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Time to Wake Up: What If Climate Change is Real?

As delivered on the Senate floor

Thank you Madam President. I’m here for my 38th weekly “Time to Wake Up” speech, and today I want to ask the question, “what if?”  What if? 

What if climate change is real?  What if the thirty-plus gigatons of carbon pollution mankind is dumping into the atmosphere every year makes a difference?  What if it’s warming up the planet and changing the weather?  What if it’s warming up the seas, and raising their level, and making them more acidic?  What then? 

What if this is serious?  What if this is serious and we’re not?  What if this is serious, and we’re sleepwalking when we should be awake?  What if this is deadly serious, and we are reckless when we should be responsible? 

What if we are completely missing this moment in history?  Winston Churchill talked about “sharp agate points upon which . . . destiny turns”; what if our destiny will turn based upon what we do about carbon?

What if we have been warned?  What if we have been thoroughly, convincingly, and reliably warned?  What if we have been warned by virtually every climate scientist—at least 95 percent of them? 

By the scientists who work for the United States of America, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration?  By the vast majority of scientific societies, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Meteorological Society, among others?  I ask unanimous consent to have a letter from a great number of those associations added at the conclusion of my remarks as an exhibit. What if we have been thoroughly, convincingly, and reliably warned, by thorough, convincing, and reliable scientists, and chosen instead to listen to the cranks and the polluters?  

Let’s play this out a bit.  Foresight is supposed to be a capability of our species.  What if it turns out the world will care about this? 

We Americans have held ourselves out as a beacon of light to other nations; we have proclaimed we are a shining city on a hill; what if that’s true?  What if President Clinton was right that the power of our American example is indeed greater than any example of our power? 

What if Daniel Webster was right that if the example of our great democratic experiment ever became an argument against that experiment, it would sound the knell of popular liberty throughout the world?  What if our political and moral failure to address carbon pollution became in fact an argument against our American example, an argument against our American example punctuated by the exclamation points of local climate change happening right there, in towns and barrios, hills and hamlets, on coasts and farms, all around the world? 

What if the world takes notice of that?  What if the world takes notice of what is already happening all around them, and takes notice of how we blew it at dealing with carbon pollution, and, as a result, turns away from our great American experiment, because of this conspicuous and consequential failure of American democratic governance and leadership? 

And let’s really push it here:  what if Abraham Lincoln was right, was not just making it up, when he said America was “the last best hope of Earth”?  The last best hope of Earth.  He wasn’t alone. Thomas Jefferson, too, in his first Inaugural, said this American government was “the world’s best hope.”  What if indeed we are the last best hope of earth, a hope which it is up to each American generation to, as Lincoln said, “nobly save or meanly lose”? What if we in this generation of Americans meanly lose, meanly lose such a measure of that American light and hope in the world?  What if we, the children of the Greatest Generation, were to blunder into history as the Vilest Generation, because we failed so badly at this plain and present duty?

In sum, Madam President, what if the deniers, the mockers, and the scoffers are wrong?  What if they’re wrong?  Someone has to be.  There are two sides to this.  What if it’s the deniers and scoffers and mockers who are wrong?  What if the evidence keeps piling up and the tide of public opinion keeps going out, and the deniers are left stranded, with their inadequacies plainly visible?

And please, let’s look at the two sides.  On the side of waking up and doing something about carbon pollution?  The President of the United States of America.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff and our military leaders.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of the Churches of Christ, and many faith groups and leaders.  Icons of our American corporate community: GM and Ford, Coke and Pepsi, Nike and Apple and Wal-Mart, and hundreds of others.  The property casualty insurance and reinsurance industry, and many in the electric utility industry.  The vast majority of national scientific societies.  In particular, I like to mention, the scientists at NASA, who right now are driving an SUV-sized rover around on the surface of Mars.  That might be an organization whose scientists actually know what they’re talking about.

And what if it turns out that the other side of the argument is actually phony?  What if it turns out that the other side of the argument is a few cranks, a lot of people and organizations on the payroll of the polluters, and a cynical propaganda campaign intended to mislead and deceive? 

