January 10, 2019

Time To Wake Up: 2018 Year in Review

Happy new year, Mr. President.

The new 116th Congress brings new hope for the Senate to face up to the clear and present challenge of climate change.  The House of Representatives, in Democratic hands, augments that hope. 

The Senate Republican majority has failed to address climate change.  This was no accident.  This is the Senate in the Citizens United era.  We saw years of Senate climate bipartisanship before Citizens United.  After Citizens United, we see immensely powerful, climate denying, dark-money front groups, all likely funded by fossil-fuel interests.  And we see no Republican senator willing to cross them.  The spending, and the more silent threat of spending, is a blockade.  It reeks.

There’s a case study in how dark and unlimited money played in the 2016 Senate elections:  Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin.  Three Democratic Senate candidates stood a good early chance of winning Republican-held seats in 2016.  All were solid, experienced candidates.  All were ahead in early polling.  Then the big influencers came in hard, launching attack ads more than a year before the election.  That’s like strafing the other sides’ planes while they’re still on the airfield. 

The pile-on of so-called “outside group” spending against these three Democratic candidates came to almost $70 million.  All three ultimately lost their races, and their losses meant Republicans kept majority control of this chamber. 

Of that $70 million, only about $11 million was from donors and PACs that appear unconnected to the fossil fuel industry.  At least two-thirds of that outside spending—more than $46 million—can be directly traced to groups that received significant funding from fossil energy.  $12 million came through dark money channels.  Powerful interests obscure their hand by running their spending through these dark money channels, so it is impossible to know whether or how much of this remaining $12 million was polluter dollars.  But when one industry can deliver that kind of artillery in just three Senate races, that gives it remarkable political power:  climate-action-stopping political power, it would seem.

So as the mounting effects of climate change grew ever more dire, and the scientific understanding grew ever more clear, the Senate did nothing.

Let’s look at what we learned, what we witnessed, and what we failed to do in 2018.

2018 saw the release of two landmark climate science reports—one from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the effects of warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and the Trump administration’s own National Climate Assessment.  Together, these reports delivered the starkest warning on climate change to date.  Damage from climate change is already occurring.  Economies are now at risk.  And we are almost out of time to prevent the worst consequences.

The IPCC report told us that accounting for the costs of carbon pollution by charging a price for emissions is the “central” policy that will allow us to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees or less.  Even this dire endorsement was not enough to move one Republican colleague to join my bill to establish a carbon fee. 

More telling was the spectacle of the Trump Administration’s National Climate Assessment.  The report, written by 13 federal agencies, described the monumental damage the United States is facing from climate change, flatly contradicting the climate-denial assertions of the president and his fossil-fuel-flunky cabinet.  The administration tried to bury the report by releasing it on Black Friday during the Thanksgiving holiday.  This cynical move backfired.  More than 140 newspapers around the country featured the report’s stark findings on their front pages and Google searches for “climate change” hit their highest level for the year.

Tellingly, the fossil-fuel industry and its bevy of stooges in the Trump administration did not contest the science in the report—an admission by inaction that they know their science denial campaign is phony; they know the real science is irrefutable; better to hide from it.

And unfortunately, we witnessed the irrefutable contribution of climate change to the most devastating natural disasters of 2018.

Out west, wildfires in California broke records.  The Mendocino Complex Fire in July and August was the largest in the state’s recorded history.  The Camp Fire in November was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, killing 86.  Scientists linked California’s increasing wildfires to climate change, estimating the area burned by wildfire across the western United States since 1984 at twice what would have burned without the human-driven changes.

Dr. Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, told PBS NewsHour, “It’s not rocket science. . . . You warm the planet, you’re going to get more frequent and intense heat waves.  You warm the soils, you dry them out, you get worse drought.  You bring all that together and those are all the ingredients for unprecedented wildfires.”

2018 saw the East Coast slammed by hurricanes that were supercharged by warming oceans.  Hurricanes gain strength from heat energy in the oceans below them.  Warmer oceans also evaporate more water to the atmosphere, generating more rainfall.  Stronger and wetter storms then ride ashore on higher sea levels, pushing larger storm surges ahead of them.

Hurricane Florence intensified over water 1 to 2 degrees Celsius above average in September, and dumped record rainfall and flooding on the Carolinas.  Preliminary analysis suggests its rainfall was more than 50 percent higher due to climate change.

When Hurricane Michael hit Florida in October, it passed over water 2 to 3 degrees Celsius warmer than average.  Its winds increased by 80 miles per hour in 48 hours, becoming the strongest storm ever to make an October landfall in the United States, almost completely flattening the town of Mexico Beach, Florida.

Scientists are increasingly able to identify the role of climate change in extreme weather events. The American Meteorological Society reported in December that 15 extreme weather events in 2017 were made more likely due to human-caused climate change, including a devastating marine heat wave off the coast of Australia that would have been “virtually impossible” without human-induced warming.

