Time to Wake Up: 2017 Year in Review
Thank you, Mr. President, and Happy New Year to you.
For my 191st ‘‘Time to Wake Up’’ speech, I want to take the change of years to reflect on what 2017 meant for our carbon pollution of the Earth’s climate and what 2018 may bring.
Our human use of fossil fuels continued to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2017. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere now stands at almost 407 parts per million—the highest in human history and more than 100 parts per million above the safe range in which human development for millennia has flourished. Each year brings a new record concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere, and this will continue to worsen until the world weans itself off fossil fuels.
Of course, the contamination of our Earth and atmosphere by carbon pollution is matched by the contamination of our politics by unlimited and often hidden fossil fuel industry money, threats, and promises. When the accounting comes for what they have done to the Government of the United States, there will be a lot to answer for.
We are in a heck of a cold snap now, as the boundaries of normal weather get blown out in all directions by climate change, but the underlying, steady warming trend through all these new extremes of hot and cold and wet and dry is obvious.
Here in the United States, everyone in the lower 48, except for a few pockets up in the Northwest where things stayed fairly steady, has seen hotter than average temperatures. This represents hot. This represents cold. As you can see, most of the map matches the hot end. These are the mean temperature departures from average for January to November 2017.
Residents of the desert Southwest and of coastal Texas and Louisiana and much of the Southeast lived through their hottest year ever in 2017. Record warming is this color. You see it all through these areas, record warmest temperature.
Up in the Arctic, where temperatures are rising twice as fast as the rest of the globe, 2017 was the second hottest year ever. In Barrow, AK, the temperature rose so rapidly that computer algorithms kicked in and flagged the underlying data as suspect. The computer felt something must have gone wrong with the equipment and flagged the data as suspect. In fact, the readings were extraordinary, but they were real. That was the temperature.
We also saw a punishing onslaught of extreme weather in 2017, making it the most expensive disaster year in U.S. history, costing nearly $400 billion in damages. The United States had averaged fewer than six billion-dollar weather-related disasters a year. Between January and late October 2017, we experienced 16, which killed 282 people. Final estimates of the devastation during 2017 aren’t complete. It may prove that 1,000 lost lives are attributable to Hurricane Maria and its aftermath in Puerto Rico.
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season brought 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes, and 6 major hurricanes—those with average wind speeds exceeding 115 miles per hour.
In August, Hurricane Harvey roared ashore with winds over 130 miles per hour, dropping more than 60 inches of rain over the Houston and Port Arthur areas. Areas that aren’t even on the flood maps found themselves flooded. Scientists agree that the unprecedented Texas deluge was only made possible by a warming atmosphere.
September brought Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which ravaged the Caribbean, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas, as well as Florida. Much of Puerto Rico is still without power months after the storm. Abnormally warm waters in the tropical Atlantic fueled this punishing succession of storms.
Out West, 2017’s high temperatures and low rainfall created conditions ripe for wildfire. As of November, more than 6.4 million acres had burned—an area roughly the size of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—making 2017 the third most active fire year in history. In October, fast-moving wildfires laid waste to the California wine country, destroying almost 9,000 structures and killing more than 40 people. They were the costliest fires in U.S. history, bringing $9 billion in damage and $85 billion in economic loss.
In December, the Thomas fire exploded across coastal California, burning over 280,000 acres on its way to becoming the largest wildfire in California history. Notably, fire season should have been over by then in California, extinguished by December’s customary winter rains, but not in 2017. Southern California had near-record-low rainfall this winter, leaving vegetation desiccated and ready to ignite.
The evidence continued to pile up in 2017 of the connection between climate change and this extreme weather. The American Meteorological Society released a report showing that a majority of extreme weather and climatic events in 2016 were influenced by human-caused climate change. Indeed, the report found that the record average global temperatures in 2016, the record warm waters in the North Pacific, and the record temperatures in Asia simply would not have occurred without human-caused climate change.
We should not—as we too often do— overlook the oceans. The added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that has run up the concentration to 407 parts per million alters the ocean’s very chemistry. The added heat trapped by that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere gets picked up by the oceans, and it raises ocean temperatures. Warmer, more acidic seas destroy coral reefs, displace fisheries, and rise along populous shores. We measure all this already.
With all these alarm bells ringing, how did the United States respond in 2017 to the climate crisis?
Our newly inaugurated President, Donald Trump, pointedly ignored the global political and scientific consensus that climate change poses a grave risk to our way of life—a prediction shared by our State universities, our National Laboratories, our major scientific associations, and even our military.
President Trump nominated fossil fuel stooge Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
For Energy Secretary, Trump nominated Rick Perry, who uses his office to promote fossil fuel, even announcing a plan to subsidize the coal industry after private meetings with big Trump coal company donors.
