May 18, 2015

Time to Wake Up: 100 Speeches, 100 Reasons to Act on Climate

Mr. President, April 18, 2012, was not the first time I spoke on the Senate floor on the dangers of carbon pollution, but it was the first in the weekly series that brings me here today with my increasingly dog-eared sign.

Opponents of responsible climate action do best in the dark, so I knew if anything was going to change around here, we would need to shine some light on the facts, on the science, and on the sophisticated scheme of denial being conducted by the polluters.

I decided to come to the floor every week the Senate is in session to put at least my little light to work, and today I do so for the 100th time, and I thank very much my colleagues who have taken time from their extremely busy schedules to be here, particularly my colleagues from the House, Jim Langevin and David Cicilline, who traveled all the way across the building.

I am not a lone voice on this subject. Many colleagues have been speaking out, particularly our ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Senator Boxer. Senator Markey has been speaking out on the climate longer than I have been in the Senate. Senators Schumer, Nelson, Blumenthal, Schatz, King, and Baldwin have each joined me to speak about the effects of carbon pollution on their home States and economies. Senator Manchin and I–from different perspectives–spoke here about our shared belief that climate change is real and must be addressed. More than 30 fellow Democrats held the floor overnight to bring attention to climate change under the leadership of Senator Schatz. Our Democratic leader, Senator Reid, has pressed the Senate to face up to this challenge, and thousands of people in Rhode Island and across the country have shown their support.

Sometimes people ask me: How do you keep coming up with new ideas? It is easy. There are at least 100 reasons to act on climate. Hundreds of Americans have sent me their reasons through my Web site, Facebook, and Twitter using the hashtag “100Reasons.” I will highlight some of their reasons in this speech.

What is my number one reason? Easy. Rhode Island. The consequences of carbon pollution for my Ocean State are undeniable. The tide gauge at Naval Station Newport is up nearly 10 inches since the 1930s. The water in Narragansett Bay is 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the winter than just 50 years ago.

Lori from West Kingston, RI, said that is her top reason too. “We stand to lose the best part of Rhode Island,” she wrote, “the 400 miles of coastline, which will be severely impacted, environmentally and economically.”

Even Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has warned–get this–that sea level rise and increased storms along our eastern seaboard could get so bad that it would trigger “unprecedented” population migration from our east coasts to Kentucky. That is serious.

Winston Churchill talked about “sharp agate points upon which the ponderous balance of destiny turns.” What if we now stand at a hinge of history? Will we awaken to the duty and responsibility of our time or will we sleepwalk through it? That is the test we face.

I have laid out in these speeches the mounting effects of carbon pollution all around us, and the evidence abounds. This March, for the first time in human history, the monthly average carbon dioxide in our atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million. The range had been 170 to 300 parts per million for hundreds of thousands of years.

Mr. President, 2014 was the hottest year ever measured. Fourteen of the warmest 15 years ever measured have been in this century. Our oceans warm as they absorb more than 90 percent of the heat captured by greenhouse gases. You measure their warming with a thermometer. As seawater warms, it expands and sea levels rise. Global average sea level rose about 1 inch from 2005 to 2013. You measure that with a yardstick. Ocean water absorbs roughly a quarter of all of our carbon emissions, making the water more acidic and upsetting the very chemistry of ocean life. You measure this, too, with a pH test like a third grade class would use for its fish tank.

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. But time and again we hear “I am not a scientist” from politicians who are refusing to acknowledge the evidence. We are not elected to be scientists; we are elected to listen to them.

If you don’t believe scientists, how about generals? Our defense and intelligence leaders have repeatedly warned of the threats posed by climate change to national security and international stability.

How about faith leaders? Religious leaders of every faith appeal to our moral duty to conserve God’s creation and to protect those most vulnerable to catastrophe.

How about our titans of industry? Leaders such as Apple and Google, Coke and Pepsi, Walmart and Target, Nestle and Mars are all greening their operations and their supply chains and calling on policymakers to act.

How about constituents? I have talked with community and business groups across the United States. Local officials–many of them Republicans–don’t have the luxury of ignoring the changes we see. State scientific agencies and State universities are doing much of the leading research on climate change.

If you are a Senator who is not sure climate change is real, manmade, and urgent, ask your home State University. Even in Kentucky. Even in Oklahoma.

Flooding puts mayors in kayaks on South Florida streets. New Hampshire and Utah ski resorts struggle with shorter and warmer winters, and Alaskan villages are falling into the sea. Yet, no Republican from these States yet supports serious climate legislation.

This resistance to plain evidence is vexing to many Americans. Elizabeth from Riverside, RI, says her grandchildren are her top reason for action. She wrote:

“I fail to understand the Republican opposition to what is clearly factual scientific information about climate change. Are they not educated? Can they not read? Do they not have children and grandchildren to be concerned about the future they leave? Or is it money that clouds their vision?”

The truth is that Republican cooperation in this area, which existed for some time, has been shut down by the fossil fuel industry. The polluters have constructed a carefully built apparatus of lies propped up by endless dark money.

Dr. Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University calls it the “organized climate-denial machine.” He found that nearly 90 percent of climate-denial books published between 1982 and 2010 had ties to conservative fossil fuel-funded think tanks such as the Heartland Institute. In other words, it is a scam.

