07.14.14

The Devastating Effects of Ocean Acidification

As delivered on the Senate floor

Mr. President, I’m here for the seventy-third time to wake up speech that I have done to urge my colleagues to wake up to the growing threat of climate change.  The changes that we are seeing, driven by carbon pollution, are far-reaching—from the coastlines of states like Rhode Island and your state of Connecticut, to the great plateaus and mountain ranges out west; from pole to pole; from high up in the atmosphere to deep down in the oceans.

In Rhode Island, we know the oceans are ground zero for the effects of carbon pollution.  Since the Industrial Revolution, the oceans have been absorbing our carbon dioxide emissions (roughly a quarter of the total excess emissions) which, by the laws of chemistry, has caused rapid changes in ocean acidity—the pH level of the oceans—changes not seen for a long time: and when I say a long time, I mean at least 25 to 50 million years, potentially as much as 300 million years.  To put 300 million years into perspective we, Homo sapiens, the human species, has been on the Earth for about 200,000 years.  So, 300 million years goes way back into geologic time.  Back before the dinosaurs.  So a change that’s unprecedented in that much time is something we should pay attention to.

Recently, four Republican former EPA Administrators testified before my Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on the dire the need for Congressional action to curb this carbon pollution that is causing these effects in our oceans.  Here’s how the EPA’s very first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, put it.  He said:  “Since the ocean absorbs 25-30 percent of the carbon from stationary or mobile sources we thought the ocean was our friend.  It was keeping significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.  But our friend,” he said, “is paying a penalty.” 

[Ocean acidification chart]

As carbon dissolves in water, it makes the water more acidic—fundamental chemical proposition—and that can upset the delicate balance of ocean life.  Again, that’s just basic physics and chemistry.  Ronald Reagan’s EPA chief Lee Thomas, Ronald Reagan’s EPA chief warned us that, thanks to the profuse carbon pollution we’ve emitted, oceans are now acidifying at a rate fifty times greater than known historical change.  Fifty times.

Of course, my colleagues in the minority did not seem inclined to listen to  their fellow Republicans.  Instead, they took a page out of the polluters’ playbook and, as usual, their routine was to call into question widely accepted science.    

Well, I recently visited communities around the country.  I’ll mention my trip recently along the Southeast Coast, the Atlantic Coast, where researchers, elected officials, and business and homeowners, they’re seeing the effects of climate change firsthand.  It doesn’t matter what somebody thinks on the Senate floor, they are seeing it firsthand.  They know better than what the polluting special interests are trying to sell. 

[Outer banks]

Indeed, just recently, the United States Conference of Mayors unanimously adopted a resolution calling for natural solutions to fight the effects of climate change.  To “protect fresh water supplies, defend the nation’s coastlines, maintain a healthy tree and green space cover, and protect air quality.”  Unanimously, by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a bipartisan organization.  So, there are a lot of people who know better than the nonsense that the polluting special interests are trying to sell.

I flew out during this trip to where sea-level rise is gnawing away at the Outer Banks.  When you fly over the North Carolina coast, you see a lot of investment along the shoreline: you see houses, big houses, nice houses; you see hotels, you see restaurants, you see roads and infrastructure—you see an entire seafront economy.  I met down there with the North Carolina Coastal Federation at their Coastal Education Center in Wilmington.  This is a bipartisan group, it is joined together in concern over the exposure of their coastal communities, their homes, to rising seas.  What would my colleagues here in the Senate tell this bipartisan group in North Carolina about climate change?  What would they tell the United States Conference of Mayors—a bipartisan group—about climate change?  Don’t worry?  It’s not real?  Run along now, don’t concern yourself?  Good luck with that.  People know better.

King Canute couldn’t decree that the tide not come in, and Republicans in Congress can’t legislate away the changes that we are seeing in our oceans.  When I was down in Florida, fishermen there told me about the northward migration of species that they are used to catching in Florida, species like redfish and snook, moving north because of warming ocean temperatures.  Fishermen in South Carolina told me that snook are now being caught off the coast of Charleston.  And I’ve heard that redfish are being caught as far north as Cape Cod.  And I believe that because Rhode Islanders are catching tarpon and grouper off the shore of Rhode Island.  I’ve had Rhode Island fishermen tell me that they’re catching fish that their fathers and grandfathers never saw come up in their nets.  As one Rhode Islander fisherman told me, “Sheldon, it’s getting weird out there.” 

