March 17, 2016

A Case for Optimism on Climate Change

Madam President, I come to this Chamber for the 131st time to urge this body to break free and wake up to what carbon pollution is doing to our atmosphere and our oceans.

Last week, scientists at NOAA reported that carbon dioxide levels at their Mauna Loa Observatory jumped in 2015 by the largest year-to-year increase in 56 years of research. Pieter Tans, lead scientist at NOAA, said, “Carbon dioxide levels are increasing faster than they have in hundreds of thousands of years. It’s explosive compared to natural processes.”

We see the effects of this runaway carbon pollution everywhere, in ever-climbing temperatures, in ever-changing weather patterns, and in ever-rising, warming, and acidifying seas. But the Republican-controlled Congress refuses to take responsible action.

They put their climate effort elsewhere, such as attacking former Vice President Al Gore for raising awareness of the real and looming climate crisis. One Republican colleague has railed against Mr. Gore, calling him “the world’s first climate billionaire,” claiming that he is “drowning in a sea of his own global warming illusions” and faulting him for “desperately trying to keep global warming alarmism alive today.”

Another prominent Republican, this one running for President, suggested “the Nobel committee should take the Nobel Prize back from Al Gore.”

Others claim that cold or snowy weather proves Mr. Gore wrong. After one snow in DC a few years ago, a prominent Republican TV personality claimed the storm “would seem to contradict Al Gore’s hysterical global warming theories.” A Senator gloated after that storm, “Where’s Al Gore now?”

Another Senate colleague said while campaigning for President in Iowa: “I have to admit, I was really confused. Al Gore told us this wasn’t going to happen, but it was cold there.” These are all profoundly ignorant comments if you know anything about climate change, but they cannot resist. They inhabit what Politico’s Daniel Lippman and Mike Allen this week called “a political reality indifferent to the exigencies of climate change.”

So let’s catch up on what Al Gore is up to on climate change. He has a TED talk on the website, and I highly recommend it.

Mr. Gore’s presentation opens with the fact that our atmosphere is not as big as most people think.

He shows this picture taken from the International Space Station to remind us that the atmosphere surrounding our planet is really just a thin shell. It is into this thin shell that we continue to spew megatons of heat-trapping carbon pollution day in and day out. Mr. Gore explains that this thin atmosphere “right now is the open sewer for our industrial civilization as it’s currently organized.”

Here is how he shows our carbon dioxide emission rates through time. You can see the amount of carbon emissions really started to increase here after World War II. Vice President Gore explains: “[T]he accumulated amount of man-made, global warming pollution that is up in the atmosphere now traps as much extra heat energy as would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs exploding every 24 hours, 365 days a year.” He continues: “[T]hat is a lot of energy. ….. And all that extra heat energy is heating up….. the whole earth system.”

The Vice President didn’t mention it, but the Associated Press has used a similar analogy about the heat from climate change that is going into our oceans, a piece that said: “Since 1997, Earth’s oceans have absorbed man-made heat energy equivalent to a Hiroshima-style bomb being exploded every second for 75 straight years.”

Mr. Gore showed this depiction of average temperatures between 1951 and 1980. The blue is cooler-than-average days, the white is average days, and the red is warmer-than-average days. Now we are going to look at what happened in the next three decades after this 1951 to 1980 period. What is going to stay the same is this green line. That will be the constant against which you can see the change. Let’s go to the next chart.

This is 1983 to 1993. You will notice that everything has moved against the constant. You will also notice down here that a new category has emerged. This category is extremely hot days.

The next chart is 1994 to 2004.

Again, the average continues to move against this green line which is a constant, and now you see that new category of extremely hot days growing even more.

Here is our last decade, 2005 to 2015. What we experience in this last decade has moved completely away from the historic norm indicated by that green line, and this extreme temperature, the extremely hot days category, is now bigger than the cooler-than-average category. Remember, 1950 to 1980, this category didn’t even exist. Now it is bigger. Well, it might have existed, but it wasn’t visible on the graphs; let me put it that way. Now it is bigger than the cooler-than-average category.

