01.29.14

Effects of Climate-Related Sea Level and Erosion

As delivered on the Senate floor

Mr. President, this is the fifty-sixth time, the fifty-sixth consecutive week that we have been in session in the Senate that I have come to the floor to sound an alarm about carbon pollution and the harm that it is causing to our oceans and to our coastal communities.  The fifty-sixth time.  And frankly, I’m getting a little sick of it.  I’m getting sick of the Republican Party being completely the tool of the polluters.  I’m sick of the phony denial, and of not getting anything done.  And I’m sick of what it’s going to say about American democracy if we keep failing at this.

But I am going to keep pounding away, because it is so vital to my Ocean State.  We are a little state with a lot of coast.  And our sea level is rising, driven by faraway melting glaciers and everywhere expanding seawater.  As oceans warm, the water expands.  That’s what liquids do.  Deniers, look up “thermal expansion of liquids” and deny that. 

[Boxer interlude]

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report projects that sea level will likely rise one and a half to three feet by 2100 if we do what the polluters prefer and ignore the clear scientific evidence. And by the way, that’s a conservative number.

These rising sea levels hit coasts hard, particularly when storms beat those seas against our shores.  And it’s not just me saying that.  We’re supposed to listen to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office around here.  Well, a 2013 GAO report on climate change effects said this:  “Storm surge, combined with sea-level rise, is projected to generate a wide range of negative impacts on roads and bridges.  For example,” the report continued, “storm surges are projected to increasingly inundate coastal roads, cause more frequent or severe flooding of low lying infrastructure, erode road bases, and ‘scour’ bridges by eroding riverbeds and exposing bridge foundations.”

[Sea level chart]

Now, people from polluting states may think that that’s funny.  May think that that doesn’t matter.  But to a coastal state like mine, this is a serious threat.  This chart shows the worldwide, measured change in sea level--this is not some theory, measured change in sea level—as well as a number of different models projecting future sea levels.  You can see that sea level has been steadily rising over the past 130 years, generally consistent with human fossil fuel use.  Between 1901 and 2010, sea-level rise was estimated at 1.7 mm per year.  Recently updated satellite measurements from the University of Colorado Sea Level Research Group show a rise of 3.2 mm per year from 1993 to 2013.  The rate of increase has already nearly doubled, and according to the IPCC, that rate is likely to accelerate. 

In Rhode Island, our tide gauge in Newport shows an increase in average sea level of nearly ten inches since 1930.  Consistent with the global trends, measurements at our Newport tide gauge show that the rate of sea-level rise has also increased in the past two decades.  Local coastal erosion rates have doubled from 1990 to 2006 and some freshwater coastal wetlands are already transitioning to salt marsh from freshwater as they’re inundated by the sea. 

[South Kingstown post Sandy chart]

Our Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council has documented 160 feet of shoreline lost to erosion in the town of South Kingstown since 1951, a rate of three feet per year.  A steady three feet per year is one thing.  Add a storm, and surges can wipe out whole swaths of land at once, as we saw with Superstorm Sandy.  You can see the erosion here:  back in 1994, this beach pavilion was set back a good way from the water.  By 2012, here, the ocean was just a few feet from the structure.  This is the roof that is here, this is the framing that is here, and this is the very beginning of this walkway back here, and there’s the ocean.  The ocean has moved from here, essentially, to there.  Roads and other infrastructure that was once a safe distance from the shoreline were also battered by this terrible storm’s surge and wind. 

[Matunuck chart]  

The small, vibrant coastal town of Matunuck, Rhode Island is under siege from the advancing ocean.  This chart shows how far the shoreline has shifted since 1951.  Here’s the 1951 shoreline, and this is the 2012 photo, showing how much the sea has risen and eaten against the shores.  In  the last dozen years, beaches have eroded twenty feet.  The community now faces difficult decisions as the only road connecting Matunuck to neighboring towns is protected by only about ten feet of sand now.  The road provides access for emergency vehicles residents may need, and underneath it lies their water main. 

