May 7, 2014

Climate Change in South Carolina and Georgia

As delivered on the Senate floor

Mr. President, I’m here now for the sixty-sixth consecutive weeks the Senate has been in session to ask my colleagues here to wake up to the threat of climate change. 

The topic has become taboo for Republicans in Congress, and so the discussion of climate change somewhat one-sided around here, but the recent comprehensive National Climate Assessment shows Americans are witnessing the effects of climate change, in every state of our nation. 

Colleagues: read the Assessment; find out how climate change is already affecting every region of the country.

In March I visited Iowa, where I heard over and over that Iowans are awake to the threat of climate change, and they’re actually ready to hold presidential candidates accountable on climate when they come out there for the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus.  Over the April recess, I spent five days travelling down the southeastern coast of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. 

I went there to talk to people on that coast firsthand.  I met scientists, students, outdoorsmen, faith leaders, and state and local officials—people of diverse backgrounds all with one thing in common:  their concern for the coastal communities that they love.  These folks know climate change is real because they see it where they live. They are not waiting around for this chamber to get organized.  They are acting.  

Last week, I spoke here about the business owners, community leaders, and researchers I met in North Carolina.  From there I headed into South Carolina.  My first stop was the University of South Carolina’s Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences.

[Baruch Marine Institute boat ride]

At the Baruch Institute, I learned how salt marshes, which are the ocean’s nurseries and our first line of defense again storms and hurricanes, have to adapt to rising sea levels.  These marshes can retain sediment as the tide goes in and out, and so they increase their elevation as sea-level rises if they’re given enough time. 

Dr. Jim Morris, director of the Baruch Institute, has been studying these marshes for decades – he is a renowned expert  He explained that sea-level rise is starting to happen so fast that the marshes may not keep up.  If they can’t then the marsh deteriorates to mudflat, and the mudflat deteriorates to open water, is already happening in places I visited.  That deterioration from marsh to mudflat can devastate coastal property, infrastructure, and wildlife.    

[Baruch Marine Institute sea-level rise]

Business as usual means sea level rise increases of three feet or more by 2100.  This is what the Baruch Marine Institute and surrounding marshes would look like after this sea-level change.  Before and after: pretty much a goner.

[Sea-turtle nest]

Next I visited Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, which extends for 22 miles and encompasses more than 66,000 acres of barrier islands, salt marshes, intricate coastal waterways, sandy beaches, fresh and brackish water impoundments, and maritime forest.  Sea-level rise threatens this area as well. 

One signal: last year, over 70 percent of endangered loggerhead turtle nests had to be relocated by people in order to prevent them from being flooded.  This is a place where these turtles have been nesting for centuries; but now look how coastal erosion is affecting the nests.

National Park Service officials told me, “This is not just about wildlife.  This is about the community.  It’s about your livelihood and well-being.”  They’re right.    

[DNR report]

According to a forward by Alvin Taylor, who is the Director of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, in the report titled “Climate Change Impacts to Natural Resources in South Carolina” – tell me how people from South Carolina are denying that climate change is real when the state published a report called Climate Change Impacts to Natural Resources in South Carolina.  Here’s what the report says:  

Climate-related changes may adversely affect the environment in many ways, potentially disrupting or damaging ecological services, water supply, agriculture, forestry, fish and wildlife species, endangered species, and commercial and recreational fishing….Fishing, hunting, and wildlife viewing contribute almost $2.2 billion annually to South Carolina’s economy and support nearly 59,000 jobs.

[SCBARS chart]

So how can they pretend it isn’t real? 

Business owners and executives in South Carolina are starting to take action on climate change.  There’s a South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, headed by Frank Knapp.  It has organized something called South Carolina Businesses Acting on Rising Seas to raise awareness among businesses and their customers of the threat posed to the Palmetto State.  In cities including Charleston and Myrtle Beach, coastal businesses threatened by rising sea levels are displaying strips of blue tape in their window fronts to show their support for taking action. 