Then there is Ryan Zinke, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, who decided to reopen public lands to coal mining and wants to roll back the rule limiting methane emissions from oil and gas drilling on our American public lands.
It is literally the three stooges.
In May, President Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, leaving the United States the only country on Earth to reject this landmark pact.
This is not leadership; this is its corrupted opposite. This administration is in hock to the fossil fuel industry like no other. Trump and his pals haven’t drained the swamp; they have jumped right in with the biggest swamp monsters of all. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce pays for a phony ‘‘study’’ claiming the Paris Agreement would cost jobs and economic growth; Trump pulls us out of Paris. The American Petroleum Institute complains about rules limiting methane emissions; Pruitt and Zinke try to roll them back. The Auto Alliance complains about fuel efficiency standards that the auto companies agreed to for American cars; Pruitt starts a project to water them down. Trump takes money by the shovelful from fossil fuel donors, and Pence dances on the Koch brothers’ strings.
Yet 2017 offered reasons to remain optimistic.
First is the explosion in renewable energy. In 2017, renewables provided nearly 20 percent of electricity generation in the United States. As wind and solar costs fell, utilities across the country—even in red States—invested heavily in wind and solar. The renewable energy industry hit 3.3 million jobs—more than all fossil fuel jobs combined.
More good news: The leadership void left by the corrupted Trump administration was filled by thousands of State and local governments, businesses, academic institutions, and faith organizations which pledged to honor the Paris Agreement and reduce their carbon emissions. The States of California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and, I am proud to say, Rhode Island, have all declared that they are still in. Alaska announced it would meet its goals. What is more, California and Washington joined with Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico to announce a plan to put a price on carbon to rein in emissions.
Businesses in 2017 exercised climate leadership in the marketplace. Leading asset manager BlackRock helped break the back of Exxon’s and Occidental Petroleum’s opposition to shareholder resolutions requiring them to report their climate risk to their shareholders. Multinational insurance firm AXA announced it would divest from its tar sands holdings and stop insuring pipelines that transport tar sands oil. Credit rating agency Moody’s announced it will consider climate risk in rating coastal communities’ municipal bonds. Companies like Microsoft and Unilever have their own baked-in, internal carbon price to help them reduce the carbon intensity of their operations.
Then there are the court battles. In 2017, multiple California municipalities sued fossil fuel companies under the State public nuisance law to seek help with the huge adaptation costs they face as sea level rises and extreme weather becomes more common.
State attorneys general in Massachusetts and New York defeated attempts by ExxonMobil to disrupt their fraud investigation into whether the company has been covering up what it knew about the risks posed by fossil fuels.
By the way, at the very end of last year, we discovered there were reports through the American Petroleum Institute of the dangers of climate change from renowned scientists, including Edward Teller, going back to 1959. That is how long this cover up may have been going on.
So these various things that are happening among businesses, among States, among leaders, among other countries, among State attorneys general, and the courts give me hope for 2018. The renewable energy revolution will continue. It is unstoppable as prices drive the market their way. Forward-thinking business leaders will realize they must fight for good climate policy not just within their own companies but also here in Washington. They need to start showing up. America’s courts will provide a forum for truth and disclosure—two things very scarce in climate denial—which fossil fuel companies, for that reason, have for years fiercely fought to avoid, but judges will insist on answers, plaintiffs are entitled to discovery, and lying in court gets you punished. World and State and local leaders have picked up the mantle abandoned by Washington Republicans and, who knows, there is always hope.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress just might reflect on 2017—on the hurricanes and the wildfires and all the changes already taking place in our home States; may reflect on what all of our home State universities are telling us; may look at where young and independent voters are on this issue; may heed the longstanding warnings of our U.S. military and maybe—just maybe— step out from under the bullying shadow of the fossil fuel industry and come together to solve our climate crisis.
Here are my 2018 resolutions: Let’s put a price on carbon emissions so their release into the atmosphere reflects the true cost, as market theory says it should. This market-based solution is endorsed by leading thinkers and analysts on the left and the right. Let’s also launch carbon capture and storage, including direct air capture. Let’s launch carbon-free advanced nuclear technologies. Let’s help America lead the world in the fight to stave off irreversible climate catastrophe with the new technologies that we are the world’s best at developing. Finally, for coastal States like my home State of Rhode Island—which faced the irrevocable upward march of warming seas on a warming planet—let’s make sure coastal communities have the resources they need to predict and prevent or prepare for the future that looms.
We owe this to our children and to our children’s children. We owe it to all future generations that will look back at us and ask: When it was so obvious, how is it possible that the Government of the United States—how is it possible that this city on a hill—could do nothing but the bidding of the most conflicted industry on the planet? In 2018, let’s get this right.
Thank you. I yield the floor.
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