June 10, 2015

Sen. Whitehouse Discusses the Consequences of Climate Change at the NECPUC Symposium

Good morning.  Thank you, Meg Curran and Rachel Aslin Goldwasser, NECPUC Executive Director for inviting me today.  To our New England neighbors, welcome to beautiful Rhode Island.

There’s a popular expression in Washington these days—maybe you’ve heard it on the news:  “I’m not a scientist.”  For some reason, I hear that all the time.  It’s “Climate Change is a Hoax 2.0” from politicians trying to weasel around the carbon pollution problem.

Imagine if we answered other policy questions that way.  What’s your position on abortion?  “Oh, I’m not a gynecologist.”  Is cyber security a big problem?   “Oh, I’m not a cryptographer.”   What should we do about health care?   “Oh, I’m not a doctor.”

“I’m not a scientist” is an emblem, of our dysfunction in Congress on climate change.  The reasons for it are an embarrassment to the institution.  But that is another speech.

The consequences of carbon pollution  right here in Rhode Island are undeniable.  Just across the harbor, the tide gauge at Naval Station Newport is up nearly ten inches since the 1930s.  The water outside in Narragansett Bay is 3-4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, mean winter water temperature, than just fifty years ago. 

It is virtually universal in peer-reviewed science that carbon pollution is causing these climate and oceanic changes.  Every major scientific society in our country has said so.  Our brightest scientists at NOAA and NASA are unequivocal. 

Until Congress gets its act together, we need you. 

Climate change creates effects of direct interest to your regulatory task: heat waves that affect grid stability; extreme weather that takes out transmission lines; even limits on power plant output when cooling water won’t cool enough.

Federal administrative responses to climate change also affect your regulatory task.  The President’s Climate Action Plan is at last ending the carbon polluters’ long free ride.  Its Clean Power Plan will for the first time limit carbon emissions from power plants.  Across the country, state-by-state compliance plans involve public utility commissions.

As you cope with all this, know this:  the failure in Congress is the result of special interest power politics;  the American people have your back.  Eighty-three percent of Americans, including six in ten Republicans, want action to reduce carbon emissions.  And with young Republican voters, more than half would describe a climate-denying politician as “ignorant,” “out-of-touch,” or “crazy.”  

With all this, I think the prospects for comprehensive climate change legislation are actually pretty good, but, as Albert Einstein once said, “politics is more difficult than physics.”

But when the polluters’ grip slips, I’ll be ready with legislation that many Republicans can support:  a fee on carbon emissions.  Indeed, I’ll be introducing my carbon fee proposal this week.  It’s a short, simple bill that I hope will begin an earnest discussion about finding a responsible path forward. 

Pricing carbon corrects the market failure that lets polluters push the costs of their pollution onto everybody else.  A carbon fee is a market-based tool, aligned with conservative free-market values. Many Republicans outside of Congress have endorsed the idea.  When the hydraulic pressure of public opinion finally overwhelms the political counter-pressure of the fossil fuel industry, I’ll be ready.

In the meantime, I know that you are doing important work to reduce carbon emissions here in New England. You aren’t just reacting to what others are doing, you are acting in your own right.

You support RGGI, our New England program of emissions fees, proving that we can grow our economy at the same time as we cut our emissions.  Putting a price on carbon for the largest emitters – power plants – and plowing that money back into hundreds of millions of dollars of clean energy projects is saving thrifty New England billions of dollars, while helping reduce greenhouse gasses.

With leadership by National Grid and our state PUC, Rhode Island is a leader in helping consumers and businesses save money through efficiency.  The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranks Rhode Island as the third-most energy efficient state in the nation, and it’s no surprise to see many of our New England neighbors top that list too.

Off the coast of Rhode Island, we’re moving forward with the country’s first offshore wind farm – a 30-megawatt first entry into our region’s vast offshore wind potential.  Our coastal agency was particularly smart about the siting process, so we sailed right by Massachusetts, Delaware and others to be first. 

Homes and businesses are investing in rooftop solar and other distributed resources, and we are reducing their local code compliance costs with a simplified, multi-municipal, common permit application for the contractor.

As energy regulators, many of NECPUC’s members have an opportunity to help our states and communities build on these successes by supporting and defining the next steps in our region’s clean energy transition.  You set and implement the rules that direct market conduct, and determine investments in infrastructure, for good or ill.  As a force for good, you help our region adapt to climate change and decarbonize. 

New England is a leader in capturing cost-effective energy efficiency, and I hope you’ll keep going.  There is more — much more– cost-effective investment out there to be achieved, both from efficiency savings and new renewable sources.  Push for distributed generation, two-way metering, on-bill financing, and access to capital for home and small business renewable and efficiency investments.  It’s not just good for the environment, it’s good for our energy system and our economy. 

And if you can solve the owner/tenant problem, my hat will be off to you.

According to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and the Department of Energy, “extreme weather like thunderstorms, hurricanes, and blizzards account for more than half of power outages since 2002 and almost nine in ten of blackouts affecting 50,000 or more customers.”  The average annual cost of power outages caused by severe weather is estimated to be between $18 billion and $33 billion each year.  We can’t afford to stick with business-as-usual fossil fuels and the consequences of unchecked climate change.

Work with your grid operators and FERC to incorporate the costs of climate change into energy dispatch models and into the market for infrastructure investments.  Push for a reading of “just and reasonable rates” that incorporates a “just and reasonable cost” of carbon pollution. 

The Obama administration recently let a coal lease on federal land in Colorado, and the lease was thrown out, by a federal judge, because it failed to take into account the social cost of carbon.  The social cost of carbon should be a part of every relevant energy decision.  As United States District Judge Brooke Jackson said in the Colorado case last year, if “you don’t even try to look at what it’s going to cost in terms of global warming, the day is going to come when it’s too late to think about global warming.”

To spare ourselves the worst effects of climate change and to build a strong clean energy economy, our electricity system will need to modernize and evolve.  Utility regulators and other policymakers in New England are already leading the way.  Keep pushing the forefront of this revolution.

So thank you for the important work you do for New England.  I appreciate the chance to be with you today and I look forward to working with you to solve these challenges for our region and our nation.