I continued down the coast and visited Charleston’s Fort Johnson, where marine research facilities are located for NOAA, the College of Charleston, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and the Medical University of South Carolina.  The tide gauges in Charleston are up over 10 inches since the early 1920s.  Deny that – that is a measurement, it’s not a theory. 

[Fort Johnson sea-level rise]

This is what Fort Johnson would look like with the three feet of sea-level rise, which is projected for 2100.  Nearly all the research facilities at Fort Johnson would be lost, lost ironically to the very seas their research helps us understand.  And three feet could actually be on the low end of sea-level rise by 2100.   

[College of Charleston and NOAA Session]

During my visit to Fort Johnson, I heard from students, from faculty, from elected officials, from state and federal employees all working at the leading edge of climate change and adaptation research.  Just one example: a scientist, Dr. Peter Moeller, discussed how climate change is allowing algae species to grow in waters where they previously were not found.  As these algae species migrate to new areas they encounter bacteria and fungi and other unfamiliar algae.  As Dr. Moeller explained to me, under these conditions, previously non-toxic algae can make dangerous toxins that are novel to science and nature. 

It sounds almost like science fiction, but these are the consequences of human-caused climate change. 

My last stop in South Carolina was at a roundtable discussion at the Coastal Conservation League.  There, I heard from a diverse group of South Carolinians—researchers, environmental advocates, business owners, faith leaders—about their efforts to raise awareness to the threats of climate change and to promote clean energy. 

I learned this:  South Carolinians are not afraid to talk about climate change and how it’s affecting their state at least not until they get to Washington

When WCBD-TV Charleston asked Representative Mark Sanford about my visit to his state, he actually said something quite nice.  He said this:

“At our family farm in Beaufort, I’ve watched over the last 50 years as sea levels have risen and affected salt edges of the farm.  I applaud Senator Whitehouse for getting people together in the Lowcountry today to discuss this problem, and while we would likely approach solutions differently, building the conversation is a necessary first step.”

That’s a helpful opening, and I appreciate that.

Jim Gandy, the Chief Meteorologist for WLTX Columbia, has been forecasting South Carolina weather for 28 years.  He is affectionately known as South Carolina’s Weatherman.  Jim was at the White House this week to interview President Obama about the National Climate Assessment.  Through his blog, “Weather and Climate Matter,” and his broadcasts, Jim makes weather and climate understandable for his viewers.  I spoke with Jim while I was in South Carolina and learned that his station thought it may take some heat for Jim discussing climate change on the air, and they were braced for the blowback, but it never came.  South Carolinians have their eyes open.  It’s only taboo here in Washington.

I continued into Georgia, to the heart of the Savannah Historic District.  Audrey Platt, who is the former Vice-Chair of the Garden Club of America’s Conservation Committee, hosted me in her historic home in Savannah for a meeting with the local Garden Club, joined by Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson.  Also there was Reverend Mary Beene from the Faith Presbyterian Church, who talked about the M.K. Pentecost Ecology Fund for ecological stewardship of natural resources.                

[Fort Pulaski tide gauge]

We headed to Fort Pulaski and Tybee Island.  There’s a tide gauge at Fort Pulaski – it has been measuring sea level since 1935.  It takes measurements – it’s not complicated.  It produces clear, irrefutable facts.  At Fort Pulaski, NOAA measures that sea level has risen over eight inches.  

[Fort Pulaski sea-level rise]

Projections for 2100 put most of this region under water.  This chart shows that sea-level rise of three feet will devastate the area.    

On Tybee Island, I had lunch with city officials and council members, representatives of the Georgia Conservancy, NOAA scientists, Georgia Garden Club members, and local sustainability directors.  The message was clear.  Sea level is rising, oceans are warming, infrastructure and ecosystems that Georgians depend on are being threatened. 

One example, according to a University of Georgia biologist, sea-level rise will affect the state’s oysters crop.  The oysters in Georgia thrive at the tidal edge—sometimes above water and sometimes below as the tide goes up and down.  As rising sea levels come up, it will cause the oyster habitat to shift, or leave them vulnerable to predation as they spend more time underwater.  Being out of the water actually protects them from underwater predators.

