December 19, 2012

Climate Change: Recapping 2012

MADAM PRESIDENT, in every corner of the globe—from pole to pole and from the top of our atmosphere to the depths of our oceans—we see evidence of the fundamental changes that are taking place across our Earth.

In 2012, North America experienced a number of unusually severe events and passed several ominous milestones. These episodes have driven a shift in attitude, a realization, really, among Americans. As we head home for the holidays this year, each of us is likely to find back in our home states that more and more people are convinced that climate change is happening and that it’s deadly serious.

Mister/Madam President, here are just some of the extraordinary events that occurred as we look back on this year, 2012:

January 2012 was the fourth-warmest January experienced in the contiguous United States since we began keeping records. And we began keeping records in 1895. By the end of January, snow pack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was 50 percent less than normal.

February 2012 marked the end of the fourth-warmest winter on record. An above-average start to the year, but not extremely so.

Then this happened: [Show temperature chart for March.] March 2012. March 2012 was the warmest March on record. Every state in the nation experienced a record daily high temperature in March. There were 21 instances, Madam President, of nighttime temperatures – nighttime temperatures – being as warm, or warmer, than the existing daytime record temperature.

It was also in March that a University of Texas poll asked respondents if they thought that climate change was occurring. Eighty-three percent of Democrats said “yes,” 60 percent of independents said “yes”, 45 percent of Republicans said “yes”.

As 2012 went on, things didn’t slow down much for the lower 48 states. April 2012 would become the third-warmest April on record. I came to the floor in April to speak about another milestone surpassed that month: For the first time, for the first time, one of NOAA’s remote monitoring sites—this one in the Arctic—recorded a concentration of 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, crushing records that go back 8000 centuries. For 8,000 centuries, mankind has inhabited a planet with an atmosphere, with a carbon concentration being between 170 and 300 parts per million. We have broken out of that, for the first time in April, we hit 400 ppm.

By May, it was no surprise that spring 2012 was a full 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the next warmest spring in recorded history. May was the second-warmest ever.

June was only the eighth-warmest June, but it officially marked the end of the warmest 12-month period the United States of America has ever experienced.

Across the lower 48, July was not only the warmest July on record; it was the all-time warmest month in America in recorded history. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 62.9 percent of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing moderate to exceptional drought by the end of the month. Nearly two thirds. 62.9 percent experiencing moderate to exceptional drought as a result of this being the all-time warmest month.

As the mercury climbed in July, so did agreement among Americans on the crisis of climate change.

That University of Texas poll was taken again. And the percentage of Democrats convinced of global climate change had risen to 87 percent in July, up from 83 percent in March. Among independents, the percentage went from 60 percent up to 72 percent. And Republican believers in climate change became a majority. They went from 45 percent to 53 percent.

By August, Madam President, we had experienced the third-hottest summer in the history of the continental United States. In the West, 3.6 million acres were ablaze with wildfires, nearly twice the August average, and the most in the 12-year period of record.

August also brought bad news from the north. The University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA announced that Arctic sea ice had reached a record low area of 1.58 million square miles, nearly 70,000 square miles smaller than the previous modern record low. Over the past three decades, average annual temperatures have increased twice as much over the Arctic as over the rest of the world. The average extent of the Arctic sea ice has declined by 25 to 30 percent in that time, and the rate of decline is accelerating.

September 2012 – September 2012 was the 16th month in a row that the contiguous United States recorded an above-20th-century-average temperature. October finally ended that record streak, with a temperature across the lower 48 that was 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit below the long-term average.

But October also brought us – as the presiding officer so well knows – Hurricane Sandy. [Show hurricane Sandy slide.] Superstorm Sandy. It was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, claiming more than 100 lives, and the second costliest. The cleanup in my home state of Rhode Island, and across the East Coast, I know most agonizingly in New York and New Jersey, is still underway. This week in the Senate we are working to approve a $60 billion aid package, which will help restore that damage..

Let me step aside of my climate remarks and just speak for one minute to that, because as we consider this supplemental appropriations bill, long term mitigation must be part of the discussion. We shouldn’t replace and rebuild what was damaged just as it was; we need to replace and rebuild smarter. Sandy is a preview of what is to come. Infrastructure that failed or flooded should be replaced to higher standards; at risk roads, waste water treatment plants, and other utilities need to be relocated to safer places.

If disaster strikes, as it has, and we don’t plan ahead, as we’re being urged not to, we will squander federal dollars. A 2005 study by the National Institute of Building Sciences showed that FEMA hazard mitigation efforts yielded an average cost-benefit ratio of 4 to 1.” Four dollars saved for every one dollar spent. Let’s not be foolish.

A prime example of this sort of smart planning was in the presiding officer’s home state at Point Lookout, Lido Beach and Atlantic Beach. These communities invested in sand-dune buffers, sand dune habitat buffers. When Sandy came, they suffered relatively little damage compared to nearby Long Beach which had decided against maintaining a sand dune buffer and has ended up with an estimated $200 million in property and infrastructure damage.