The report drew attention to the role of the oceans in many of the extreme events.  Jeff Rosenfeld, the Meteorological Society’s editor-in-chief, said, “The ocean is actively playing a role in the extremes that we’re seeing,” and “we’re seeing the oceans as a link in a chain of causes that ultimately tie human causes to extreme weather events on land.”

The changes occurring in the ocean are posing an increasing threat to our coastal communities.

The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report last year finding that over 300,000 coastal homes, with a collective market value over $130 billion, are at risk of chronic flooding by 2045. By the end of the century, 2.4 million homes, worth more than $1 trillion, could be at risk.

A 2018 report from Climate Central and Zillow found that thousands of homes continue to be built in risky coastal areas that are expected to suffer from annual floods by 2050.

Freddie Mac has already warned that coastal property values could crash as those houses become uninsurable or un-mortgageable to the next buyer. 

A second economic crash we face is a “carbon bubble” in fossil fuel companies.  This “carbon bubble” collapse happens when fossil fuel reserves turn out to be undevelopable “stranded assets.”  Research published by a group of economists in the journal Nature Climate Change last year estimated that in a world where we limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, $12 trillion of financial value could vanish from balance sheets globally in the form of stranded fossil fuel assets.  That’s over 15 percent of global GDP.

Wise financial managers are waking up to these risks.  At the recent UN climate summit in December, a group of 415 global investors, managing $32 trillion of investments, warned that the world faces a financial crash worse than the 2008 crisis unless carbon emissions are urgently cut.  The group called for the end of fossil fuel subsidies and the introduction of substantial prices on carbon.  They understand that to limit the worst climate risks, including economic catastrophe, we must cut carbon missions immediately and substantially. 

But back home, the Trump administration, clearly and completely corrupted by the fossil fuel industry, has now taken more than 90 actions to weaken climate policies.  And after years of decline, the United States’ carbon emissions grew 3.4 percent in 2018.

Following our dirty lead, global carbon emissions grew by 2.7 percent to reach a new record level.

If the administration’s 2018 regulatory actions read like a fossil fuel industry wish list, it’s because they are.

The fuel economy rollback is a perfect example; the new, weaker standards were pushed by the largest oil refiner in the country, Marathon Petroleum.  (Marathon also happened to be a top donor to the ethically challenged EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt during his time in political office in Oklahoma.)  Marathon worked with the Koch Brothers’ network and oil industry lobby groups to run a stealth campaign, including a Facebook ad campaign using a phony front-group called “Energy4US” that hid its oil-industry origins. 

Fossil energy companies claim to be cleaning up their act, issuing statements voicing support for carbon pricing.  But look what they did when the prospect of getting a carbon price on the books was real, in Washington State’s carbon fee ballot initiative.

The campaign against the carbon fee out-spent the campaign supporting it by 2 to 1, dumping more money into the fight than any ballot initiative campaign in the state’s history.  And who funded the campaign against this initiative?  Oil companies:  BP, Phillips 66, and our friends Marathon Petroleum were the top spenders by far.

Oil companies claim to support carbon pricing, but the giant trade associations they fund to go out and do their political work—the American Petroleum Institute, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers—oppose any proposals to reduce carbon pollution.

Another telling aspect of the Washington State ballot initiative campaign is who did not show up. Conspicuously absent are any of the “good guy” companies from the tech, financial, and food and beverage sectors that talk such a good game on climate. 

This is telling because the “good guy” corporations also do not lift a finger here in the Senate, and in fact have a net negative presence because the trade associations that they help fund, like the Chamber of Commerce, lobby against climate action.  In 2019, it’s time for them to get off the bench, clean up the act of their trade groups, and get onto the field on the good side of the climate policy fight.

For all this gloom, Mr./Madam President, there is good news for the new year and beyond.  Record low prices for wind and solar projects are now cheaper than fossil fuels in many places. Battery costs are falling rapidly.  Amazing electric vehicles keep coming.  New carbon capture technologies emerge.

Xcel energy, a Colorado-based utility that serves over 3 million customers, announced a commitment to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 and to have zero carbon emissions by 2050, showing that some players in the energy industry know they can and must make the transition.

California passed a law requiring 100 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2045, and the governors of New York and Washington recently announced 100 percent zero-carbon electricity goals. Hawaii has a law requiring 100 percent renewable electricity by 2045.  On the same day in late December, the District of Columbia passed a bill requiring 100 percent renewable electricity by 2032 and nine northeastern states, including Rhode Island, committed to cap emissions from the transportation sector.

The Senate can expect the new Democratic House to send climate legislation our way.  Whether my Republican colleagues like it or not, this will be an issue in the 116th Congress.  My New Year’s wish is that my Republican Senate colleagues will finally wake up to the damage climate change is causing, and join Democrats to help pass bills addressing the huge climate risk that we face.

For too long, big polluter donors have had their way around here.  Our nation is paying the price.  We have a responsibility to protect future generations from a disaster of our own making. It’s time to wake up and do our job.

I yield the floor.