[Stormwater outflows]

The people of Tybee Island are preparing.  Councilman Paul Wolff showed me the new stormwater tide gate, which the City of Tybee put in place to accommodate higher tides and rising seas.  He explained to me that that the road out to Tybee Island, Tybee Road – which is, by the way, the island’s only access road – will be flooded as much as 45 times per year with just one foot of sea-level rise, and the city has put in place a short-term plan for 14 to 20 inches of sea-level rise by 2060.  What does that do to an island’s economy if 45 days of the year you can’t get there?

Down the coast, I visited the University of Georgia’s Marine Institute at Sapelo Island and its Director, Dr. Merryl Alber.  Sapelo is a barrier island off the coast of Georgia managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.  This Marine Institute is a world-renowned field station for research in coastal ecosystems.  Here I learned how they are measuring what they call “blue carbon,”  the amount of carbon stored in the salt marsh.  They are doing that as part of National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research Program. 

Salt marshes, as it turns out, are huge carbon sinks – they store massive amounts of carbon.  But the carbon stored there may be returned to the atmosphere, and add to the climate problem, if salt marshes succumb to sea-level rise and have nowhere to migrate. We also heard how the intruding saltwater is changing local marsh ecosystems and jeopardizing fresh water supply. 

Georgia actually runs a Coastal Management Program Coastal Incentive Grant Program to increase knowledge about sea-level rise.

Now, if Georgia runs a Coastal Management Program Coastal Incentive Grant Program on sea-level rise, how can people who represent Georgia in Washington be pretending that this isn’t occurring?

[Phillips airboat ride]

I ended the day in Georgia out on the water with Charlie Phillips, who is a terrific character, a great guy to be with, a local and very successful clammer.  We went out on his air boat, over the marshes, that he had built himself.  He is also very knowledgeable and a member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council that runs the regional fishery.  He has been an outdoorsman his whole life, and he needs fresh, clean water for his Georgia clams.  Unfortunately, Charlie says that changes in climate are hurting the ecosystem that supports his livelihood – his and his employees.  He worries about the future of his business. 

This is South Carolina and Georgia.  South Carolina and Georgia.  And when you actually go there, what do you find?  Business owners, researchers, faith leaders, and elected officials are all responding to changes that they are witnessing.  They understand – they see – the risk that climate change poses.  They hope that their representatives in Congress will wake up to the danger of climate change.  The home state danger that their constituents are already seeing happening right around them.

Mr. President, after seeing the beauty of both South Carolina and Georgia along those lovely coasts, it’s painful to see there the warning signals of climate change.  It called to mind President Theodore Roosevelt’s message from more than 100 years ago to America’s schoolchildren.  He said this:

“[I]n your full manhood and womanhood you will want what nature once so bountifully supplied and man so thoughtlessly destroyed; and because of that want you will reproach us, not for what we have used, but for what we have wasted….[A]ny nation which in its youth lives only for the day, reaps without sowing, and consumes without husbanding, must expect the penalty of the prodigal…”

Mr. President, the people that I met in South Carolina and Georgia, along with a huge majority of Americans nationwide, know that climate change is real, see it happening in their lives, and want us to take action.  It’s time for Congress to listen to their voices.  It’s time for Congress to listen to the fishermen who see the fisheries moving around and the oceans warming.  It’s time for us to listen to the clamors at the seashore, who see the changes in the sea-level and know what it means for them.  It’s time for us to listen to the foresters who see the pine beetle killing forests by the hundreds of square mile, and the firefighter who fight fires in those forests who see the season expanding by sixty days.  It’s time for us to listen to the farmers who see unprecedented drought and flooding.  It’s time for Congress to listen to the voices of their constituents before we all, in our foolishness and in our folly, must pay the penalty of the prodigal.  It’s time indeed for Congress to wake up.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.