it. Amazingly, education can lead to leadership of action in a community. This is something that we didn’t expect and were surprised by, especially for high school-age youth. For me, that gives me a lot of hope and it serves as a model for so many communities that struggle to have the capacity to address climate change. 

Aqsa: That segues really well into my next question: How does your organization remain hopeful and inspired to build public or political will in the climate movement?

Frank: I’d say it’s a simple answer, illustrated by an instance recently when I was talking to science teachers in Florida. They mentioned that it’s getting hard for them to do science education in Florida. To which I responded that the number one thing that makes us all able to do this work is finding a group of people who are like us and are working hard to make the same change. And at any point in time, when one of us is struggling, and it feels like you can’t make the progress you need, someone else is there for you and can encourage you. So, having a cohort of people is vital. We know from the literature that cohorts of practice help bring change, which is why we’re asking a lot of people, whether it’s a park interpreter or a student or a professor, to change their practice because climate change is demanding that we do our work differently. And that change is hard, but you sustain your ability to face change through others that can motivate you. That is one place I find hope. So, being in partnership and community with other people doing the same thing is what allows me and my partners to sustain this work.

Thank you to Frank Niepold and NOAA for their time, ongoing partnership with YPCCC, and important work in the climate space.