July 26, 2023

Time to Wake Up 289: Rising Tides, Rising Temps

Mr. President, this is the 289th time that I have come to the Senate floor with my increasingly battered ‘‘Time to Wake Up’’ chart, to stir this Chamber to act on climate change. Since 2016, I have been talking about the zettajoule. The zettajoule is the measure of how much fossil fuel emissions are heating up our oceans. In this season of extreme, record-smashing heat touching all 50 States, it is wild that elected representatives in Washington still choose to insulate themselves from reality, a reality measured in zettajoules.

A zettajoule is a number almost beyond comprehension in its size. One joule—J-O-U-L-E—is our standard unit of energy, and it applies to heat energy. A zettajoule is 1 joule with 21 zeros behind it. It is a truly massive number. In a 2019 ‘‘Time to Wake Up’’ speech, I reported that more than nine zettajoules of heat energy was being added to the ocean annually. Since then, I have come to the floor with an updated number.

Our oceans are absorbing around 14 zettajoules of excess heat every year. Let’s put that in context. The total energy consumption of all humankind amounts to about one-half of a zettajoule of energy per year. That means that for the fossil fuel component of that one-half of a zettajoule of energy, we pay the price of 14 added zettajoules of heat into the ocean every year. Said another way, we load into our Earth’s oceans every year nearly 30 times the entire energy use of the entire species on the entire planet. That is a big magnification.

If this is the zettajoules of excess heat absorbed into the oceans every year, that dot is the average annual energy consumption of the human species on the planet. For the price of the fossil fuel component of that, mankind’s entire energy consumption in zettajoules, we suffer that load of heat energy going into the oceans.

That is a bit hard to comprehend, so consider one other unit of measure: the energy released by the detonation of the nuclear bomb America dropped on Hiroshima. In Hiroshima bomb terms, last year the ocean absorbed the equivalent of seven Hiroshima bombs detonating every second in the ocean. Every second of every day for the entire year, seven nuclear detonations’ worth of heat into our oceans—per second.

This unfathomable amount of heat has been somewhat offset by La Nina, the cool phase of a recurring climate pattern called the El Nino Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. That is the acronym for the El Nino Southern Oscillation. The ENSO cycle consists of variations in sea surface temperature, rainfall, surface air pressure, and atmosphere circulation located over the Pacific Ocean near the Equator. And in that oscillation, La Nina is the name for the cooling period.

Well, in June, we left La Nina and moved into an El Nino period. El Nino is the warmer side of the ENSO cycle. We saw it raise temperatures in previous cycles in 1998 and 2016. All those zettajoules of excess heat being dumped into the Earth’s oceans, and now we are headed into the warming part of the cycle. Watch for more heat records to fall.

One major consequence for us of hotter oceans is stronger hurricane activity. Hurricanes are powered up more by hotter water as they move over the Atlantic. This June, sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic Ocean are the hottest in 170 years—the hottest in 170 years—9 whole degrees Fahrenheit above normal. This is what is considered by science an ‘‘extreme’’ oceanic heat wave. And certain parts of the ocean are reaching the rare designation called ‘‘beyond extreme.’’ That is actually happening. On a scale from 1 to 5, the North Atlantic’s heat is either category 4 or category 5, depending on where you are.

Bring it home to Florida. Water temperatures in Florida have hit records reaching as high as 101 degrees. That is not the air temperature, that is the ocean temperature. That is actually the recommended temperature for a hot tub. Indeed, that is the midpoint of the Jacuzzi Company’s recommended range for its hot tub temperatures for healthy adults. Now, doctors recommend that children under the age of 5 avoid hot tubs over 95 degrees, and pregnant women are advised to stay out of water once it gets much above 100 degrees. So the ocean off Florida is almost too hot for many humans.

‘‘Almost too hot for humans’’ means definitely too hot for many ocean creatures, particularly ocean corals. Coral reefs matter because they support a quarter of all known marine species. Florida has the largest coral reef ecosystem in the continental United States, the third largest living barrier coral reef in the world. If you don’t care about creatures and only care about money, well, Florida’s protected waters contribute billions of tourism dollars to the Florida economy.

All of that is in jeopardy in this heat. According to NOAA, when temperatures reach 1 degree Celsius or about 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal, corals cross what is called their bleaching threshold. That is where they turn white as they evulse the living creatures that keep them alive, and that is a step on the way to death. That is bad news, considering the temperatures around Florida have been running 5 degrees above normal. And the longer this goes on, the more trouble corals will have recovering. We hear sometimes about 100-year or even 500-year storms. These are storms that are so extreme they are expected to occur only once every 100 or 500 years.

