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Time to Wake Up: Climate Change and Agriculture

As delivered on the Senate floor

Thank you, Madam President. The last week that we were here, I gave my weekly “Time to Wake Up” speech on the Senate Floor. As usual, it was a speech that I had written well earlier, and in a truly unfortunate, indeed almost eerie, coincidence, in my speech I talked about a variety of natural disasters including—and I’ll quote my own speech—“cyclones in Oklahoma,” and I said that in the same hour that the cyclone—the tornado touched down in Moore, Oklahoma. 

When people are suffering in the wake of a calamity like that, they need to hear one thing from Washington, and that is: “how can we help?”  That’s all they need to hear. No one likes to be chided when what they need is help and comfort. 

J.E. Reynolds of the Daily Oklahoman wrote, “Victims and survivors need help, not a sermon, in the first hours following a storm.”  I agree. I agree very much. My thoughts are with the victims of the Oklahoma storms and with everyone working who’s to pick up the pieces. 

Far from seeking to exploit their tragedy, I had no idea of the weather in Oklahoma that was happening virtually at the time that I gave the speech mentioning Oklahoma cyclones, among other examples of extreme weather.  But the eerie timing was what it was, and it did not send that single, simple message: “how can we help?”  So I am sorry.

I have apologized to my Oklahoma colleagues for the unfortunate coincidence of timing of my earlier remarks, and I, of course, stand ready to help them speed relief to their state. 

And, it is, of course, impossible to say that any single weather event is caused by climate change, and that is not something I have ever said.  What is true is that climate change is altering weather patterns. 

Scientists have studied these changes in weather patterns, and they’ve modeled what’s to come, and most are convinced that increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather will be a result of the megatons of carbon pollution we continue to emit.  The way I’ve described it is that climate change “loads the dice” for extreme weather.  You might not know which roll is called by the loaded dice, you are going to get a 6 or a 7 or a 12 or a 2 sooner or later anyway, but the extreme weather will come up more often because of this.

We cannot pretend that this isn’t happening.  We just hit 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, measured at the NOAA observatory on Mauna Loa in Hawai’i. 

What does 400 parts per million mean?  Well, look at it this way: for at least 800,000 years, and perhaps millions, we have been in a range on Earth between 170 ppm and 300 ppm of carbon in our atmosphere.  800,000 years, minimum. Homo sapiens as a species have only been around for about 200,000 years.  But just since the Industrial Revolution, and the Great Carbon Dump began, we’ve blown out of the 170 to 300 ppm range and have now hit 400. 

This is really serious.  We already see the effects.  In Alaska, permafrost is melting and native villages once protected by winter ice are being eroded into the sea.  In the Carolinas, roads to the Outer Banks have to be raised as seas rise and storms worsen.  Coral reefs are dying off in Florida and the Caribbean. 

In Rhode Island, we’ve measured almost ten inches of sea-level rise since the 1930s at our Newport Harbor tide gauges.  Rhode Island fishermen going out to sea from Point Judith are reporting—and I quote—“real anomalies . . . things just aren’t making sense.” 

And all of this effect from climate change hits our farmers, too.  Since before the founding of this republic, our farmers have relied on the sun, the rain, and the land to provide us their bounty.  In 2011, farming and the industries that rely directly on agriculture accounted for almost five percent of the entire U.S. economy. 

[Show Percentage Change in Heavy Rainfall Chart]     

But growing conditions in the U.S are changing.  More and more of our rainfall is coming in heavy downpours.  Since 1991, the amount of rain falling in what scientists call “extreme precipitation events”, the amount of rain falling extreme precipitation events has been above the 1901-to-1960 average in every region of the country.  In the Northeast, where I’m from, extreme precipitation has increased seventy-four percent just between 1958 and 2010.  That matters to our farmers.

[Show Changes in Frost-Free Season Chart]

The very seasons are shifting.  During the last two decades, the average frost-free season was about ten days longer than during that period between 1901 and 1960.  In the Southwest, it’s an astonishing three weeks longer.  That matters to our farmers.

[Show Contiguous U.S. Average Temperature Chart]

Average temperature in the contiguous United States has increased by about one and a half degrees Fahrenheit since records began in 1895.  Most of that increase occurred since the 1980s.  2012 was the warmest year ever.  That matters to our farmers.

[Show 2012 Drought Chart]

This chart shows the extent of the U.S. drought in August of 2012.  The red and dark red areas indicate extreme and exceptional drought.  These conditions lasted most of the year.  That matters to our farmers.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Chief Economist Joseph Glauber testified before the Agriculture Committee that, and I’ll quote him: “The heat and rainfall deficit conditions that characterized the summer of 2012 were well outside the range of normal weather variation.”  That’s precisely what scientists mean when they say that climate change loads the dice for extreme weather.  Climate change doesn’t cause specific heat waves, but the average temperature shifts to warmer weather, and the extremes move with it.

The New York Botanical Garden has seen apricot trees blossom in February.  The Audubon Society of Rhode Island has reported cherry trees in Providence blooming as early as December.  This can affect farmers, too. Jeff Send, a Michigan cherry farmer, explained to the Agriculture Committee that the record warm March temperatures brought his region’s cherry trees out of dormancy early, and exposed them to later freezes.  “In Michigan,” he said, and I’m quoting: “we have the capacity to produce 275 million pounds of tart cherries.  In 2012 our total was 11.6 million pounds.”

