Sen. Whitehouse's 50th Weekly Climate Change Speech

As delivered on the Senate floor

Mr. President, I am here today, for now the fiftieth time, to urge my colleagues to wake up to what carbon pollution is doing to our atmosphere and our oceans.  Once a week.  Fifty weeks.  Every week.  Why?  Why do I do this? 

Well, first, because it’s real.  It’s very real. It’s happening.  Here’s the change in average global surface temperature since 1970.

[Show Global Surface Temperature Chart]

It’s pretty hard to deny.  Of course, if you are a denier, you will look at it and you will see from the same data that it stopped.  Well, what the deniers who tell you that it stopped don’t tell you is that, yeah, and it stopped five times earlier on the way up.  

[Show Temperature Steps Chart]

In fact, you could say that climate change has stopped six times since the 1970s.  And even went down.  But it didn’t stay stopped long.

 [Show Temperature Trend Chart]

Look at the linear trend for the whole data set—from 1970 to 2013; no one can deny over this period that the earth is warming.  This decade was warmer than the last, which was warmer than the one before that, which was warmer than the one before that. 

[Show Temperature Record 1880-2012 Chart]

Let’s look at NASA’s entire historical surface temperature record, going back to the nineteenth century.  Listen to what University of California-Berkley physics professor Richard Muller has to say about the temperature record: 

“The frequent rises and falls, virtually a stair-step pattern, are part of the historic record, and there is no expectation that they will stop, whatever their cause… [T]he land temperature record … is full of fits and starts that make the upward trend vanish for short periods.  Regardless of whether we understand them, there is no reason to expect them to stop.” And here you can see again these short steps in the upward march.

One reason we can’t expect these upward steps to stop is that we know what’s driving them.  What’s driving climate change is something even contrarian scientists accept:  that is more carbon dioxide leads to more warming.  Simple as that; a 150-year-old, established, basic principle of physics. 

[Read from 1861 Volume of Philosophical Magazine; large text will be inserted on the page.]

This is the October 1861 edition of the London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science.  It includes a manuscript by physicist John Tyndall, entitled “Radiation of Heat by Gases and Vapours.” 

He says: “[T]o account for different amounts of heat being preserved to the earth at different times,” Tyndall wrote, “a slight change in [the atmosphere’s] variable constituents would suffice for this.  Such changes in fact may have produced all the mutations of climate which the researches of geologists reveal.”

The “variable constituents” to which Tyndall refers include carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor. 

That’s from 1861.  President Lincoln took office that year, and here we are today, having to explain on the floor of the United States Senate the physics of what carbon dioxide does in the atmosphere. 

It’s not just the principle that’s established.  There are lots of measurements.  The carbon dioxide in our atmosphere now exceeds 400 parts per million.  For the last 800,000 years at least, 800,000 years, and perhaps actually millions of years, we have been in a range of 170 to 300 parts per million.   That’s been the whole of human existence.  Homo sapiens has been around for about 200,000 of those 800,000 years.  And it’s only now, it’s only since the Industrial Revolution, that we’ve broken out of that safe window that has protected us through that entire history of our species and now we’ve broken to 400.  And that’s a measurement.

[Show “Where is Global Warming” chart]

Look at the oceans.  Oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat caused by greenhouse gases over the last fifty years.  Absorbing all that heat makes the oceans rise. 

Oceans have absorbed about 30 percent of our carbon emissions, which would otherwise be in the atmosphere causing more warming.  Absorbing that carbon makes the oceans more acidic. 

And that’s all stuff we measure.  At the Newport tide gauge, sea level is up almost ten inches since the 1930s, when we had our catastrophic ‘38 hurricane in Rhode Island.  You measure that.  It takes basically a ruler. 

We’re about three to four degrees warmer in the winter in Narragansett Bay than we were fifty years ago when my wife’s URI mentor was doing his doctoral thesis.  Three to four degrees.  You measure that.  It takes a thermometer. 

And the ocean is acidifying at the fastest rate recorded in 50 million years.  You measure that with a litmus test, which anybody with an aquarium does. 