If carbon dioxide emissions continue unchecked, another five feet of projected sea-level rise is a real possibility after the year 2100.  Matunuck’s projected coastline with five feet of sea-level rise can be seen here in red.  These are all houses.  This is Roy Carpenter’s Beach.  These houses have been here in some cases for generations, and they are tumbling into the sea as the ocean encroaches on them. 

[Newport Harbor chart]

This is famous Newport Harbor.  In Newport, five feet of sea-level rise would inundate large portions of our vibrant downtown area, including America’s Cup Avenue, right here, including the Long Wharf Shopping Center, which would be about here, and including the famous and historic Cardines Field, a great old baseball field.  Goat Island will just be a few specks of land. 

[Perrotti Park chart]

Here’s what three feet of sea-level rise would look like in Newport.  Perrotti Park is gone.  The Ann Street Pier is underwater—not to mention the Newport Harbormaster’s office, he’ll be a lot closer to the harbor when it’s pouring through his windows than he is right now.

Wherever Rhode Island meets the sea, our homes and communities and our very economy are at stake.  Yet in Congress we sleepwalk, lulled by the narcotic influence of the polluting special interests.  No wonder I’m frustrated.  When my colleagues say they’re worried about job loss in the polluting coal and oil industries, I’m willing to listen.  I’m even willing to help.  But I’m not willing to stand by while this is happening in my home state, and have you pretend that it’s not even real. 

Rhode Island of course is not the only region experiencing sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and economic disruption.  Rising seas concern coastal regions across the country.

With over a thousand miles of coastline, Florida is at grave risk from sea-level rise.  According to the World Resources Institute and an article published in Environmental Research Letters, of all the people and housing in America threatened by sea-level rise, 40 percent is in Florida.

That’s because in Florida, the flooding won’t be just along the coast; low-lying inland areas are also at risk.  That’s because Florida is built on porous limestone.  In New England, on our rocky shores, you could perhaps build levees and dams in some places to hold the oceans back.  In Miami, you’d be building those structures on geological sponge.  The water will just seep right under.

Using the best available science, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact assessed the risk to four South Florida counties of sea-level rise.  In those counties, one foot of sea-level rise would endanger approximately $4 billion in property.  In Monroe County, three of the four hospitals, two-thirds of the schools, and 71 percent of emergency shelters are endangered by a one-foot sea-level rise. 

Go to three feet of sea-level rise in these counties.  That would endanger approximately $31 billion worth of property.  That’s a lot of infrastructure at risk. 

[Show southern Miami SLR chart]

This map shows three feet of sea-level rise in Miami-Dade County.   The map on the left shows current elevation in southern Miami-Dade, compared to three feet of sea-level rise, here on the right.  These blue regions go underwater’.  You have lost acres upon acres of that city.  This nuclear power station right here, Turkey Point, and this sewage treatment plant are virtually cut off from dry land.

And yet what do we hear from our Republican colleague from Florida?  Denial, right along the polluter party line.

Louisiana is teed up for worse storm surge by the warming, rising waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  According to a U.S. Geological Survey-led study, between 1985 and 2010, Louisiana lost a football field an hour of land and wetlands to coastal erosion.  A recent poll shows that Louisiana voters understand and want action on climate change.  Seventy-two percent of Louisianans believe climate change is a serious problem that threatens everyone.  It is hitting their lives.  And yet our Republican colleague from Louisiana offers streams of denial.

The state with the most coastline is Alaska.  Another U.S. Geological Survey study shows that coastal erosion along a 40-mile stretch on the Beaufort Sea has climbed from 20 feet per year between the mid-50s and the late 70s, to 28 feet per year between the late 70s and 2000s, and now has more than doubled to 45 feet per year between 2002 and 2007.  Climate change is one of several factors at play and is contributing to this accelerating loss. 

Earlier this month, our Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, which I lead with Congressman Waxman, welcomed Alaskans from the town of Shishmaref, an Inupiat Eskimo village located on a small barrier island five miles from mainland Alaska, to hear from them how climate change is affecting their home. 

