January 7, 2014

Climate Change is Harming our Oceans

As delivered on the Senate floor

Madam President, I’m back again today, now for the fifty-fourth time, to urge my colleagues to wake up to what carbon pollution is doing to Earth’s climate and oceans.  Facts that we see all around us, but can’t seem to penetrate the politics of Congress.

We in this body are willfully ignoring changes that we’ve never seen before; changes that threaten our planet and its rich array of plant and animal life; our homes, farms, and factories; and our very health and wellbeing.

Carbon-driven climate change can be seen in warming surface temperatures and in shifting seasons.  But perhaps nowhere is carbon pollution doing more harm than in our oceans.  The year 2013 brought ample new evidence of these changes in our oceans.

Here’s what we know—people often talk about climate change as if it were a theory—here is what we know: We know that the oceans are warming.  That’s not a theory, that’s a measurement.  It’s done with thermometers, it’s not complicated.  Sea level, we know, is rising.  That’s another measurement.  Very simple.  You can do it with a yard stick.  Oceans are becoming more acidic.  Every American with an aquarium measures acidity with litmus paper.  Again, simple measurement, proven facts. 

And if we put those proven facts into context, let’s look at geologic context.  According to an article published last year in the journal Science, our current rate of carbon dioxide emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels, is enough to cause the most severe changes to the chemistry of the oceans in 300 million years.  Madam President , three hundred million years ago is before the dinosaurs, before the dinosaurs. 

[Chart:  Ocean warming]

We know the oceans are warming.  The oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat in the atmosphere between 1971 and 2010 according to a 2013 report by the International Panel on Climate Change.    Here is where the heat goes, 93.4% into the ocean. The rest that we’re seeing, 2.3% goes into the atmosphere.  So our oceans are really taking the brunt of the added heat, and that is part of why we’re seeing these peculiar weather changes.

[Chart:  Sea-Level Rise]

We also know that sea level is rising.  We know this. It’s driven not only by melting glaciers carrying water into the seas and raising their level, but also by ocean water expanding.  As water warms, it expands.  The principal of thermal expansion is known in every science class in this country.   At the Newport tide gauge in Rhode Island, sea level is up almost ten inches since the 1930s.  So that means that storms driving the sea against Rhode Island’ s coast have ten more inches of sea to throw against our homes and our infrastructure.  Recently, satellite measurements from the University of Colorado Sea Level Research Group show 3.2 mm of sea-level rise per year from 1993 to 2013.  3.2 mm per year from 1993 to 2013.  Go back to 1901 to 2010, and that rate was estimated at 1.7mm per year.  So the rate of increase has nearly doubled, and that means sea-level rise is very likely speeding up.  And that’s all stuff we measure, that’s not theory.

The IPC report also projects—conservatively, in my view—that sea level will likely rise one-half to one full meter by the year 2100 if we do nothing to dial back carbon pollution.  Obviously other estimates are for far more extreme sea-level rise.

[Chart:  Ocean Acidification]

We know that oceans are becoming more acidic. Oceans not only absorb 90 percent of the heat that has come from climate change, they are absorbing about 30 percent of the carbon itself, the carbon itself goes to the surface of the ocean and it is absorbed there.   Roughly 600 gigatons worth of carbon have been pumped into our oceans as a result. .  And as all that carbon dissolves into the oceans, what happens?  Ocean water becomes more acidic.  It’s a chemistry experiment you can duplicate in any simple lab.  Indeed, if you do the measurement, we’ve gotten about 26 percent more acidic, the seas have, since the Industrial Revolution, that was reported again last year by the International Programme on the State of Oceans. 

The rate of change in ocean acidity—you can see it’s speeding up—the rate of change in ocean acidity is already faster than at any time measured in the past 50 million years, according to research article published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

And yet, we sleepwalk here in Congress.  Narcotized by polluter money.

Ocean acidification and warming are fundamentally altering our undersea environment.  What Pope Francis in his recent exhortation called “the ocean wonderworld.”  These changes, among other things, have made the world’s coral reefs extremely vulnerable to decay and bleaching. 

[Chart:  Great Barrier Reef Coral Bleaching Chart]       

Areas like the Great Barrier Reef, one of the great global wonders of the world, off the coast of Australia, they’ve already experienced large-scale bleaching.  As a boy, I used to scuba dive in the Andaman Sea, you go back now 30 years later: it’s heavily bleached.  These are pictures taken in 2002 by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and they show clearly a once lush and vibrant reef now gone barren.  