Potential 275 million pounds. Actual crop: 11.6 million pounds. Less than a twentieth. All because of that early warming and that early bloom, and the freezes that then stepped in to kill.  These changes that I keep speaking about will continue if we go on polluting our atmosphere with greenhouse gases.  As the harmful effects of climate change become more prevalent, our agricultural policies should reflect the threat posed to farming and food production by these changes.  Yet in the Farm Bill, “climate change” and “extreme weather” are not mentioned once.  Well, let me correct myself.  They are mentioned once.  The bill makes reference to an earlier law, from 1990.  And in the title of that 1990 law, the word “climate change” appears. So by referring to the1990 law, the Farm Bill once mentions climate change.

But with all this going on, that’s the only reference, and the reason for that is that our Republican colleagues will oppose legislation if it even mentions the word “climate change”.  Now, you can’t get around using the name of a statute that passed 20-plus years ago if climate change is in the name, so that one had to go in.  But otherwise, climate change is not mentioned in the Farm Bill, despite all of this activity and effect on farming.

It’s not that there aren’t things we could do. The Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, which I co-chair with Representative Waxman, Senator Cardin, and Representative Markey, asked stakeholders in the agricultural economy about carbon pollution and our resiliency to climate change.  

The National Farmers Union, which represents more than 200,000 family farmer, rancher, and rural members, responded, and I quote: “Mitigating and adapting to climate change is of significant concern to our membership and will be a defining trend that shapes the world.”  That’s the National Farmers Union on climate change. It will be, quote “a defining trend that shapes the world.”  Cap-and-trade legislation, it said, would provide a boon to farming and forest lands that take the lead on reducing greenhouse gases. 

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition encouraged a comprehensive approach.  An effective policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, wrote the group, and I quote: “should have as its cornerstone the support and promotion of sustainable and organic agricultural systems throughout USDA’s programs and initiatives.”

Even the American Farm Bureau Federation, which has at times opposed climate change legislation, expressed clear support for farming practices that keep carbon out of the atmosphere and for investments in biofuels and renewable energy. 

We are grateful to all of the scientific and industry leaders who shared their ideas with the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change.  We need active and willing partners in the effort to ensure our farms can meet the needs of a strong nation. 

And they’re not alone.  Responsible people across the spectrum want us to act on carbon and climate.  Responsible people like the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States of America, like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, like dozens of our major scientific societies--virtually every major one--like the folks in the corporate sector who run Apple and Ford and Nike and Coca-Cola.  They get it. Republicans like Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz, former House Science Committee Chair Sherry Boehlert, former Utah Governor and GOP presidential candidate John Huntsman.    Responsible people across the spectrum get it.  The scientists at NASA get it, and they’re telling us to get serious. And they’re the ones who took a robot the size of an SUV and sent it millions of miles to Mars, where they landed it safely on the surface of Mars and now they’re driving it around.  You think they might know what they’re talking about?  They get it.  All across the spectrum, people get it.  They’re on one side, getting something done about climate change.

On the other side are the polluters, with their familiar retinue of cranks, extremists, and front organizations.  That’s basically it. And for some reason, the Republican Party, the great American Republican Party, has chosen to hitch its wagon to the polluters.  I don’t get it, I don’t see how that works out for them. 

Every day, the pollution gets worse.  And every day, the evidence that this is serious gets stronger.  I don’t know why the Republican Party of Theodore Roosevelt wants to paint itself as the party that went with the polluters and not the scientists; that went with the fringe extreme against the responsible center.  It’s gotta be a bad bet.  It’s a crazy bet.

To make that bet, you have to believe God will intervene and perform some magic, in violation of His own laws of physics and chemistry.  Is that a bet you want to take? You have to believe that the market will work, when the market is flagrantly skewed.  Is that a bet you want to make?  And you have to believe the people who have a vested interest to lie, and disbelieve the people who have no conflict of interest. 

Unless you’re prepared to think that the Joint Chiefs and the Catholic Bishops and all the major scientific organizations all have a conflict of interest?  Does that sound very sensible?  Does that sound like where you want to hitch the wagon of one of America’s great political parties?

Let me close, as we talk about climate change in the context of the Farm Bill, by quoting our friend Senator Tester, who recently spelled out the crisis facing our farmers in an op-ed in USA Today.  And I ask unanimous consent that that op-ed be added at the conclusion of my remarks.

Senator Tester and his wife Sharla have been farming for almost forty years—the same land that his grandparents homesteaded.  And this is how our friend from Montana describes the changes he sees:

When I was younger, frequent bone-chilling winds whipped snow off the Rocky Mountain Front and brought bitterly cold days that reached 30 degrees below.  Today, we have only a handful of days that even reach zero.  Changes in the weather are forcing Sharla and I to change how we operate our farm.  It’s now more difficult to know when to plant to take advantage of the rains.

Some might say the end of bitter winters will be a boon for Montana’s economy.  But with milder winters, we’ve seen the sawfly come out earlier to destroy our crops before they can be harvested.  Montana’s deep freezes also used to kill off the pine bark beetle, which today kills millions of acres of trees across the American West.

“Montanans,” he writes, “already understand that climate change is affecting our daily lives.  The argument isn’t whether the world is changing, it’s how to respond.” End quote.

Mr. President, I will say once again, it is time, it is well past time, for us here in Congress to wake up to the urgent challenge of our time.  There’s a lot at stake here, there’s a lot at stake here for all of us.  There’s a lot at stake for every state, and there’s a lot at stake for every generation.  Particularly for the generations that are to follow.  So often I hear my Republican colleagues expressing concern about what our debt will do to future generations.  Fine.  What will a ruined climate do to future generations?  What will acidified seas do to future generations?  What will worse extreme weather and rising seas do to future generations?  There is indeed a lot at stake here, and it is time to wake up.  It is time to take action.

I yield the floor.