06.04.14

Bold Action for Cleaner Air and a Healthier Future

As delivered on the Senate floor

Thanks, Mr. President. I’m here for the sixty-ninth straight, consecutive week that the Senate has been in session to try to wake us up to the harm that carbon pollution causes to our oceans, to our communities, to our ecosystems, and to our health. 

The effects of climate change are all around us—from melting glaciers in our national parks, to drought-stricken land across the American Southwest, to rising seas along my Eastern Seaboard.  Washington, DC’s iconic cherry blossoms are blooming earlier.  Snook, native to South Florida, are being caught off the coast of Charleston; tarpon and grouper off the coast of Rhode Island. 

This is all happening now.  Not tomorrow, not sometime in the distant future, but now. Right now.  And projections show that it will get much worse in the coming years, unless we wake up and take real action.

[Emissions by Country and our Dirtiest Power Plants] 

Happily, this week, the Environmental Protection Agency used its Clean Air Act authority, as established by Congress and affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, to propose carbon pollution standards for the country’s existing power plants.  Before this, there were no carbon pollution limits, believe it or not.  None! 

And as you can see on this chart, the fifty dirtiest U.S. power plants – this is the whole U.S. power plant fleet, this is just the fifty dirtiest U.S. power plants.  They put out more carbon than Korea, which is a pretty industrialized country.  They put out more carbon than Canada, our neighbor to the north. 

I congratulate the Administration on developing these smart, sensible limits that will put our nation on a better path, economically and on a better path environmentally.  And thank you to the scientists, the engineers, the staffers, the attorneys, and the experts who invested so much time and energy in developing this historic standard.

Through an unprecedented public engagement, EPA held more than 300 public meetings, working with stakeholders of all kinds and all across the political spectrum.  The result? EPA has put the states in the driver’s seat, to come up with their own plans to meet state-specific targets.  States and power companies will have a wide variety of options to achieve carbon reductions, like boosting renewable energy, establishing energy savings targets, investing in efficiency, or joining one of the existing cap-and-trade programs.  States can develop plans that create jobs, plans that cut electricity costs by boosting efficiency, plans that achieve major pollution reduction.  What is not to like?

Already, a diverse array of groups supports the new EPA pollution standards.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a letter to Administrator McCarthy, wrote, “These standards should protect the health and welfare of all people, especially children, the elderly, as well as poor and vulnerable communities, from harmful pollution emitted from power plants and from the impacts of climate change.” 

The Catholic Bishops went on to point out that, I’ll quote them again: “The best evidence indicates that power plants are the largest stationary source of carbon emissions in the United States, and a major contributor to climate change.”

We’re also hearing from six hundred state and local elected officials, who recently sent a letter to the President in support of the EPA plan.  These are the mayors, council members, state legislators for whom climate change is a day-to-day reality, at home, right there in their communities.  The letter is signed by officials from both red states and blue, including Texas, Iowa, Arizona, and the ground zero of climate change in this country, the State of Florida.  

The business community has weighed in.  Over 125 companies, including American giants like Nike, Levi’s, and Starbucks, sent a letter of support for the new rule.  “Our support is firmly grounded in economic reality,” it reads.  “The new standards will reinforce what leading companies already know: climate change poses real financial risks and substantial economic opportunities and we must act now.”

VF Corporation is an American apparel manufacturer in North Carolina, whose brands include The North Face, Timberland, Wrangler, and many others.  “As a company that makes innovative apparel and footwear for people who love the outdoors, we know how important addressing climate change is to our consumers, and therefore, our business,” said Letitia Webster, VF’s director of global sustainability.  “Today’s rules provide the long-term certainty that VF needs to continue to invest in clean energy solutions so that we can do our part to reduce the impacts of climate change.”

Major utilities are behind the new rule.  Tom King, the president of National Grid US, which serves my home state of Rhode Island, said, “The Obama Administration, through the good work of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and her staff, has worked in a transparent manner to craft regulation that promotes environmental and human health through a host of clean energy options.  Rather than picking winners, this proposed rule supports market-based solutions.”

And major public health groups agree.  Here’s what Harold Wimmer, the National President and CEO of the American Lung Association, had to say:  “For the 147 million—nearly half of all Americans—already living in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution, curbing carbon pollution emissions is a critical step forward for protecting public health from the impacts of climate change happening today.”

As widespread and broad as the support is for this rule, not everyone is applauding.    Big polluters have enjoyed a long and happy holiday from responsibility for the carbon pollution they have dumped into our atmosphere and oceans.  This free pollution that they have enjoyed emitting is a market failure— a market failure recognized even by groups as conservative as the American Enterprise Institute— a market failure which allowed these polluters to dump billions of dollars in costs and harm on their fellow Americans.  They did this to their fellow Americans without apparent shame or regret, and they are fighting desperately to preserve this loophole.