It’s one thing to be against science; it’s another to be the party against measurement.   So the polluters and front groups don’t talk much about the oceans.  But that doesn’t change the fact: this is real, and it is past denying.

So that takes me to the second reason I do this.  And that it that it is plain, old-fashioned wrong when people lie and trick other people, particularly when people are going to be hurt by the lies.  And it’s worse when there’s money behind the trickery—when it’s purposeful. 

Lies cannot go unanswered.  And that is another reason that I speak.

And there isn’t just lying going on, there’s a whole carefully built apparatus:  phony-baloney organizations designed to look and sound like they’re real; messages honed by public relations experts to sound like they’re true; payroll scientists whom polluters can trot out when they need them; and the whole thing big and complicated enough you could be fooled into thinking it’s not all the same beast.  But it’s like mythical Hydra:  many heads, same beast. 

One day, folks are going to look back at this and those behind it are going to be disgraced for what they did, and it’s going to be a scandal. 

And that’s the third reason I speak.  We are all going to be judged very harshly, with all the dread power that history has to inflict on wrong.  The polluters and their collaborators will be judged harshly.  The Republican Party will be judged harshly for letting itself be led astray by them.  But—and here’s where it really hurts—the failure of American democracy this is causing will also be judged harshly, and that will stain the reputation of our great American experiment.  We in this generation have been passed this precious experiment by generations before us that fought, and bled, and died to put it safely in our hands.  And we do this.  We foul it, by lying and denying, for a bunch of polluters.  Some generation we’re going to be. 

If you believe this world needs America, this matters.  Because a world fouled and changed by carbon pollution, in ways we could foresee but denied, will not believe it has much of a need for what a lying and denying America has to offer.  This episode will darken the lamp that America holds up to the world.

We are a great country, but not when we’re lying and denying what’s real.   The atmosphere is warming; ice is melting; seas are warming, rising, and acidifying.  And it’s time for the misleading fantasies to end. 

Mr. President, here’s how we go forward.  First, price carbon right.  Make the big carbon polluters pay a fee to the American people, as I have proposed with Representatives Waxman and Blumenauer and Senator Schatz; a pollution fee to cover the cost of dumping their waste into our atmosphere and oceans—a cost which they now happily push off onto the rest of us. 

I know:  at present, political conditions do not allow us to price carbon.  So we must change those political conditions.  And we can.

Recently, President Obama changed the calculus for polluters:  carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants; no more unchecked carbon dumping.  Fifty power plants emit one out of every eight tons of America’s carbon dioxide emissions.  These fifty dirtiest U.S. power plants emit more than Canada, emit more than Korea.  When the big polluters see the costs of complying with those new standards coming down at them, they may take a second look at an economy-wide carbon fee.  And here’s a news flash—when the polluters’ calculus begins to change, the political calculus here in Congress will change too.

Nothing says we have to wait for the polluters to figure this out on their schedule.  There are armies on our side.  It’s not just the environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, or National Wildlife Federation. 

It’s not just virtually every major scientific organization, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Meteorological Society. 

We have faith-based groups like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of the Churches of Christ, Interfaith Power and Light, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. 

We have fishing, wildlife, and outdoor groups, like Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, and Ducks Unlimited.  They’re joined by major sports leagues, like the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League, as well as the American Lung Association, who prefer to see kids playing outside in clean, healthy air. 

We have the Joint Chiefs of Staff on our side, joined by NASA, the National Academies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, even the Government Accountability Office—“The Congressional Watchdog.”  And by the way, about NASA:  let’s not forget, NASA scientists sent an SUV-sized rover to Mars, they landed it safely on Mars, and they’re driving it around on Mars right now.  I’ll put NASA scientists up against the polluters’ payroll scientists all day long.

We’ve got insurers and reinsurers whose business depends on understanding the mounting risk of natural disasters—folks like Munich Re, Swiss Re, Allianz, and the Reinsurance Association of America. 

We’ve got state and local governments who are already acting.  Nine northeastern states, for instance, including my own Rhode Island, engage in cap-and-trade through RGGI, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.  Four Florida counties share resources and strategies for adapting to climate change through a bipartisan Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. And those are just two examples of many from around the country.