Mr. Gore points out that these extremely hot days in the last 10 years “are 150 times more common on the surface of the earth than they were just 30 years ago.” By the way, we measure this stuff. This is not a theory.

Worldwide, 2015 was the hottest year since we began keeping records in 1880, according to NOAA and NASA. That Republican colleague who went to Iowa and thought that the cold disproved climate change dismissed that finding as “pseudo-scientific theory.” You know what. NASA is driving a rover around on the surface of Mars right now, so I will go with them knowing what they are talking about. The last 5 years have been the warmest 5-year period on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization, and 14 of the 15 hottest years ever measured have been in this young century.

We are a terrestrial species. We live on the land, so naturally we pay more attention to the land and not so much to what is happening in our warming and acidifying oceans. This chart shows the oceans absorbing over 90 percent of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gas emissions. This is the effect of those Hiroshima bomb equivalents warming up the oceans that the Associated Press used as their example.

What does all that extra heat mean for the oceans? Well, unless you are going to dispute the law of thermal expansion, it means that warming things expand. Last month, a study of tidal flood days along my east coast came out. The author’s conclusion? I will quote him. “It’s not the tide. It’s not the wind. It’s us.”

There is one industry, the insurance industry that pays serious attention to climate change as their losses have been mounting. This is insurance company data from the Insurance Information Institute in January of 2006 showing the climate rate of worldwide extreme weather catastrophes. Why? Well, Dr. Kevin Trenberth works at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He says, “All storms are different now.” Do you hear that? “All storms are different now. There’s so much extra energy in the atmosphere, there’s so much extra water vapor. Every storm is different now.”

Well, the challenge of climate change is urgent, but Mr. Gore points out that we have the understanding and engineering prowess to generate energy from new sources, and we are doing unexpectedly well. Vice President Gore says, “The best projections in the world 16 years ago were that by 2010, the world would be able to install 30 gigawatts of wind capacity. We beat that mark by 14 and a half times over.”

It is the same story for solar capacity, which is taking off even more quickly than wind.

Again quoting Vice President Gore: “The best projections 14 years ago were that we would install one gigawatt [of solar] per year by 2010.” The Vice President continues, “When 2010 came around, we beat that mark by 17 times over. Last year, we beat it by 58 times over. This year, we’re on track to beat it 68 times over.”

Look at that curve. These innovations helped renewable energy costs become comparable with fossil fuel power even though, as Vice President Gore points out, “fossil energy is now still subsidized at a rate 40 times larger than renewables.”

If you look at what the International Monetary Fund has said about the “effective subsidy” of fossil fuel, the subsidy for fossil is actually way bigger than that.

Most importantly, society is moving. More than 150 major U.S. companies signed onto the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, supporting a strong outcome in the Paris climate negotiations. Fifty-three percent of young Republican voters–that is, young Republican voters under the age of 35–have said they would describe a climate change denier as “ignorant,” “out-of-touch” or “crazy.” Those are not my words; these are the words in the poll that the young Republicans chose.

Despite the recent stay of the administration’s Clean Power Plan, 19 States are continuing with EPA to develop compliance strategies for their economies and their energy sectors. Roughly 6 in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning Independents under age 50 think the government should limit greenhouse gases even if it causes a $20 increase in their monthly bill. So people are moving.

Mr. Gore uses a line from the great American poet Wallace Stevens: “After the final no, there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.”

Well, Al Gore has faced a lot of “no.” The fossil fuel industry and its minions have mocked and derided him. The climate denial machine keeps working its poison. In fact, we just learned that Arch Coal’s bankruptcy filing shows they were funding an extremist group dedicated to harassing and threatening scientists.

As the evidence comes in, as every major science agency and organization lines up with all our National Labs and military services and our home State universities across the country, it turns out the mockers and the deniers were wrong. In fact, in all decency, Al Gore deserves an apology, as do the countless men and women who scrutinize these data, who labor in the real science, and who call us to action. If we continue sleepwalking in Congress, we will need to apologize not just to Al Gore but to future generations. We will need to apologize to our own grandchildren for our negligence when we knew better. So let us wake up from our fossil fuel-funded make-believe and meet our moral obligation.

Madam President, I yield the floor.