They don’t want you to know that we can achieve these reductions responsibly.  They don’t want you to know that we can do this and help our economy.  Indeed, before the proposed rule was even available to examine, the climate deniers at the so-called U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it would cost electricity customers hundreds of billions of dollars and sap the U.S. economy of tens of billions in GDP and hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Don’t believe it.

These claims are exaggerated at best, and flat-out false at worst. And don’t just take my word for it.  Republicans citing the Chamber’s report, of course some of our colleagues jumped to cite that report, and when they did, they earned a PolitiFact “false” and “four Pinocchios” from the Washington Post Fact Checker.  The problem with the big polluters is that they only look at one side of the ledger:  they ignore the costs of carbon pollution on the rest of us. 

And these costs are real.  People see them in their lives—in real lives, at home, in our communities.  Damage to coastal homes and roads and businesses from rising seas and erosion; asthma attacks in children triggered by smog, sending them to the emergency room; forests dying from beetle infestations and swept by unprecedented wildfire seasons; farms ravaged by worsened drought and flooding.  Mr. President, our side of the ledger counts, too. 

If the big polluters were accountants, and they filed financial statements that only looked at one side of the ledger, they’d go to prison.  But this is politics; so without consequence, or shame, or regret, they just ignore the harm they cause the rest of us.

If the Chamber of Commerce and the big polluters want to talk about jobs, let’s not forget about the jobs they hurt by their carbon pollution.  Fishermen in Rhode Island have seen their winter flounder catch nearly disappear in recent decades as the winter water temperature in our Narragansett Bay has risen by 3 to 4 degrees.  That is an ecosystem shift for these species.

Actually, there are now more jobs in clean, green energy than in oil and gas; more jobs in solar than in coal mining.  This rule is a job creator in innovation and clean energy.  The polluters just won’t count that side of the ledger. 

It’s an old story:  tobacco; seat belts in cars; acid rain; lead paint; ozone depletion; and more.  Same old strategy:  muddle the science, manufacture doubt, exaggerate the costs, and ignore the economic benefits.  

The Clean Air Act, according to a 2011 EPA assessment, will benefit Americans more than its costs—by a ratio of 30 to one!  Thirty to one.  Thirty dollars of value in preventing hospital visits and premature deaths; avoiding missed work and school days; improving environmental quality; helping people live healthier, more productive lives.  Thirty dollars in value to Americans for every one dollar they had to pay in cleanup costs.  Opponents of clean air standards have been proven wrong time and again. 

Here’s the bottom line: excessive carbon pollution is bad for our health, bad for our environment, and bad for our economy, even bad for our national security, if you read the Department of Defense’s own Quadrennial Defense Reviews, and the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States is power plants.  Until now, there were no limits on the carbon pollution these plants could spew into our atmosphere and oceans. 

This week changes that.  If the big polluters don’t like the change, many of us will work with them on a legislative alternative—perhaps, as many Republicans support, an economy-wide price on carbon pollution, which could generate a financial benefit for taxpayers and even provide transition assistance to affected industries.  But they can’t just keep dumping their pollution on the rest of us.  Doing so might be free for them, but the costs are too high for us. Their long holiday from responsibility has to come to an end.  It is time for them to wake up.

A number of my Republican colleagues have come to the Senate Floor to respond to the Administration’s proposal.  Those of us seeking to stave off the worst effects of climate change welcome this opportunity to engage in a bipartisan discussion on the challenges of climate change. 

In the past, Republican colleagues have co-authored and voted for bipartisan climate legislation, they have spoken out in favor of a carbon fee.  And of course, our Republicans represent states, like Florida, that are every bit as at risk from the effects of climate change as states represented by Democrats.  So, we think our Republican colleagues could have a lot to offer if they wish to join us in exploring solutions. 

So, a number of us have requested that time after votes on Monday, June 9th—Monday, June 9th, next Monday—be reserved for us to engage in a robust, bipartisan exchange of views about carbon pollution, and we invite all our colleagues, Republican and Democrat, to join us then on the Floor. 

We hope to find that the Republican Party in the United States Senate is not a uniform monolith of climate denial.  We earnestly believe that the costs of failing to exercise American leadership and solve this problem are very high, terribly high, with ramifications for our health and safety, our economic well-being, our food and water supplies, and our national security and standing.  I look forward to a vigorous discussion on Monday, I hope my colleagues show up, and I yield the floor.