[Shishmaref Village chart]

Mr. President, their houses are literally falling into the sea, thanks to sea-level rise and coastal erosion.  Their centuries-old culture is crumbling away with each wave.  This is a house in Shishmaref.  This is a house at Roy Carpenter’s  Beach in Rhode Island.  You can see how we can sympathize with the town of Shishmaref. 

[House falling into sea with Chafee looking into it]

[Alaskan Relocation chart]

In Alaska, Shishmaref is not alone; a recent GAO report shows that thirty-one Alaskan villages are at risk. The twelve red dots shown here are villages that are now considering relocating completely.  According to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, relocation costs are estimated at $100 to 200 million for Shishmaref, and other villages could face similar costs.  Stanley Tocktoois the former Mayor of Shismaref, he came to our hearing and he said: “No matter your politics, you can’t ignore the facts.  The facts are that our village is being impacted by climate change on a daily basis.  And we need you to do something about it.”

No matter your politics, he said, you can’t ignore the facts.  Well, the painful truth, Mayor Tocktoo, is that around here in Congress if you have certain politics, you’re actually obliged to ignore the facts.  You are required to ignore the facts.  Your big money people—the big polluters, the Koch brothers—insist on it.  They demand that you ignore the facts.  And Citizens United, that God-awful Supreme Court Decision, means that big polluters’ big money can drown out in elections—particularly in Republican primary elections—every reasonable person, Republican, Independent or Democrat, who gets that we need to act.  So the party on the other side is stuck.  Trapped by the campaign finance rules and the big money of the big polluters.

We could in Congress be awake, and helping, and meeting the call of duty.   We could be working with the President to implement his Climate Action Plan.    The Environment and Public Works Committee, under the strong leadership of Chairman Barbara Boxer, recently held an oversight hearing on the President’s Climate Action Plan.  What did we get in that hearing from our Republican colleagues?  Denial, quarreling, and obfuscation—the polluter party line.   They actually brought in as a Republican witness, a witness whose organization took money from the Koch Brothers and Exxon, and from other far right and denier foundations, including the notorious Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, which launders money from big donors who want to remain anonymous.  If you have not heard of this Donor’s Trust and Donor’s Capital group, a recent report out of Drexel University described this group as the “Black box that conceals the identity of contributors,” and the “central component” and “dominant funder” of the denier apparatus.   That was who they chose as their witness.

We could in Congress be figuring out how a carbon pollution fee, one that returns all its proceeds right back to the American people, could best boost our economy, as some prominent Republicans have suggested.  But I sent a letter to my Republican colleagues summarizing the Republican case for a carbon fee, and not one responded.  The polluters have the Republican Party at their heels.  It’s a tragic state of affairs for a great political party.

Mr. President, carbon pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is altering the atmosphere and oceans.  It is changing our climate.  The scientific consensus around this fact is overwhelming.  Denial at this point is propped-up, polluter-paid nonsense.  Where carbon pollution hits the oceans, denial requires you not just to reject science, but to reject measurement.  You measure sea-level rise; you measure ocean warming; you measure ocean acidification.  It’s not complicated, you measure sea-level rise more or less with a yardstick.  You measure ocean warming with a thermometer.  You measure ocean acidification with simple litmus tests that everyone with an aquarium is familiar with.  And yet in Congress, despite that incontrovertible evidence from our oceans, we sleepwalk on in Congress, thanks to a great political party’s captivity by polluters.  It’s a disgrace.  It will go down in history as a disgrace.

We could strengthen our economy.  We could save our great coastal cities and our age-old island villages.  And we can leave things better, not worse, for the generations that will follow us.  But we have to pay attention to reality, we have to pay attention to the real evidence, we can’t be swept up in the toxic polluter-paid politics that infect Washington. 

Mr. President, this matters immensely to Alaska, it matters immensely to the citizens of Shishmaref, it matters immensely to the residents of Florida who are looking at their cities sinking, and it matters immensely to Rhode Island, the Ocean State.  Because the undeniable changes from sea-level rise and warming are upon us already and will only worsen.  For once and for all, Mr. President, it is time for us to wake up.