A coalition of investors worth nearly $3 trillion just wrote to forty-five fossil fuel companies seeking explanations about risks facing their fossil fuel investments.  Divestment campaigns are popping up at college campuses across the nation. 

Major utilities accept the science, and are investing in renewables and improving efficiency.  Energy companies PG&E, the Public Service Company of New Mexico, and Exelon all quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce after a Chamber official called for putting climate science on trial like the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. 

America’s flagship companies, like General Motors, Ford, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nike, Apple, Walmart, and Alcoa, all recognize the serious implications of climate change.

This support is latent, though, and it’s unorganized.  It is time to wake up and to gather our armies.  We’ve got to create “allied command.”  Assemble our divisions.  Agree on a strategy.  Go into action.   That will affect the calculus in Congress. 

And most importantly, Mr. President, we have the American people.  Sixty-five percent of voters support the President “taking significant steps to address climate change now.”  Sixty-five percent.  Another poll found that 82 percent of Americans believe we should start preparing now for rising sea levels and severe storms from climate change.

Those in Congress who would deny science to protect the polluting interests increasingly look ridiculous, even to their own side.   Misleading statements in the media, like the stuff purveyed by the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, are losing their battle and losing their audience.

It’s not just time to wake up.  People are waking up.  And inevitably, the truth will be fully known.

But the polls show clearly that climate denial is a losing tactic: 

    • Four out of five voters under thirty-five support the President taking action to address climate change. 
    • Fifty-two percent of young Republican voters would be less likely to vote for someone who opposed the President’s climate action plan. 
    • Even a majority of Texans say more should be done about global warming by all levels of government, with 62 percent of Texans saying more should be done in Congress. 

And for those last holdout deniers comes this:

    •  Fifty-three percent of young Republican voters-- Republican voters under age 35—said they would describe a climate denier as “ignorant,” “out-of-touch,” or “crazy.”

Republicans outside of Congress are trying to lead their party back to reality, and away from what even young Republicans are calling ignorant, out of touch, and crazy extremist views.  They support a revenue-neutral carbon fee.  Republicans like our former colleagues in Congress Sherwood Boelhert, Wayne Gilchrest, and Robert Inglis. 

Republicans like former Environmental Protection Agency Administrators William Ruckelshaus, Lee Thomas, William Reilly, and Christine Todd Whitman, who served under Presidents Nixon, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, respectively. 

Advisors to former Republican presidents like President Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz, Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisor Art Laffer—known as “Reagan’s Economist”—and David Frum, speechwriter for George W. Bush. 

And here’s what the Republican presidential nominee had to say five years ago:

And I quote: “[I]n the end, we’re all left with the same set of facts.  The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington.  Good stewardship, prudence, and simple common sense demand that we [act to] meet the challenge, and act quickly. . . .  We have many advantages in the fight against global warming, but time is not one of them. . . .  [T]he fundamental incentives of the market are still on the side of carbon-based energy.  This has to change before we can make the decisive shift away from fossil fuels. . . .  [T]here were costs we weren’t counting, . . . [a]nd these terrible costs have added up now, in the atmosphere, in the oceans, and all across the natural world. . . .  We Americans like to say that there is no problem we can’t solve, however complicated, and no obstacle we cannot overcome if we meet it together.  I believe this about our country.  I know this about our country.  And now it is time for us to show those qualities once again.” End quote.

It is indeed time for us to show those qualities once again.  It is time to wake up.  It is time to turn back from the misleading propaganda of the polluters, the misguided extremism of the Tea Party, and the mistaken belief that we can ignore without consequence the harm that our carbon pollution is causing.  It is time to face facts, be adults, and meet our responsibilities.

Mr. President, I give these speeches because climate change is real, because the campaign of denial is as poisonous to our democracy as carbon pollution is to our atmosphere and oceans, and because I am confident.  I am confident that we can do this.  We can strengthen our economy, we can redirect our future, we can protect our democracy, and we can do our duty, our duty to the generations that will follow us, and that will look back in shame unless we change our program.   But we have to pay attention, Mr. President.  We have to wake up.

I yield the floor.