Dr. Robert Brulle of Drexel University has documented the intricate propaganda web of climate denial with over 100 organizations, from industry trade organizations, to conservative think tanks, to plain old phony front groups. The purpose of this denial beast, to quote Dr. Brulle, is “a deliberate and organized effort to misdirect the public discussion and distort the public’s understanding of climate.”

John from Tucson, AZ, says this is his top reason to act:

“These ‘merchants of doubt,’ the professional climate denier campaigners, have lied to us and attacked the people who can help us most; the scientists.”

Sound familiar? It should because the fossil fuel industry is using a playbook perfected by the tobacco industry. Big Tobacco used that playbook for decades to bury the health risks of smoking.

Ultimately, the truth came to light. It ended in a racketeering judgment against that industry.

The Supreme Court has handed the polluters a very heavy cudgel with its misguided Citizens United decision, allowing corporations to spend–or, more importantly, to threaten to spend–unlimited amounts of undisclosed money in our elections. More than anyone, polluters use that leverage to demand obedience to their climate denial script.

Jan from Portland, OR, said this kind of corruption is her top reason to act on climate. She said: “It would be beneath our dignity to ruin our planet just for money.”

Jan, I hope you are right.

There has been progress.

The Senate has held votes showing that a majority believes climate change is real, not a hoax, and is driven by human activity.

Republican colleagues such as the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the senior Senator from Georgia, and the senior Senator from South Carolina have made comments here recognizing the need to do something. The senior Senator from Maine has a bill on non-CO2 emissions.  Against the relentless pressure of the fossil fuel industry and its front groups, that takes real courage.

The President’s Climate Action Plan is ending the polluters’ long free ride. The administration has rolled out strong fuel and energy efficiency standards. Its Clean Power Plan will, for the first time, limit carbon emissions from powerplants. The United States heads an ambitious international climate effort as well, even engaging China, now the world’s largest producer of carbon pollution.

Perhaps most heartening are the American people. Eighty-three percent of Americans, including 6 in 10 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.” That seems literally to be the case here as Citizens United political gridlock keeps us, for now, from heeding laws of nature.

But when the polluters’ grip slips, I will be ready with legislation that many Republicans can support: a fee on carbon emissions. Pricing carbon corrects the market failure that lets polluters push the cost of air pollution on to everybody else. A carbon fee is a market-based tool aligned with conservative free-market values. Many Republicans, at least those beyond the swing of the Citizens United fossil fuel cudgel, have endorsed exactly that idea.

Let’s have a real debate about it. It is time. I will be announcing my carbon fee proposal on June 10, during an event at the American Enterprise Institute.

Climate change tests us. First, it is an environmental test, a grave one. We will be graded in that test against the implacable laws of science and nature. Pope Francis has described a conversation with a humble gardener who said to him:

“God always forgives. Men, women, we forgive sometimes. But, Father, creation never forgives.”

There are no do-overs, no mulligans–not when we mess with God’s laws of nature.

Behind nature’s test looms a moral test. Do we let the influence of a few wealthy industries compromise other people’s livelihoods, even other people’s lives, all around the planet and off into the future?

It is morally wrong, in greed and folly, to foist that price on all those others. That is why Pope Francis is bringing his moral light to bear on climate change, and to quote him: “There is a clear, definitive and ineluctable ethical imperative to act.” Our human morality is being tested.

Lastly, this is a test of American democracy. All democracies face the problem of how well they address not just the immediate threat but the looming ones. America’s democracy faces an added responsibility of example, of being the city on a hill. In a world of competing ideologies, why would we want to tarnish ours?

This is the top reason for Ralph from Westerly, RI. He wrote: “Someday, world leaders will look back on this time that something should have been done to save the planet. ….. We had the chance but let it slip through our fingers.”

We have all done something wrong in our lives. Some things we do that are wrong don’t cause much harm. But there is not an odds maker in Vegas who would bet against climate change causing a lot of harm.

And some things that we do wrong we get away with. But there is no way people in the world won’t know why this happened when that harm hits home.

There is no way the flag we fly so proudly won’t be smudged and blotted by our misdeeds and oversights today.

Think how history regards Neville Chamberlain when he misjudged the hinge of history in its time. At least Chamberlain’s goal was noble: peace, peace after the bloody massacres of World War I, peace in his time. Our excuse is what, on climate change? Keeping big polluting special interests happy?

Anybody who is paying attention knows those special interests are lying. Anybody paying attention knows they are influence-peddling on a monumental scale. And while the polluters have done their best to hide that their denial tentacles are all part of the same denial beast, people all over who are paying attention have figured it out.

One day, there will be a reckoning. There always is.

If we wake up, if we get this right, if we turn that ponderous balance of destiny in our time, then it can be their reckoning, and not all of ours. It can be their shame, not the shame of our democracy, not the shame of our beloved country, not the shame of America. As we close in on this weekend, on Memorial Day, we will remember those who fought and bled and died for this great Republic. The real prospect of failing and putting America to shame makes it seriously time for us to wake up.

Mr. President, once again, I thank my colleagues for their courtesy in attending this 100th speech.

I yield the floor.