November 13, 2019

Time to Wake Up 258: Rough Seas Ahead

As-prepared for delivery.

Mr./Mdm. President, today in my 258th Time to Wake Up Speech, I want to take us back to our oceans. 

The oceans are a clear and consistent signal of climate change, a signal untainted by fossil fuel industry propaganda attacks.  And for good reason.  It’s hard to dispute sea level rise measured with tide gauges; acidification measured with the kind of pH test kit in a middle school science classroom; or rising temperature measured with a thermometer.  Even the fossil fuel industry can’t foul the signals from our oceans.

The recent Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate confirms through grim data that the health of our oceans is in rapid decline, and it confirms that these changes are caused not by nature but by man.

The headlines from the report are alarming:

– The global ocean … has taken up more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system. 

– … the rate of ocean warming has more than doubled.

– Marine heatwaves … are increasing in intensity.

– … the ocean has undergone increasing ocean acidification.

– … mean sea level is rising, …

– Increases in tropical cyclone winds and rainfall, … increases in extreme waves, … extreme sea level events and coastal hazards.

– … multiple climate-related hazards ….

-… the ocean is projected to transition to unprecedented conditions….

It’s a grim warning.

Look at acidification.  Ocean acidification is a chemical phenomenon.  It’s not deniable; you can replicate it in a middle school science lab; you can demonstrate it with your breath, and an aquarium bubbler, and a pH strip. 

The oceans absorb around 30 percent of our excess CO2 emissions, in a chemical interaction that takes up the CO2 but acidifies the seawater.  Off our West Coast, the humble pteropod is a building block in the oceanic food chain; studies show pteropod suffering “severe shell damage” worsened by acidification.  Coral reefs are dying from acidification.  The great ocean die-offs in geologic eras before humans existed were signaled by ocean acidification. 

Look at heat.  The oceans absorb over 90 percent of the excess atmospheric heat we have trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gas emissions.  All the terrestrial effects we’re seeing come from less than one-tenth of the excess heat we trap.  The heat going into the oceans is sparing us humans a real catastrophe, but all that heat is changing the oceans.  It’s four Hiroshima-style bombs’ worth of heat energy into the oceans, every second.  The rate of this ocean warming has already doubled, and the ocean is projected to absorb up to 5 to 7 times more heat by 2100. 

Warming seas expand and, with melting glaciers and ice sheets, that means seas rise; so far, about 6 inches globally; on Rhode Island shores, already nearly a foot; on our current trajectory, more than 3 feet globally by 2100, more than six feet in Rhode Island.

It’s local.  The First Street Foundation calculates that coastal communities along our East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico states have already lost more than $15 billion in relative property values as the market starts to look at sea level rise and flooding; in Rhode Island alone, about $45 million lost.  Predicted ahead is a coastal property values crash.

And it’s global.  The New York Times recently reported new research “that some 150 million people are now living on land that will be below the high-tide line by mid-century.”  150 million people.  A UK study warns global sea level rise could cost $14 trillion annually by 2100. 

Look to the Pacific.  A new Climate Central study shows that “chronic coastal flooding or permanent inundation threatens areas occupied by more than 10% of the current populations of nations including Bangladesh, Vietnam, and many Small Island Developing States.”  Here is Vietnam swallowed by high tide in 2050.  As one of the authors of the report said, “most sea level rise between now and 2050 is already baked in.”  Decades more of sea level rise means the fate of many coastal communities is already sealed.

Perhaps this explains the 2013 warning by Admiral Samuel Locklear, former commander of United States forces in the Pacific, that upheaval related to climate change “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen . . . that will cripple the security environment.”  He said, “You have the real potential here in the not-too-distant future of nations displaced by rising sea level. . . . If it goes bad, you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.” 

Here it is. 

Thankfully, countries around the globe are awakening.