It’s not just Rhode Island, the Maine Legislature just established a bipartisan commission to study and address the harm from ocean acidification to ecosystems and to their shellfisheries.  Again, bipartisan.  Once you leave this building, people are taking bipartisan action.  It’s only here that the polluters hold such sway.

In Virginia, which is also a coal state, a bipartisan group, including Republican U.S. Representative Scott Rigell and Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, are working together to prepare communities like Hampton Roads, Virginia, for several feet of sea-level rise.  A state commission that was first assembled under the administration of our Virginia colleague Tim Kaine, back when he was governor, has reconvened to address the threat of climate change and the ocean.  These Virginia leaders are not wasting time quarreling and denying about basic science.  They’re working to protect commerce and homeowners in their communities threatened as the seas continue to rise.   

While our Republicans colleagues in Congress try their best to ignore the problem of carbon pollution, there are very serious conversations going on outside these walls.  For example, former George W. Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson invoked ocean warming and sea-level rise in a recent editorial he wrote calling for a fee on carbon pollution.  

[Newsweek cover]

Here is the cover of this week’s Newsweek.  “DEEP END: What Rapid Changes in Oceans Mean for Earth.”  This wouldn’t be the first one.  Last year, National Geographic came out with this issue entitled “Rising Seas.”  Now perhaps my colleagues on the other side who pretend that climate change is just a hoax will agree that Newsweek is part of the hoax, National Geographic is part of the hoax, U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops is part of the hoax, the U.S. Navy is part of the hoax.  We are bedeviled in this chamber by preposterous ideas.  What the Newsweek  cover article highlights is the unprecedented effects of pumping all that excess carbon into our oceans, ranging from coral bleaching, to dissolving larval shellfish, to the disappearance of entire species. 

Bloomberg View just published a recent editorial titled “Climate Change Goes Under Water.” Mr. President, let me ask unanimous consent, if this document is short enough to add it to the Record, to submit this editorial at the end of my comments as an exhibit.  This isn’t wild speculation.  This is good old-fashioned reporting of things that are happening around us, that people see.

[Pteropod chart] 

I’ve talked before about the humble pteropod.  So, let’s talk a little bit about the pteropod.  A  tiny type of snail which is about the size of a small pea.  It’s known sometimes as the sea butterfly, because its snail foot has adapted into two little butterfly-like wings, which propel it around in the ocean.  These images show what can happen to the pteropod shell when the creature’s underwater environment becomes more acidic and therefore lacks the compounds that are necessary for this little creature to make its delicate shell.  It is not good for the pteropod.  There is the pteropod in action, with the little butterfly wings that help it to swim.  Here’s a clean shell from proper water.  And here’s a dissolving shell from exposure to acidified ocean water.  This, obviously, is not good for the pteropod.  And recent research, which was led by NOAA scientists, have found that ocean acidification off our West Coast in what’s called the California Current ecosystem is hitting the pteropod especially hard. 

Let me take a minute and read from the publication of this report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, a respected scientific publication.  “The release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning, cement production, and deforestation processes, has resulted in atmospheric CO2 concentrations that have increased about 40 percent since the beginning of the industrial era.”  Now the measure of that, we’ve always had atmospheric carbon concentrations between 170 and 300 parts per million.  We’ve broken 400.  April was the first month when we were consistently, on average, above 400 ppm.  When you think that that 170 to 300 ppm range has lasted for thousands of years, for millennia, for longer than our species has been on the planet—the fact that we’re suddenly outside of that range is a signal that ought to call our attention.  And that’s what they’re referring to.

I’ll continue.  “The oceans have taken up approximately 28 percent of the total amount of CO2 produced by human activities over this time frame, causing a variety of chemical changes known as ocean acidification.  The rapid change in ocean chemistry is faster than at any time over the past 50 million years.”  They go onto say towards the end of the report that one of the chokepoint areas, what they call the first bottleneck, the first bottleneck would primarily affect veligers and larvae.  Which are early stages of the shell before its shell has hardened.  The larvae is when it’s little, and the veliger is when it has kind of shroud around it but not yet a shell that helps it to move and to consume food.  So, “first bottleneck would primarily affect veligers and larvae, life stages where complete shell dissolution in the larvae can occur within two weeks upon exposure to undersaturation.”  They also note that significant increases in vertical and spatial extent of conditions that favor pteropod shell dissolution are expected to make this habitat potentially unsuitable for pteropods.