What if it’s the argument that climate change is a hoax—which we hear around here—what if it’s argument that is the real hoax?  What if so-called “ClimateGate” was no fraud, the whipped-up allegations were the fraud: so-called ClimateGate was really ClimateGateGate?  What if that cynical polluter-driven propaganda campaign is one of the biggest and most successful frauds ever perpetrated on the public—a fraud that when it is ultimately exposed for what it is will change the way we think about political information, and trust in corporations; just as my generation seeing the Cuyahoga River burn changed the way we thought about the environment? 

What if the Great Climate Denial Fraud will stand in the annals of American scandal, beside Watergate and Teapot Dome and the corruption leading up to the Great Crash of 1929, as a dark smear across the pages of our history? 

There was an iconic recruiting poster for World War One—I wish I had it with me but I don’t--it’s a picture of a fellow sitting in his armchair with his two little children. And they’re asking him, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?”   And he’s looking sadly out at the viewer of the poster because clearly he had not done his part in the Great War.  That was the message of that poster.  “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” What if we have to be asked by our children and grandchildren when they are studying this disgraceful episode in their history classes, “Mommy, what did you do in the Great Climate Fraud; Grandpa, what did you do in the Great Climate Fraud?”

Why do I come every week to give these speeches?  Because these questions stick in my craw.  These are the questions that haunt me, that I can’t shake.  And upon the answers to these questions, to these “what ifs”, the future may depend.  Destiny may turn.

Now, I’ve asked them today as questions, but many of the answers are already clear.  Many of the answers are crystal clear; many of the answers are so likely clear that no rational person would bet against them, and many of the answers carry stakes so high that they cry out for prudent choices to be made.

Many of the answers are crystal clear; as clear as measurement.  For at least 800,000 years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere held between 170 and 300 ppm of carbon dioxide; 800,000 years, always in that range, now it’s 400 ppm and climbing.  That’s a measurement. 

Oceans are already 30 percent more acidic than before the industrial revolution and getting more so.  That’s a measurement. 

The winter water temperature of Narragansett Bay has risen 4 degrees since the 1960s.  That’s a measurement. 

Millions of acres of Western pine forest once protected by cold have been ravaged by the pine beetle.  That’s a measurement. 

Thirteen of the past fifteen years are among the hottest fifteen years on record.  That’s a measurement. 

Being against science is one thing; being against measurement—that takes it to a new extreme.

Many of the answers are so likely clear that no rational, prudent person would bet against them.  The principle that carbon dioxide and water vapor in the atmosphere create a “greenhouse effect” that warms the planet goes back to the time of the American Civil War.  It is firmly established science. 

As the head of the World Bank recently said, “If you disagree with the science of human-caused climate change you are not disagreeing that there is anthropogenic climate change.  What you are disagreeing with is science itself.” 

I submit that my denier colleagues in their own personal lives would never take the wild risks, the reckless risks they are asking us to take on carbon.  If they went to one hundred doctors and ninety-five or more of the doctors told them that their child or grandchild needed treatment and it was urgent, I doubt very much that they’d go with the three or four who didn’t.  In fact, it would probably be a matter for their state child welfare services if they ignored that kind of warning about the health of a child or a grandchild.  But that is what they want us to do on carbon pollution.

And many of the answers carry stakes so high, that they plead for prudent and rational choices.  The down side is so deep, that the balance has to be towards precaution, if we are indeed a rational species.

We are talking about:  fundamental changes in the habitability of our planet, with considerable human dislocation and disorder a likely result.  We are talking about:  measurements of basic planetary conditions veering outside the entirety of human experience, to measurements whose antecedents are found only in geologic time, and which we find there in geologic time, in the geologic record, associated with massive disruptions, upheavals, and die-offs. 

The facts are clearly measured; the principles are solid and sound; the stakes are very, very high.

And yet we sleepwalk on the precipice, refusing to listen, refusing to speak of it, refusing to act when duty calls us to act.  It’s time to wake up. 

Or perhaps I should say, what if, what if it really is time to wake up, and we’re just missing it, sleepwalking on the lip of the precipice, listening to the lullabies of the polluters, and ignoring the facts and consequences that are plain to our sight and reason, plain in front of our faces?

What then, Madam President?

I yield the Floor.