May 14, 2013

Blue Vision Summit – Opening Session Remarks

As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you for inviting me here this morning to speak with all of you.    

As you all know well, our oceans face an unprecedented set of challenges from climate change, pollution, energy extraction, and more: 

  • Far north, Arctic ice is melting.  Last summer, sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean hit a record low.
  • To our south, live coral coverage on Caribbean reefs has plummeted from nearly 50 percent in the 1970s to less than 10 percent today. 
  • At the top of the food chain, marine mammals are so laden with PCBs, flame retardants, mercury, and other bio-accumulative pollutants that many are swimming toxic waste. 
  • At the bottom of the food chain, the population of phytoplankton, some of our smallest ocean inhabitants, has dropped 40 percent from 1899-2008. 
  • Far away, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is growing, swirling about the Northern Pacific Ocean.
  • And close to my home, Narragansett Bay is 4 degrees warmer in the winter. 
  • Globally, the most threatening challenge is ocean acidification.

Oceans have absorbed more than 550 billion tons of carbon pollution.  As a result, oceans have become 30 percent more acidic.  By the end of this century, the increase could be as much as 160 percent.  That makes life a lot harder for species like oysters, crabs, lobsters, corals, and even the plankton that comprise the very base of the food web. 

Ocean temperatures are changing dramatically—also driven by carbon pollution.  Sea surface temperatures in 2012, from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Hatteras, were the highest recorded in 150 years.  Fish stocks are shifting northward, with some disappearing from U.S. waters as they move farther offshore.

As temperatures rise, water expands in volume; and fresh water pours out of Arctic snowpack and ice sheets.  Tide gauges in Newport, Rhode Island, show an increase in average sea level of nearly ten inches since 1930.  At these tide gauges, measurements show that the rate of sea-level rise is also increasing.  This matches reports that, since 1990, sea level has been rising faster than the rate predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

We will continue to take advantage of the ocean’s bounty, as we should.  We will trade, we will fish, and we will sail.  We will dispose of waste.  We will extract fuel and harness the wind.  We will work our oceans.  Navies and cruise ships, sailboats and supertankers, will plow their surface.  We cannot undo this part of our relationship with the sea.  What we can change is what we do in return.  We can, for the first time, become not just takers, but caretakers. 

We are beginning to take some baby steps.  Last week, the Senate voted 67-32 to authorize a National Endowment for the Oceans, Coasts, and Great Lakes.  This vote amended the Water Resources Development Act of 2013, which is still pending in the Senate.  If we can survive the hurdles ahead, this establishes the Endowment as a funding stream for research, restoration, and protection of our marine and coastal resources. 

Bob Ballard has said that “a major problem . . . is the disconnect between the importance of oceans and the meager funds we as a nation invest to not only understand their complexity, but become responsible stewards of the bounty they represent.”  This Endowment, if we can get it over the remaining hurdles, will help us become responsible stewards of that bounty.

I brought a bipartisan group of Senators together to form a Senate Oceans Caucus, to increase awareness and find common ground in responding to issues facing the oceans and coasts.  Last Congress, with Senators Boxer, Cardin, and then-Senator Kerry, I cofounded a group in the Senate called the “Tuesday 12” to help focus attention on climate change.  And this Congress, with Congressman Waxman, I founded a Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change to coordinate the two Houses, to focus congressional and public attention, and to develop bills and plans for executive action.

But the real battle ahead is on carbon pollution—and here I bring a big message of hope.  I want to push back on the idea we seem to have accepted that we can’t do anything serious on carbon pollution.  In fact, we can, and the tools lie right before us if only we’d pick them up and go to work. 

Here’s my case, very simply:

Pricing carbon properly is necessary.  Make the big carbon polluters pay a fee to the American people to cover the cost of dumping their waste into our atmosphere and oceans—the cost they now push off onto the rest of us. 

At present, political conditions do not allow us to price carbon.  So we must change those political conditions.

Changing the political conditions will require three actions:  

  1. There must be a regulatory threat to the polluters. 
  2. There must be a political threat to the deniers in Congress. 
  3. We must gather the armies on our side.

Let’s go through the steps.

First, the polluters and their allies control Congress.  That means we have to rely on the Executive Branch for regulatory action — very strong regulatory action, that will change the equation for the polluters.   The status quo is a win for polluters: they pollute for free. 

Change that, big time, and it won’t take them long to come to Congress.  Regulatory action puts costs directly on the polluters, with no revenues; a carbon pollution fee creates revenues that could offset their costs.  If that’s the choice, it becomes in their interest to strike a deal in Congress.  This step will, however, require an awakening at the White House.

Second, t o create a meaningful political threat we need a super PAC—sorry, I hate them too, but we do — one with tens of millions of dollars, and focused entirely on climate and oceans.  I am sick of bringing not even a knife but a feather to a gunfight.  It’s no wonder we lose.  But when deniers in Congress see that kind of money coming on the field against them, many will rethink.

Last is gathering the armies.  There is astonishingly wide support for action on climate: environmental groups, obviously; the green energy and investment industry; our national security officials; property casualty insurers and reinsurers; young people, like the college movement for coal divestment; faith groups; celebrities; hunting, fishing, outdoor and conservation groups; affinity retailers like Apple, Coca-Cola and Nike; labor groups; mayors and local officials; perhaps the “Internet wave” group; and, the public is with us.  Polls show that.  Most of this support is latent and unorganized. None of these groups feel they can carry this battle on their own.  So they sit. 

Create “allied command”; assemble these various divisions; let them in on a strategy that deploys them all effectively into action: that’s a game changer.

When the polluting industry is looking down the barrel of a regulatory gun; when their political allies are fearful of a well-funded super PAC dedicated to their demise; when mobilized and motivated forces from a wide sector of the economy are active: that’s when the political landscape can shift dramatically, and a price on carbon is achievable. 

So be not faint of heart.  This can all take place quite rapidly.  All of these tools are available to us now.  We just need to do it.  As someone once said, “Yes we can.”

Thank you.