December 16, 2014

Time to Wake Up: 2014 Could be the Hottest Year On Record

As delivered on the Senate floor

Mr. President, We are winding down the end of this year in Congress and indeed the end of this Congress, and I am here today for the last “Time to Wake Up” speech in this Congress. And I’m particularly pleased to be delivering it while my friend is presiding, who actually took the trouble to come to Rhode Island and hear firsthand about what is happening in my state on those issues. The year that is ending now ushered in some mighty dubious milestones:  January through November, 2014, the year so far, were the hottest first eleven months of any year recorded, and unless nothing dramatic changes in December, and 2014 is on track to be the hottest year since we began keeping records in 1880. That would mean that fourteen of the warmest fifteen years on record were in this century.  According to the World Meteorological Organization, Secretary General, There is no standstill in global warming.”

This chart shows the decades-long rise in the ocean’s heat content from the surface down to a depth of 2000 meters. A little over a mile. Look at 2005-2014, the red part.  NASA estimates the amount of energy needed to account for that much warming in that much ocean is equivalent to four magnitude-6.0 earthquakes occurring every second for those nine years.  Four 6.0 earthquakes every second for nine years would create the kind of energy needed to create that much.

Well obviously it wasn’t earthquakes that did it; we would have known about that, the first Law of Thermodynamics, conservation of energy, decrees that all of that heat in the ocean had to come from somewhere.  The near certain source of that heat is increased greenhouse gases, mostly carbon pollution, trapping heat from the sun.

Since the rise of fossil fuel energy, we have been on a carbon binge.  As long as humans have been on the Earth, we’ve existed safely in a range of about 170 to 300 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  This year, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere measured at the famous Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii exceeded 400 parts per million for more than three months.  Now, archaeologists estimate that our species, our human species has been around about 200,000 years.  The Earth last saw such high levels of carbon, at 400 parts per million for that long of a period, more than 800,000 years ago.      

Oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat that the carbon has trapped.  And, as seawater warms, we all know by the Law of Thermal Expansion, it expands, and sea levels, as a result rise.  Satellite measurements show that in this period global average sea level rose about an inch from 2005-2013.  NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory attributes about a third of the global mean sea level rise to the warming of the upper ocean.   Combine that with the melting of glaciers on land and you see that climate change is significantly increasing sea level worldwide.  In my home state, I see this, and the Presiding Officer was there.  The Newport tide gauge records nearly ten inches more water than it did in the 1930s.  

Carbon pollution in the atmosphere also dissolves in the ocean, it doesn’t just warm it up, it dissolves in it, and when it dissolves in it, it makes it more acidic.  Indeed, he extra carbon dioxide humans have pumped into the oceans has caused a nearly 30 percent increase in the acidity of the upper ocean, which means a lot for say, shellfish, like mussels, clams, and oysters that make their shells from calcium carbonate, because calcium carbonate dissolves in acidified sea water.

In July 2014, a Maine oyster farmer, a guy named  Bill Mook, came to the Environment and Public Works Committee and described for us the difficulty his oyster crop, his oyster spat they call it,  had maturing. Here’s what he said. “Through observation, trial, and error,” he told us, “we reached the same conclusion made by researchers using controlled, replicated, experimentation.  Acidification is not a future problem,” he told us  “It is a problem now, and it will only get worse.” “A problem now and it will only get worse.”

Mr. President, measures of the atmosphere and ocean tells us that climate change is real.  And we already see the harms connected with it, in storm-damaged homes and flooded cities; in drought-stricken farms and raging wildfires; in fish disappearing from warming, acidifying waters; in shifting habitats and migrating contagions.  Climate change loads the dice for these events, which carry real costs to homeowners, business owners, and taxpayers.  And a key cause is undeniably carbon pollution.

Some of my Republican colleagues continue to deny that climate change is even happening or at best, stand mute in the face of the changes we see, in the face of so much evidence.

“I’m not a scientist” is all we get from some.  Well, if they’re not scientists, maybe they should ask one. Ask NOAA, ask NASA, or ask our National Academies.  If you’re a senator and you don’t know what you’re talking about, then study up. That’s our job.  If they can’t be bothered to ask a scientist, then look at what at what the military is saying about climate change, or what the businesses community is saying. 

The military’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, for example, offers a straightforward assessment of the threat climate change poses to national and international security.  Even in Pentagon bureaucratese, the assessment is pretty harsh: “Climate change poses [a] significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. . . . Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs.  The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world.” 

The Pentagon also released a Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap this year, detailing the military’s plans for a changing climate.  The report states, in no uncertain terms, and I quote “Climate change will affect the Department of Defense’s ability to defend the Nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security.” Climate change will affect the Department of Defense’s ability to protect the nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security. Climate change will affect the Department of Defense’s ability to protect the nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security. That would seem to me to be a phrase worth listening to.

The business and financial community sees climate risk too.  Former Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson teamed up with former New York City Mayor and business tycoon, Michael Bloomberg, former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, and others to put together an evidence-based assessment of the risks posed by climate change to the United States economy.  The report found that between $66 billion and $106 billion worth of existing American coastal property will likely be below sea level by mid-century.  That price tag could top $500 billion by the end of the century. $500 billion dollars’ worth of property below sea level by 2100.  Extreme heat they also found could reduce labor productivity of outdoor workers by as much as 3 percent by the end of the century.  They found that shifting agricultural patterns could cause states in the Southeast, in the lower Great Plains, and in the Midwest to see a 50 percent to 70 percent loss in average annual crop yields.  It’s a risk we’d be reckless to ignore.

One bright light of 2014 has been the proposed limits on carbon emissions from existing coal plants announced this year by the Obama Administration. That new standard will not only reduce emissions, it will change the way the polluters think.  Now, it’s no longer going to be free to pollute.  Now that it’s no longer going to be free, I suspect that some new thinking by polluters will come, and some new thinking by polluters, I expect,  will be followed in short order by some new thinking on the other side of the aisle here in the Senate. 

Another bright light was the Obama Administration’s carbon-reduction agreement with China, the world’s largest carbon polluter now, followed by news this weekend from Lima, that every nation in the world is expected to put forward a plan to rein in its carbon pollution.     

The public is with us on this too.  A recent poll released by the insurance firm Munich Re showed that 83 percent of Americans believe the climate is changing.  Seven Americans in ten say we should use more solar and wind power to battle climate change.  An AP poll released this week said that half of Republicans favor regulations on carbon dioxide emissions. 

Mr. President, in 2014, the physical evidence of climate change continued to mount.  Our military, our business leaders, our President, and the American people all affirmed their commitment to fending off the worst effects of carbon pollution.  So, in 2015, Congress needs to step up to the plate. 

I’ve introduced carbon fee legislation that would provide a practical tool for getting this done.  By charging a fee on carbon pollution, we can correct the market failure that lets polluters unload the costs of their pollution on the rest of us, and compete unfairly in energy markets.  And, we can use the proceeds to reduce other taxes.  Most important, we can significantly reduce harmful carbon pollution.  We just need to wake up. Maybe 2015 will be the year.

I thank the Senator from Oklahoma for his courtesy, and I yield the floor.