So, if California Current ecosystem habitat becomes unsuitable for pteropods, we have a little problem on our hands, because pteropods are food for important fish like salmon, mackerel, like herring.  Pteropods are the base of the food chain.  No pteropods means crashed salmon fisheries, crashed mackerel fisheries, crashed herring fisheries, crashes throughout polar and sub-polar fisheries. 

Dr. William Petersonis an oceanographer at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.  He’s the co-author of the study, and he said, “We did not expect to see pteropods being affected to this extent in our coastal region for several decades.”  For several decades.  These ecosystems, these ocean ecosystems are crumbling before our eyes.  And yet,this Congress hides behind denial.

[Ocean pH chart from Dr. Turley]

In the face of congressional inertia, in the face of the relentless truculence of the deniers, the Obama Administration is trying to do what it can, to push responsible policies.  Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry held  the State Department’s Our Ocean Conference.  And I attended that conference for two days.  One of the presenters there was Dr. Carol Turley of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, and she described her research on ocean acidification, including using this graph of ocean acidity over the past 25 million years.  That’s today, minus 25 million years, today minus 20 million years, minus 15 million years, minus 10 million years, minus 5 million years, and now.  Look at how little variation there has been in ocean pH across that 25 million year timescale.  Remember again, we’ve been on the planet around 200,000 years, we go back to about here.  The rest of this is geologic time, that is along span of time.  And you put against that what’s happening now, look how sudden that change is in ocean pH.  The basic acidity of the oceans.

Why is this happening? We know, we know that human activity releases gigatons of carbon every year.  That’s undeniable.  We know that that carbon dioxide acidifies sea water—that’s basic chemistry.  You can do that in a high school lab.  We know that the ocean’s pH is changing in unprecedented ways in human history.  No one in their right mind can say that this is natural variability.  This acidification of our seas will have devastating effects on ecosystems like tropical coral reefs, which, as Dr. Turley pointed out, are home to one in every four species on the planet.  If you wanted to drive a bulldozer through God’s species on this planet, it’d be hard to do much better than allowing this rampant ocean acidification. 

My colleague, and Co-Chair of our Senate Oceans Caucus, Senator Lisa Murkowski and I had the chance to address the oceans conference together.  She told the conference that the waters off her Alaskan shores are growing more acidic.  I agree with Senator Murkowski that we need to really understand what ocean acidification means for our fisheries and ocean ecosystems much better than we do now.

Secretary Kerry delivered a clear challenge.  On this planet, with all of its many peoples, we share nothing so completely as we share the oceans.  And if we are going to honor our duty to protect the ocean, to honor our duty to future generations, we are going to have to work together.    

Mr. President, there are painfully clear warnings.  The facts speak volumes.  The denial propaganda has shown itself to be nonsense; to be a sham.  Which ought to come as no surprise because the machinery that produces the climate denial propaganda is the same machinery that denied that tobacco was dangerous, the same machinery that denied that there was an ozone hole, the same machinery that has always fought public health measures for industry and has always been wrong.  It’s always been wrong because it’s not its job to be right, it’s its job to protect industry and allow them to continue to polute and make money.  That’s its job.   So it ought to come as no surprise that the argument it makes about climate change is nonsense and is a sham.   It’s time to unshackle ourselves from that machinery.  History is going to look back at this and it will not be a shining moment for us.  History will reflect that the polluters are polluting our democracy with their money and their influence just as badly as they’re polluting our oceans and our atmosphere with their carbon.

We have got to wake up.  It will disserve our grandchildren and their grandchildren, and it will disgrace our generation to have allowed this democracy to have missed this issue and to fail to act because of the propaganda machinery that has over and over again proven itself to be wrong.  Our ocean economies, our ocean heritage, they are all at stake.  As Secretary Kerry put it, it is our ocean and it is our responsibility.   Let us please wake up before we have completely disgraced ourselves.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.