Worsening this bleaching would be particularly hard on countries whose people depend—for their protein, for their sustenance, for their economies—on the bounty of the reefs—because, remember, the reefs are the ocean’s nurseries—and they support food and economic stability, as well as pretty tropical fish.     

New research also suggests that even the most remote depths of the ocean will suffer the consequences of climate change.  A study published in the journal Global Change Biology looked at various climate models to predict changes in food supply throughout the world’s oceans.  The models predict that the changes to our ocean could lead to a worldwide drop in seafloor-dwelling life by the year 2100.  The North Atlantic—off our shores in Massachusetts and in Rhode Island—may lose more than a third of all deep-sea marine life.

Madam President, these drastic changes from our carbon pollution are daunting ones, particularly for our ocean state of Rhode Island.  Our way of life in Rhode Island, like yours in Massachusetts, has always been closely tied to the sea.  Yet here in Congress, we ignore all of that and continue perilously sleepwalking through history. 

The Obama Administration has at last put forward a Climate Action Plan, the cornerstone of which will be EPA regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants.  Our 50 worst power plants, in terms of emissions, put out more carbon pollution than the entire country of Canada, the entire country of Korea.  So, solving that problem is vitally important.         

The plan also directs Executive Branch agencies to take concrete steps to safeguard the American people, and our interests in the world, against the harmful effects of excessively high temperatures, melting ice, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise.

These are important steps but they must ultimately be backed up by congressional action.  EPA regulations and executive orders will never have the same economy-wide effect as a congressionally approved carbon fee, for instance. 

The sweeping changes taking place in our oceans make adapting to these changes particularly important along our coastlines.  Warmer waters and higher seas load the dice for more damaging storms, and our coastal counties in this country harbor 39 percent of the country’s population and account for 41 percent of our GDP. 

Look just at our ports, for example.  According to a 2009 National Ocean Economic Report, I’ll quote, “Three-quarters of all United States trade passes through estuary ports.”  Three-quarters of our trade passes through estuary ports.  No wonder, then, that the American Association of Port Authorities is taking climate change seriously—working to reduce carbon pollution and stave off its effects, rather than waiting for Congress to awaken from our slumber.

American ports are switching trucks and cranes from diesel to electric, and installing on-shore power supply to ships, thus reducing emissions from the port and from idling vessels.  Likewise, the International Association of Ports and Harbors has launched the World Ports Climate Initiative to reduce CO2output from port-related activities.

In my state, the Rhode Island Climate Change Commission reported that, and I’ll quote them:  “Inundation of the state’s ports and railroads may reduce interstate access, affecting economic viability and potentially limiting imports and exports.  Sea-level rise may also reduce navigational clearances for the state’s bridges, additionally limiting access.”  These changes will be particularly harmful for the Port of Providence, which today brings hundreds of millions of dollars to the region. 

Madam President, we need strong federal action to reduce the carbon emissions that are threatening our coastal communities.  We must also take firm federal action to adapt ourselves, and our states, and our coastal communities to the changes that we can no longer avoid because of what we have already pumped into the atmosphere, because of the harm we have already done.


But this is a real threat, and it is embarrassing and it is wrong for Congress and the Senate to continue to ignore it.  Somebody who knew something about looming threats was Sir Winston Churchill.  He gave this advice: “One ought never to turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it.  If you do that, you will double the danger.  But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half.”  That’s good advice, and what is embarrassing and wrong is that not only are we failing to meet it promptly, and flinching, but that failure and that flinching are the result of special interest influence in this body.

Madam President,

we face uncommon challenges and they demand uncommon resolve.  America has not overcome past crises by pretending they did not exist.  That state of play is a preposterous one for us to embark from.  We actually have clear scientific understanding of the problem, the doubt is passed, the jury is in, the verdict has been delivered.  And yet, we lack the will of leadership to forge a solution. 

Another great leader, who knew something of leadership in times of crisis, was President Lincoln.  He understood that the greatest challenges require clear vision and brave thinking.  Faced with a crisis, President Lincoln said this: “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.  As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.  We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Madam President, it is time, it is past time to disenthrall ourselves—to disenthrall ourselves of the corrupt thrall of polluting special interests.  It is time at last to wake up and get to work on the job we have before us.  I thank the presiding officer and I yield the floor.