Coastal wetlands act like sponges during flooding events, they absorb water. They dissipate wave energy. They protect against storm surge. They are an important part of our coastal defenses in coastal states. Natural dune systems on barrier islands and beaches are the same. They are part of our natural defense against coastal storms. These natural defenses must be protected and strengthened for our future safety. And I hope that even senators who come from landlocked states can appreciate what this means in coastal states.

So, back to Sandy. While it is impossible to say specifically that climate change caused Superstorm Sandy, we know that warmer oceans; warmer, moister air; and higher sea level all add to the power and danger of these extreme storms. We know that climate change “loads the dice” for such storms.

2012 marched us past even more portentous milestones. NOAA has reported that November was the 333rd month in a row that the global monthly temperature was above the 20th-century average. The earth hasn’t seen a single month below 20th-century average temperatures since February 1985. Some of the clerks, interns here and pages were born after that. They’ve lived an entire life in that environment.

According to the National Climate Data Center, 2012 is set to be the warmest calendar year on record for the contiguous U.S.— December would have to be one full degree Fahrenheit colder than the coldest December on record to prevent that from happening and make up for the exceptionally hot first eight months of the year.

Madam President, the overwhelming majority of scientific research indicates that these observed changes in the Earth’s atmosphere are the direct result of human activity—namely, the emission of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. Just last week Dr. James Powell, former Reagan and George H. W. Bush appointee to the National Science Board, released a new review of the scientific literature, in which he searched for articles that expressly reject human-caused global warming, or propose an alternate explanation. [Show thin red wedge pie chart.] He looked at 13,950 peer-reviewed climate articles, nearly 14,000 peer-reviewed climate articles, 24 either rejected global warming trends or denied the human contribution to warming. I’m not even sure if viewers looking at this on the CSPAN television can see, but this is a circle pie graph depicting, this little red line is the 14 – the 24 articles out of the 14,000. It’s a tiny fringe. The science is clear, and more and more Americans accept that the science is clear behind climate change.

An AP poll out just last week found that 78 percent of Americans accept the reality of climate change. The findings, like the University of Texas poll, break it down by political party: 83 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of independents, and 70 percent of Republicans.

So the real debate in this country is not whether humans are altering our climate, but how severely we will do so, and how as a society we will respond to this challenge. Although some members of this chamber continue to deny the existence of climate change, Americans are aware that our nation is vulnerable to extreme weather events. They are aware that climate change loads the dice, they are aware that carbon pollution continues unabated, and they are aware that Congress has failed to act.

Madam President, the public is ready for us to take action. But, we’re not. We are, as I’ve said in previous speeches, sleepwalking. As Congress sleepwalks, Americansare actually taking action on their own. In coordination with the non-profit organization, for example, students at more than 150 colleges and universities across the country are pressing those institutions to sell off the portions of their endowment portfolios invested in fossil fuel companies. They are forcing schools to divest from the polluters.. This type of divestment campaign was deployed effectively to pull investments from South Africa during Apartheid. With American college and university endowments estimated to total more than $400 billion, this movement by students deserves significant attention.

Here in the Senate, key legislation, such as the Water Resources Development Act, must reflect the reality that our climate and environment are changing, that we need to prepare for these changes. We should take direct legislative action to mitigate climate change, and we should defend the Administration’s carbon pollution standards, which will require new and existing power plants to clean up their smoke stacks.

The United States must support the Department of Defense, the world’s single largest consumer of oil, as a leader in energy efficiency and alternative fuel development for our national security’s sake.

We must extend the Production Tax Credit, as our colleague Senator Mark Udall of Colorado has so often and so eloquently pressed us to do. The American Wind Energy Agency is pushing for a six-year extensionto grow a vibrant wind power industry in America.

A greener economy provides a safer future for Americans. More Americans already work in the green industry than in the fossil fuels industry. A Brookings Institution report found “the clean economy” employs 2.7 million workers. That’s manufacturing and exports, the kind of jobs that support a strong middle class.

But, Madam President, here in Congress, we are sleepwalking through history. We are sleepwalking through history, and we must wake up. Awaken to our duties. Awaken to our responsibilities. Awaken to the plain facts that lay all around us if only we would open our eyes and see them.

The public has every reason to want to grab us and give us a good shake. We are sleepwalking through this era, lulled as we sleepwalk by the narcotic of corporate money—corporate money out of the polluters and their allies. We are lulled by the narcotic of manufactured doubt, planted in a campaign of disinformation by those same polluters and allies.

But Madam President, history is calling us, loud and clear. History is shouting in our ear. We are sleepwalking along, oblivious.

But people across the country and around the world are counting on us. They are imploring us. We have responsibilities to them. Yet, here in Congress, we ignore the fact, we ignore our duties, and we sleepwalk on.

It is irresponsible, Madam President. And it is wrong.

I yield the floor.

Chart 1 is March temperature anomalies for the contiguous U.S.

Chart 2 is a satellite image of Hurricane Sandy.

Chart 3 is a pie chart from Dr. James L. Powell’s literature review.