Well, scientists have put this Florida heat wave off the charts. Ben Kirtman is the director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies at the University of Miami. He said: If you just wrote a statistical model and said what are the chances of this level of warming, it would be 1 in 250,000 years. Not 1 in 100 years, not 1 in 500 years, 1 in 250,000 years. If that is not a warning that it is time to wake up, I do not know what is. Ultrarare weather events are not so rare anymore in this climate-changed world.

This is not just happening in the United States, it is worldwide. This summer, most of the oceans on planet Earth have at least a 70-percent chance of experiencing what are called marine heat wave conditions. The effects of marine heat waves read like Biblical plagues: decreased oxygen, dead zones, fish die-offs. And then come the weather effects: droughts in some places and increasingly deadly and dangerous storms in others because our oceans drive our weather on this planet. Over the course of a weekend last month, thousands of dead fish washed up along the Texas gulf coast. They died of lack of oxygen. Warm water holds much less oxygen than cold water. The ocean, through heat, becomes anoxic, and this slaughter results.

Again, if you don’t care about creatures and only care about money, in the United States last year alone, there were 18 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, exceeding $175 billion in total cost and, by the way, costing nearly 500 Americans their lives. Aside from those sudden disasters, comes the slow and insidious changes ocean warming brings, like the accelerating creep of sea level rise across your coast and mine. As ocean temperatures increase, two things happen: 1, ice in the Arctic and Antarctic melts, adding water to the ocean; and, 2, seawater expands—remember those zettajoules.

Combined, the effects of melting ice sheets and expanding seawater volume increases sea levels along our coasts. That slow creep of sea level rise is not as slow as it used to be. The ocean rose more than twice as fast this decade as it did the previous decade. Last year, it set a new record high. The news gets worse. There is a centuries-long time lag in the natural systems causing sea level rise, meaning we are only seeing the leading edge of what we have caused.

Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, ocean levels would continue to rise for decades. NOAA has predicted that the acceleration will continue; that sea level rise along the U.S. coastline will rise 10 to 12 inches just over the next 30 years, as much as the entire rise measured over the last century.

One way to help deal with this is through the National Coastal Resilience Fund, a grant program that restores, increases, and strengthens natural infrastructure to protect coastal communities and to protect habitats for fish and wildlife. The fund invests in conservation projects that restore or expand our natural protections: coastal marshes and wetlands, dunes and beach systems, oyster and coral reefs, coastal forests, rivers and flood plains, and barrier islands that minimize the impacts of storms and sea level rise, as well as other dangerous events like lost fisheries from ocean warming.

This program is so direly needed that it is vastly oversubscribed. In 2022, over $600 million of projects went unfunded because there simply wasn’t enough money in the program. Nearly half a billion dollars in unfunded protections for vulnerable coastal communities requesting Federal assistance.

I will give you one example of where this program is important. In 2019, the fund awarded $1 million to the Alaskan Native village of Shaktoolik to restore coastal dune habitat and to construct a natural storm surge berm. Well, last year, along came Typhoon Merbok and devastated parts of the Alaskan coastline. Shaktoolik was at the epicenter of the typhoon. The berm successfully protected the community from devastating coastal flooding. As one resident noted, ‘‘The berm saved our lives.’’

That is the value of resiliency, planning, and investment. But more than just brace ourselves for the baked-in effects of fossil fuel emissions poisoning our planet, we need to head off climate change at the oil spigot. That means taking on the fossil fuel industry’s increasingly desperate lies and its well-funded political juggernaut that does such evil in this building.

We know how to solve this problem; we just don’t do it, because fossil fuel fingers creep through so many corners of the Capitol. In the time it took me to deliver this speech, around 6,000 Hiroshima bombs of excess heat energy were put into our oceans.

Every day, it is getting worse. We completely underestimate how bad things are going to get—completely. Even people who care about climate change and believe that it is real and aren’t in tow to the fossil fuel industry and its dark money, they still completely underestimate how bad this is going to get.

And the tragedy is, it has always been preventable simply by moving to a productive, economically valuable, clean energy future and stopping our indulgence of fossil fuel pollution and obstruction. If what is going on with climate change heat going into our oceans is not enough to wake us up, I do not know what will.

It is certainly—certainly—time to wake up.