February 12, 2014

The Wilderness Warrior

As delivered on the Senate floor

Mr. President, this marks the fifty-eighth consecutive week we’ve been in session that I’ve come to the floor to seek to wake up this Congress to the threat of climate change. 

Carbon pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is altering the climate; the consensus around this fact within the scientific community—and in fact, the reality-based community, at this point—is overwhelming.  Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have dumped 2 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air and oceans—and counting.  The EPA estimates that in 2011 the United States alone emitted more than 5.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide. 

We know that the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is higher than it has been in the history of mankind.  We know that when you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it warms up the planet.  That’s been understood science since Abraham Lincoln was President.  We know that the ocean absorbs 90 percent of that excess heat and 30 percent of the carbon in the air.  As water warms, it expands and sea levels go up.  That’s called the Law of Thermal Expansion.  We know that when carbon dissolves in water it increases the levels of carbonic acid in the water.  That’s not debatable.  It’s a law of chemistry.  We know from simple measurements that sea water is acidifying at a rate we haven’t seen at any time in the past 50 million years.  And, by the way, we’re a species that has been Homo sapiens on the planet for a little over 200,000 years.  So, 50 million takes you back a ways.

So when you put those things together and then you look at things like thirty-seven straight years with a global temperature above the twentieth century average; sea level up ten inches in Newport, Rhode Island; oyster spat killed off by acidic water in Washington State; shorter seasons for ski resort operators and longer seasons for wildfire fighters.  Our climate, Mr. President, is changing.  The scientific debate is long settled.  And public awareness of the crisis is growing stronger—and even across party lines.

Outside these walls, outside these walls of Congress that have been barricaded by lies and special-interest propaganda, Americans of all stripes, including more and more responsible Republican voices, acknowledge the threat of climate change and call for responsible solutions.  Yet Congress remains trapped behind a barricade of polluting special-interest influence.  Republicans in Congress refuse to get serious. 

It wasn’t always this way.  Conservation of this land’s natural resources used to be a core value of the Republican Party.  And protecting future generations’ natural birthright from plundering by special-interest industry was a cornerstone of Republican leadership.

This month actually marks the anniversary of a milestone in that kind of American leadership.  It was on February 1, 1905, that President Theodore Roosevelt established the United States National Forest Service.  Fed up with the cronyism and bureaucracy that defined the weak existing conservation programs, he dissolved the Bureau of Forestry within the Department of Agriculture and transferred management of the 63 million acres of national forests under the Department of the Interior to the new Forest Service.  Roosevelt resented the “malefactors of [great] wealth,” as he called them, the timber and mining interests whose, and I quote, “selfish and shortsighted greed seeks to exploit [our natural resources] in such fashion as to ruin them and thereby to leave our children and our children’s children heirs only to an exhausted and impoverished inheritance.”

[Roosevelt and Pinchot at Mogollon Rim]

Roosevelt not only knew how to say the right thing, he knew how to say it well.  Pictured here is Teddy Roosevelt, looking across the vast expanse of Mogollon [MUG-ee-yun] Rim in Arizona, one of the many forests that were transferred to the newly created Forest Service.  With the President is Gifford Pinchot, a prime advocate of the Forest Service and its first Chief.   Pinchot restructured and professionalized the management of the national forests.  During Roosevelt’s Presidency, the federal forest system grew by nearly 130 million acres; in total he extended protection to an additional 230 million acres of our nation’s land.

“We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources,” Roosevelt said, “and we have just reason to be proud of our growth.   But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers.” 

Today, some of those long-cherished American forests, grasslands, and landscapes are under assault due to climate change. 

In July 2010, the Forest Service issued its National Roadmap for Responding to Climate Change. Specifically, the Forest Service report says, “Most of the urgent forest and grassland management challenges of the past 20 years, such as wildfires, changing water regimes, and expanding forest insect infestations, have been driven, in part, by a changing climate.  Future impacts,” the report continues, “are projected to be even more severe.”

Our Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, which I chair with Congressman Waxman, hosted a roundtable of firefighters and state and federal foresters.  Here’s what Dave Cleaves, the Forest Service’s Climate Change Advisor, told us, I’ll quote him:

 “So what have we been seeing? . . . The length of the fire season increasing by more than 60 days over the last 10 years, the annual area burned by wildfire increasing more than four times what it was in the 1970s; the portion of the area burned by large fires has gone up two to seven times, so most of that increase in acreage has been because of the large fires, and the extreme part of the distribution of fires. . . . So we have a big issue on our hands, it’s an ecological issue, it’s an economic issue, it’s a social issue, and dealing with it means we have to understand it better and understand some of the related challenges.”

[Chart of forests and climate change]

Shown here is the devastation from the largest Rim Fire in the Sierra Nevada Range recorded history.  The healthy forest is shown 2 years prior to the fire on the left, while monitoring right before the fire showed a sudden decline, here, in the health of the forest, caused by the western pine beetle killing ponderosa pine and making the forest vulnerable to burning.  That’s a beetle that is killed off by cold weather.  And so, where it can infest forest is limited by cold weather and altitude, of course, because it gets colder at higher altitude.  With climate change, the territory of the infestation has expanded, and you see this kind of a change from a healthy forest to this.  And when it turns to this, it can burn.  And on the right, we see the charred and unrecognizable landscape.  Although we cannot definitively attribute any single fire to climate change, according to a 2012 Comprehensive Science Synthesis report for the U.S. forest sector, increased temperature and drought can increase frequency and magnitude of fires and amplify insect and pathogen outbreaks that affect forest health.  For example, Montana’s deep freezes used to kill off the pine bark beetle.  Today, that beetle kills millions of acres of trees across the American West.

[Show Conservationist Roosevelt]

President Roosevelt issued a warning a century ago:  “One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight,” he said.  “We have to, as a nation, exercise foresight for this nation in the future; and if we do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future.”

Have we heeded Roosevelt’s warning?  We can clearly foresee the devastation climate change will bring.  Yet many modern Republicans, particularly those in Congress, are aligning themselves with the polluters and the deniers to manufacture doubt about the science and to fight any limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

Roosevelt, a Republican, had foresight to protect the natural resources we rely on, but his once great party has lost track of his ideals.  Democrats and Republicans should be working with President Obama to implement his Climate Action Plan to reduce carbon pollution.  But when the Environment and Public Works Committee recently held an oversight hearing on the President’s plan, what did we get from our Republican colleagues?  Flat out climate denial—the polluter party line. 

Theodore Roosevelt, the great Republican conservationist, stood up to polluting special interests.  He was, in the name of the recent book, the Wilderness Warrior.  Today, too many Republicans in Congress have joined polluting, corporate special interests in their war on the wilderness.   

Perhaps they should listen to another Roosevelt.  Theodore Roosevelt IV, the great grandson of the twenty-sixth president—and still a Republican.  He wants his fellow Republicans to return to the values of his great grandfather.  “It seems to be beyond the scope of many on the right to say, for instance, that species extinction, as a result of unrestrained human activity, is immoral and indefensible; that our refusal to seriously engage in a global effort to address climate change is unethical and imprudent.”

Mr. President, there are such clear warnings.  The facts speak for themselves.  The denial position has shown itself to be nonsense; a sham.  Yet, in Congress, we sleepwalk on.  Every day, more and more Americans realize the truth, and they increasingly want this Congress to wake up.  They know that climate change is real.

Well, it is time to wake up and to do the work necessary to combat climate change.  It is time for us to heed the words of President Theodore Roosevelt:  “Here is your country.  Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children.  Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”

Let us wake up.  I thank the presiding officer, I yield the floor, and I note the absence of a quorum.