03.26.14

Climate Change in the Heartland

As delivered on the Senate floor

Thank you very much Madam President. I’m now here for the sixty-second weekly effort to have my colleagues wake up to the threats of climate change.  Congress continues to remain sound asleep, I suspect aestheticized by the narcotic drip of polluter money into our veins, but the signs of change around us continue. 

[Mauna Loa Monthly Carbon Dioxide Concentrations]

This is the Mauna Loa carbon dioxide concentrations monthly, and we have just passed again, 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is the second year in a row this has happened—this year it happened two months earlier this year than last year.  So, why does it matter that we’re at 400 parts per million? What does that mean to anybody? Well we’ve actually gone back and measured where the carbon concentration in the atmosphere has been. Going way back, we can measure back in ancient ice, so we know that for at least 800,000 years, our carbon concentration is between 170 ppm to 300 ppm.  That’s a long run for a species that’s only been homo sapiens for about 250,000 years. That has been a long and hospitable window, during which our species has developed from very primitive hunter-gatherers into the complex people that we are now. And so, when you take something like that— the carbon concentration— and you bust out of a range that has sheltered us for 800,000 years, that’s not nothing. And it’s particularly not nothing, when you know that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ranges the temperature of the earth. We’ve known that since Abraham Lincoln was president. This is not something that’s debatable.  This is not new news. This is established science for 150-plus years. We also know, because you can replicate it in a laboratory, that when you put higher concentrations of carbon in the air over sea water, it acidifies the sea water. And if you doubt any of that, you can go out and measure that it’s actually happening. The known provable theories— the known principles, I should say – in fact laws of science, are actually manifest in sea level rise from the warming oceans, in warming oceans temperatures, in the increased acidification. These are measurements. And, as this continues, we continue to do nothing about it, but let the big polluters continue to spew carbon pollution into our atmosphere.  

Some of us in Congress are tired of waiting for folks to wake up.  This month, thirty-one Senators from every part of the country held the Senate floor through the night to sharpen this chamber’s focus on the threats of climate change.  I want to thank Senator Schatz of Hawaii for leading us through this wake-up call, and to Senator Boxer for her leadership of the Senate Climate Action Task Force, and to the presiding officer, the senior senator  from Massachusetts, for her enthusiastic participation and support in that effort.

[Up All Night Twitter Chart]

The American people tuned in, tweeting over 54,000 times at the hashtag #Up4Climate in the 24-hour period of this effort; and also, Americans added more than 200,000 signatures to online petitions urging Congress to get with it and do something about this climate problem. The public knows it’s a problem and has been pushing us to act now for years. 

I’ve heard it from Rhode Island fishermen, who now have to chase their catch farther offshore into cooler waters because our coastal waters have warmed—you’ve heard it from your Massachusetts fishermen as well. I’ve heard it from homeowners in South Kingstown, RI, whose houses are falling into the ocean as the sea level rises and they encroach further inland into what had, for generations, been family homes.  Rhode Island does its part to try to address climate change. We’re participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and we are everywhere readying our coastline for worse storms and higher seas.   

But the Ocean State can’t do this alone.  The health, the safety, the prosperity of the people I represent in Rhode Island’s communities depends on national action.  We need a national groundswell of citizens and elected officials from every state. 

So last week, I went to Iowa to share with that state Rhode Island’s climate change stories and  to listen to Iowans tell me their climate change stories and how it’s affecting their communities.  I was invited to Iowa by Senator Rob Hogg, who is a passionate defender of the Iowan environment and way of life, and a very knowledgeable expert on climate change.  I want to thank him, and I also want to thank the Iowa Legislature, particularly House Minority Leader Mark Smith and Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, for their warm welcome.  And I also want to thank my colleague, Senator Harkin, and his staff for their assistance in planning and coordinating my visit. 

Farming is not a big deal in Rhode Island. We’re not known as an agricultural state; we have farms, and we love them, but it’s not quite the same as Iowa. Farming is the cornerstone of Iowa’s economy, and disruption of agricultural productivity is one of the great climate risks in Iowa.  The recent National Climate Assessment draft, finds this: “In the long term, combined stresses associated with climate change are expected to decrease agricultural productivity, especially without significant advances in genetic and agronomic technology.”

But we don’t have to wait for the long term.  Iowans are already being hit by extreme weather. 