In 2015, I fought to protect a mention of oceans in the Paris Climate Agreement.  This year’s original host, Chile, christened the upcoming climate meeting a “Blue COP,” with a blue vision of repairing ocean health.

I attended as a U.S. congressional delegation of one this year’s international Our Ocean conference in Oslo, where advocates, corporations, and governments around the world (even the weak and helpless Trump administration), made national and corporate and regional ocean commitments. 

Norway leads a panel of 14 heads of state and the United Nations Special Envoy for the Ocean, advised by people like former NOAA Director Jane Lubchenko.  A recent panel report outlined five major ocean initiatives that could reduce 20 percent of global emissions by 2050.

The United Nations has declared the 2020s the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, “to strengthen connections and weave partnerships between all communities working to study, conserve and sustainably use the ocean and its resources.”

The world has turned toward action on oceans.

Usually, the United States sets an example of leadership in confronting threats of this magnitude.  We are abandoning that tradition.  In conversations about climate change and ocean challenges, the U.S. is at best absent; at worst, we’re the obstruction.  That’s a mistake. The United States should not lose its place as leader – not if we care about our role as the indispensable nation; not if we care about the security and prosperity of our democracy.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Other ocean threats have prompted Congress to do what’s right.  We passed international fisheries treaties and the Ports States Measures enforcement law, and now satellites seek out and track pirate fishing ships to bring them to justice.  We passed our first marine plastics legislation, unanimously, and a bigger, better marine plastics bill is moving in the Senate right now.  Senator Murkowski and I are moving the biggest ocean data bill since NOAA was founded, through the bipartisan Oceans Caucus. 

We can do better, and we must.

Henry Kissinger once told me that the great revolutions of the world have always come from a “confluence of resentments.”  The poorest, those who depend most closely on the oceans, those who lead subsistence lives, will suffer most the brunt of the coming crisis.  And they will resent it.

Look at fisheries.  The poorest starve when fisheries collapse.  Others are distressed when fisheries collapse, but have the resources to migrate or find alternative food sources.  For the wealthy, the fish in our air-conditioned supermarkets may cost a bit more, but our lives are not seriously affected.  

When the poor and distressed are hurt, they will resent it.  That is human nature.  Turn the pain up high enough, and good luck defending to them the systems of parliamentary democracy and market capitalism that brought on their suffering.  

Years ago, Daniel Webster described the work of our Founders as having “set the world an example.”  He went on to say, “the last hopes of mankind, therefore, rest with us.”  From Jonathan Winthrop to Ronald Reagan, we have called ourselves “a city on a hill,” set high for the world to witness.  President Clinton argued that “[p]eople…have always been more impressed by the power of our example than the example of our power.”

We still tout our system of democracy and capitalism as a beacon of success and progress, but we’ve aided and abetted the failure of our system to address the climate and oceans crisis.  Worst of all, is the reason for it:  the fossil-fuel industry’s menacing climate denial apparatus.  That apparatus may have won the day influencing Congress for now, but it will surely fail the test of time.  History will judge harshly the American generation that let its democracy be corrupted by this industry.

James Madison, in the Federalist Papers, warned of “moments in public affairs when the people [can be] misled by artful misrepresentations of interested men.” We have certainly been misled by artful misrepresentations of the interested men of the fossil fuel industry. 

The voice of the oceans is more lasting than the greed and folly of man, and it warns of consequences driven by laws of chemistry, physics, and biology.  These stern natural laws cannot be repealed or vetoed.  Propaganda can manipulate people, passions, and politics, but it cannot change the immutable laws of nature.  The data are the voice of the oceans, and if data could scream, the oceans would be screaming. 

So to paraphrase a poem, let us be the “voice the sea would have, if it had not a better one: as it lifts…its rumbling, deep-structured roar.”  Let’s wake up and get to our duty.

Slap Nature, Pope Francis said, and she will slap you back. We have a hell of a slap coming, and we’d better wake up to it.

Mr./Mdm. President, I thank you, and I yield the floor.