Time to Wake Up 283: Crying Out for American Leadership

Mr. President, this is my 283rd travel to the Senate floor to ask that we wake up to the threat of climate change—an issue that demands, right now, American leadership.

Over the recent recess, I traveled to parts of the world where climate catastrophe looms, and I saw firsthand what the absence of American leadership has cost. My first stop was to the 2022 Our Oceans Conference in Palau, where I joined President Biden’s Special Envoy for Climate, Secretary John Kerry, to discuss the state of our oceans. It was another productive Our Oceans Conference, leading to 410 commitments from around the world, worth $16.35 billion, to fund climate action, reduce plastic pollution, and reduce illegal fishing, among other things. These commitments are, indeed, a hopeful sign.

Palau is a tiny, beautiful ocean nation on the very far side of the Pacific Rim. This archipelago relies almost entirely on the ocean, with tourism as the dominant industry and fishing as a way of life. Palau has a front-row seat to the changes taking place in our ocean. Rising ocean temperatures and sea levels, acidification, disrupted fisheries, more frequent storms—they see and feel these every day.

I have spoken a lot about the amount of heat trapped by greenhouse gas pollution and then absorbed by our oceans. It is equivalent to multiple Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs being detonated in the ocean every second. That is the heat load that we are adding. In the last three decades, our oceans warmed eight times faster than in preceding decades. This is so much heat that you have to measure it using a special super unit of measurement— the zettajoule.

What is a zettajoule? A joule is our standard unit of heat energy. A zettajoule is that unit with 21 zeros behind it. Here is a more practical reference: All of the energy used annually by all of the people in all of the world—all of it—adds up to one half—one half—of a zettajoule. What does this mean for oceans? Scientists tell us that the top 2,000 meters of ocean absorbed a record 227 excess zettajoules of energy from 1981 to 2010. The current rate is to load 14 zettajoules of heat into our oceans every single year, which means we are loading into our oceans every year nearly 30 times more heat than the entire energy use of the entire species on the entire planet. If you take a look at the segment of our energy use that is produced by fossil fuels, that segment, which is less than half a zettajoule, is creating this effect of 14 zettajoules of heat into the oceans every single year.

We are pumping into the oceans nearly 30 times our total global human energy use. This kind of heat is why coral reefs face mass bleaching and are dying, and, of course, dead reefs threaten the collapse of entire ocean ecosystems. It is not just dying reefs; when water warms, it expands, which means sea levels are rising and will rise by feet in the decades ahead—a big problem for coastal communities everywhere, including Connecticut and Rhode Island.

I landed in Palau on the heels of an unexpected tropical storm— unseasonal—that grew into a violent typhoon. Climate change makes these storms more frequent, more severe, and more unpredictable, putting coastal infrastructure everywhere under serious threat.

From Palau, I met up with a congressional delegation traveling to India and Nepal—two nations at the center of dire global security risks. Nepal’s Himalayan glaciers are the source of much of Asia’s freshwater. The Himalayan snowcap is so big, it is described as the Earth’s third pole—the North Pole with all of its ice, the South Pole with all of its ice, and the Himalayan glacier with all of its ice. As the planet warms, those Himalayan glaciers shrink away. Our 1.5-degree Celsius global warming target right now is, in effect, a 2.1- degree Celsius global warming target for the Himalayas. Himalayan glacier mass is expected to drop by more than a third by the end of the century. If the glaciers aren’t there to feed the rivers, the rivers don’t have the water to flow.

For India, the consequences are deadly serious. According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, losing that glacial flow will spell rampant sickness, hunger, and economic calamity downstream, which could, as they say—I quote them—‘‘in turn, open the door to conflict.’’ Well, obviously, if people don’t have the water they need to live, they are going to fight over it.

A likely flashpoint is Kashmir, the region between India and Pakistan— two nuclear-armed adversaries. India’s Parliament has reported on the challenge climate change poses for distributing scarce Himalayan water among Indian and Pakistani downstream regions. India plans new dams on the Chenab River in Kashmir. Pakistan fears that India will pinch off river flow into Pakistan, perhaps to put economic survival pressure on Pakistan in times of conflict. Suspicions between the two countries of riparian mischief run high, and long memories of conflict linger. Food security, electricity generation, and public safety are all at stake, giving nuclear-armed adversaries a lot to fight over.

So what did we see and feel in India? Scorching heat—109 degrees Fahrenheit at the Taj Mahal. Last week in Delhi, thermometers topped 110 degrees. In Nawabshah, Pakistan, temperatures hit 117.5 degrees. In another area of Pakistan, temperatures exceeded 122 degrees. Try to walk around and work and live outdoors in 122 degrees. It doesn’t work. This is the kind of heat where the human body no longer functions properly. It can’t cool itself. And, of course, electricity grids fail, and lots of water evaporates.

We discussed these issues with the Nepali Prime Minister and Congress president. Their government is clear-eyed about this problem. Their glaciers are thinning before their eyes. They see it now, they feel it in river flow, and they see it in the risk of glacier collapse, which leads to catastrophic downstream flooding. They feel all these shocks to their region’s food supply and every tremor from their neighbors’ conflicts. Their message to us is really clear: ‘‘Nepal is ready to join hands with the U.S. on the issue of climate change,’’ one of the Nepali Parliamentarians told us, but the United States needs to step up.

Our last stop was Doha in Qatar, where I met with airmen of the Rhode Island Air National Guard and other service members carrying out vital missions in the Middle East at Al Udeid Air Base. The Defense Department is worried about climate heat compromising its flight operations in places as hot as Doha. It gets hard to operate out on the runways in the kind of heat that climate change is causing, and Doha is hot. You may recall the news a few years ago about Qatar considering air-conditioning the out of doors. DOD’s October 2021 Climate Risk Analysis listed rising temperatures affecting flight operations and ‘‘aircraft performance’’—‘‘loss of payload capacity, range, and loiter time’’—as the military has to schedule for ‘‘too hot to fly’’ times of day. For the airmen I met with, out protecting our country, these are real issues now.

The world cries out for Congress to act, to reclaim America’s place of leadership on this defining issue of our time. The people of Palau cannot fix the ocean heat on their own. The people of India, Pakistan, and Nepal cannot solve the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers on their own. Our airmen cannot cool the temperatures disrupting their flight operations on their own.

President Clinton once said that the world is always ‘‘more impressed by the power of our [American] example than by [any] example of our [American] power.’’ If we are to remain Daniel Webster’s city on a hill, we must reflect the power of that good American example beyond our borders. This goes beyond climate change; this goes to the heart of the integrity of the American brand.

At the end of an American century where we rebuilt Europe with the Marshall Plan and rebuilt Asia with the MacArthur Plan and set the stage for the freedom and peace and economic growth that this American century has produced, we are at risk of squandering that entire reputation as people from Palau to Nepal suffer and experience the consequences of climate change and know perfectly well that America could have and should have led, that America could have and should have done something about this, that America knew what the climate risk was and failed to act, and that the failure is explained by the worst of all possible reasons: We got rolled by the special interests, the fossil fuel industry, whose conflict of interest is apparent but whose power through dark money and pressure and corruption in this body has disabled us for more than a decade from doing what everyone knows is right.

Our failure and the disgraceful reason for it will be a visible blot on America’s standing for decades if we don’t act. If we don’t act, if we fail, don’t think no one will notice. What we are doing is open and notorious, and it is a devastating failure of American leadership. We must pass a real climate bill now. It is time, as I have said 283 times, to wake up. I yield the floor.