In 2013, just last year, 155 science faculty and research staff from thirty-six Iowa colleges and universities, home state Iowa teachers from their colleges and universities—155 of them— signed the Iowa Climate Statement concerning the losses that farmers across their state are already experiencing due to climate change. And Madam President, I ask unanimous consent that the Iowa Climate Statement follow my remarks in the Record.

Iowa has had twenty Presidential disaster declarations  since 1990 due to flooding. Damage has been more than $20 billion.  Although no one particular flood can be directly connected to climate change, we know that carbon pollution loads the dice for the extreme downpours that provoke these floods in Iowa and the in the Midwest. I call it the Barry Bonds rule— you don’t know which home run was caused by the steroids, but you know for sure he was hitting extra home runs because of the steroids, and you can measure that.

In 1993 in Iowa, a flood exceeding once-in-500-year flood levels hit Des Moines. Ted Corrigan of Des Moines Water Works told me during my visit that the city’s infrastructure was overwhelmed, leaving Des Moines without clean water for more than two weeks.  The Des Moines Register reports, Iowa has endured at least ten so-called 500-year floods since 1993—ten 500-year floods since 1993— and that includes the big 2008 flood that cost $10 billion statewide in Iowa.  Doug Newman, the Executive Vice President at the Cedar Rapids Economic Alliance, told me what it was like to live through that unprecedented flood.  Doug explained that in Cedar Rapids, flood levels had never exceeded, for as long as they had measured it, had never exceeded 21 feet. This flood maxed out at 31 feet, 10 feet above the all-time previous record  One thousand businesses were flooded, one fifth of them were lost, and more than 1,000 people lost their jobs.

So it was tough, but what I saw, Madam President, was Iowans taking action.  From college students to business leaders, from the activists of the Iowa Citizens Climate Lobby to the conservationists of the Izaak Walton League, Iowans are preparing for the effects of climate change and they want to see federal action.  Like Rhode Islanders, they’re tired of trying to carry this themselves.

[U.S. Conference on Mayors Climate Agreement]

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie is one of over 1,000 mayors, represented on this map all across the country, who have signed the U.S. Conference on Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, pledging to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their own cities and to press their state governments and the federal government, us, to enact meaningful greenhouse gas reductions.

I visited with TPI Composites. TPI Composites has a development and manufacturing facility in my home state—in Warren, RI—they’re part of our composites cluster in Rhode Island— but they’re also a leading Iowa manufacturer of wind turbine blades.  In ten years, TPI has manufactured more than 10,000 wind turbine blades.  So, when the Maytag headquarters closed, leaving as many as 4,000 workers jobless in Newton, IA, this helped the town get back on its feet.  If we allow the Production Tax Credit, or the PTC, to lapse, loss of tax incentive for the wind energy producers will jeopardize business that TPI has built.  So, the Iowa State Senate unanimously passed a resolution in January supporting extension of the Production Tax Credit – unanimously, bipartisan.  There is bipartisan support for extension of both the Production Tax Credit and the Investment Tax Credit and we should get that done this Congress.

I also heard in Iowa from Warren McKenna. Warren McKenna is the Manager at the Farmers Electric Cooperative in Kalona, IA.  Kalona is a town of about 2,400 people.  It has Iowa’s first community solar garden with 25 kilowatts of capacity.  For the co-op’s 800 owner-members, that 25 kilowatts of energy helps reduce their monthly bills.  And for members who have their own solar panels, they also get paid for the energy they add into the co-op’s system.  And this year, off of those successes, the co-op is breaking ground on an 800,000 kilowatt solar installation, taking advantage of a state solar tax credit that was passed by a Democratic Senate and a Republican House, and signed into law by a Republican governor.  This body could learn a thing or two from the Iowa State Legislature. It shows what can happen when the polluter money doesn’t have a democratic institution locked down the way Congress has been.   

[BioProcess Algae] 

I also visited BioProcess Algae. This is a Rhode Island-based company. The CEO, Timmy Burns is right here—Aquidnick Islander, like myself.  They design, build, and operate commercial-scale algae bioreactors.  The commercial demonstration project, shown here, is located in the southwest corner of Iowa in Shenandoah.

BioProcess Algae uses the wastewater, and the waste heat, and the carbon dioxide emissions from the nearby ethanol refinery to grow algae.  The algae can then be used for animal feed, can be used for biofuels.  And while it’s growing, it eats up the carbon dioxide that woutd otherwise be emitted to pollute the atmosphere.  Here in Shenandoah, American ingenuity is converting carbon pollution into economic opportunity. 

[Wind Turbine Adair]

I also visited this is the base of a wind turbine. This is the stairway up into where you can go inside. You can see it’s pretty big. There is the arc of the round steel base and it towers up hundreds of feet, I think the blade diameter was 160 meters—it’s a pretty serious sized wind turbine.  It is located in one of five wind parks, which have a combined 500 wind turbines that are operated by a company  called MidAmerican energy.  Thanks to pioneering companies like MidAmerican—and to the state tax incentives that encourage these projects—more than a quarter of Iowa’s electricity is generated by wind. They are leading the country—more than a quarter of their energy is created by wind. It measures in the gigawatts—that’s a lot of wind power. And they love it. The farmers get paid for having the wind turbine on their farm, and if you look, this is the turbine itself—the stand that the turbine that it rises up on, the column. That is the doorway into it, and we are standing on a gravel sort of service road ring around it so equipment can be pulled up around it for maintenance purposes. But you look up around it, and here, that’s not too far away—25 feet—and they’re farming, right up to 25 feet away from this thing. So you farm and you get paid for having the wind turbine located on your farm. It is a wonderful twofer.

The conclusion I drew from all of this, from the exciting, new types of energy being grown from algae, from the huge commitment to wind from the audiences that came out and expressed their support for getting stuff done on climate, for the bipartisan support for so much of this clean energy stuff—Iowans have woken up to the threat of climate change.  And that’s important because Iowa plays a key role in our politics. Iowa helps determine which issues our presidential candidates will be judged on. And in 2016, I will bet you Iowans are going to insist that they all address carbon pollution. And they’re not going to accept a lot of nonsense denial out of those candidates. In fact, I believe that if the Republican Party tries to nominate a climate denier for president, they’re in big trouble.

Of course, the carbon fuel-funded denial machine will do its best to change the subject. To muddy the waters.  To create doubt.  To use its anonymous, dark, political money to keep candidates quiet.  But all the money in the world can’t change the fact that Iowans know, just like Rhode Islanders do, that climate change is real and those Iowans are going to put those presidential candidates on record.  

If you’re a denier, good luck in Iowa.  Iowans see the changes taking place and they are speaking up.  Farmers in Iowa and fisherman in Rhode Island may be miles from each other geographically, but they both see in their lives around them the facts of the changes that are already happening. 

So, the time to sit on the sidelines is over. If we fight hard, if we’re willing to have this fight, I am confident that we can do a strong climate bill in Congress, and soon. A climate bill that will strengthen our economy, because it will. A climate bill that will redirect our future, as it must.  A climate bill that will protect our democracy, because the pollution of our atmosphere and oceans that the carbon polluters are doing, is matched by the pollution of our democracy that they are doing with their dirty and anonymous money. And finally, a bill that will honor our duty to the generations that will follow us, because each American generation takes that duty as a very, very high duty and right now folks, we are dishonoring that duty, and we are not leaving for future generations the kind of a country that we should. 

I went recently to the Ukraine. I met with one of the leaders of the Ukrainian freedom movement, his name is Vitali Klitschko. If you’re a boxing fan, you know who Vitali Klitschko is because he’s a huge guy who was the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion for years, and he has now thrown himself into the struggle of Ukraine for freedom. First of all, freedom from Russian influence and control, and more recently freedom from the oligarchs who basically robbed the country blind, but were finally run out after that long, bloody siege at the Square in Kiev, the Maidan. He has an interesting phrase that he uses, because when he started this fight it wasn’t the least bit clear that anybody could win this thing. I mean, the oligarchs are billionaires— they’ve got immense resources at their disposal and they keep stealing so there’s always more. And the Russians are right there, with their baleful influence, trying to make sure that there is as little freedom and opportunity as possible and to keep Ukraine under their thrall. Those are some powerful forces, and so people would ask him: “Can you win?” And he had a very simple answer. I can’t imitate the good Slovak accent, and I can’t imitate the basso profondo voice of a man that big. But his phrase was memorable—“No fight, no win.”    

Well we’ve had no fight in us for too long on climate, it’s time we put some more fight into this thing because I think on climate the opposite is true. This isn’t a “no fight, no win” situation, this is a “if we fight, we will win” situation. The facts are there. The public is ready. There is nothing between us and doing our duty other than the barricade of lies, the polluter-funded denial beast that is out there shopping their nonsense, and we can outdo them. It doesn’t take much because among other things, it’s always easier for the truth to win than over a lie. You just have to be willing to go out there and have that fight. So we have to wake up. When we do we will win. I am more confident than ever, having been back from Iowa, and I yield the floor.