January 14, 2020

Time to Wake Up: 7 Charts

As-prepared for delivery.

Mr./Mdm. President,  Grist did an article recently about climate change, with images.  I grabbed a few, and added a few.  They give a pretty good overview of the mess we’re in on climate change.

The most devastating wildfires anyone can remember are ripping across Australia.  Those fires have destroyed thousands of homes; killed an estimated 1 billion animals; and made a day of breathing air in Sydney the equivalent of smoking 37 cigarettes. 

Why?  According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Australia has warmed by about 1 degree Celsius over the last century.  That means a longer, hotter fire season, loading the dice in favor of extreme winds and heat, and bushfire.

Why did it warm?   The cause is clear.  This is the measurement of carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere going back 400,000 years—when there was no agriculture, no wheel, no Twitter, nothing.  Over time, CO2 levels ranged between 180 and 300 parts per million, a 120 ppm range.  You can see that temperature shifts correlate with these CO2 levels.  That’s because they’re connected.

Now, to see what to expect in the decade to come, let’s look at some graphics that show what we experienced in the decade gone by.   Most were compiled by Clayton Aldern and Emily Pontecorvo of Grist, so thank you to you both.

This chart shows the increase in carbon dioxide in our atmosphere over the past decade.  A critical benchmark came in 2013, when one of the best weather monitoring stations we have, NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, registered a first:  carbon concentrations above 400 ppm.  Never before in human history had that happened.  And in just the last seven years, that number shot up by over 10 ppm more.

We know that as these CO2 levels go up, the planet warms.  That’s not news. We have known that since Abraham Lincoln was President.  When Abraham Lincoln was riding around here in his top hat, scientists had begun to understand the link between greenhouse gases and global warming.  Exxon scientists knew this decades ago, and warned the company.  So there is nothing new in this.  The science is totally established, and this level is unprecedented in humankind’s history, and even before.

As a result, things are starting to go haywire.  The next chart shows the annual cost in billions of dollars of natural disasters in the U.S.  The figures vary year to year, but the trend over the decade shows a clear increase.

Now, bear in mind that the cost of natural disasters is just one of the big economic threats from climate change.  We’ve got warnings about coastal property values; about the carbon bubble; about insurance markets.  In fact, these numbers are tiny in comparison to the projected economic harms of climate change, an estimated tens of trillions of dollars by 2100.

Take my home state of Rhode Island.  Our state officials are currently preparing for a worst-case scenario of more than nine feet of sea level rise—not storm surge, that would add a lot more; just bathtub-style sea level rise—nine feet of sea level rise overtaking our 400 miles of coastline by the end of the century.  This map is from CRMC’s interactive STORMTOOLS application, which overlays sea level rise on our current topography.  The blue is what 10 feet of sea level rise will look like.  The land in these blue areas, the homes and businesses of my constituents, will be gone:  permanently underwater.  Some colleagues think this is funny, that we can yuck it up about climate change, and mock the science.  It is deadly serious.  A 2017 report from real estate database company Zillow identified over 4,800 homes in Rhode Island, valued at nearly $3 billion, that would be underwater by 2100 using an estimate of only six feet of sea level rise.  $3 billion, just in my state alone, gone.

One of the reasons we have to face this in Rhode Island is because the oceans are warming.  That ocean warming is moving fisheries around; it’s killing off coral reefs; it’s changing the ocean currents that cool our planet.  It’s big, this ocean warming:  multiple Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs’ worth of excess heat are going into the oceans every second. Our best calculation is between three and four detonations’ worth, every single second.  

And the oceans are becoming more acid.  They’re warming, because they’ve absorbed more than 90 percent of the extra heat fossil fuel emissions have caused; they’re getting more acidic, because they’ve absorbed about 30 percent of the excess carbon dioxide.  Take away the oceans, add that extra third back of CO2, multiply the heat times ten.  We are experiencing a fraction of what we’d face without the cooling, buffering oceans.  Without our oceans, Australia wouldn’t just be one location on fire; the whole planet would be a catastrophe. 

Why are we taking these chances?  Because politicians don’t dare say no to the crooked fossil fuel industry that profits from this mess.  Sickening.

Here’s a more hopeful image.  As the decade came to a close, polling showed climate action becoming a top issue for American voters everywhere.  This shows that, over the last decade, more and more Americans understand climate change is happening and that we humans are driving it.  Americans understand that, and when they understand how much they’ve been lied to by the fossil fuel industry, they are not going to be happy. 

Other good news:  Americans of all ages and political stripes favor many of the solutions that scientists and economists say are needed to tackle climate change.  The fossil fuel industry pretends the remedies to solve this will be painful; that’s yet another fossil fuel lie, and Americans are catching on to that one, too.  An October 2019 Pew poll found that two thirds of Americans want the federal government to do more to combat climate change.

Here’s coal’s continued nosedive.  Five hundred and forty-six coal plants have closed in the US since 2010.  In late 2019, Murray Energy become the eighth U.S. coal company in a year to file for bankruptcy.  Coal plants anywhere are virtually unfinanceable.  We’ve seen operating, depreciated coal plants close because just operating them costs more than financing and building and operating renewable energy facilities.  That’s good news for our safety and well-being .

America’s energy portfolio overall remains a mixed bag.  This chart shows which kinds of energy grew the most over the decade.  Here’s a big rise in solar; it grew by over 900 percent between 2010 and 2018.  Wind energy is also a big gainer, more than tripling since 2010.

As you see in this inlay, fossil fuels dominate our transportation sector.  But Americans are buying more electric vehicles than ever, and stunning new models are coming to market.  We’re not doing nearly enough to encourage their adoption.  We are going to lose out because rogue fossil fuel companies like Marathon Petroleum use political mischief to poke sticks in the wheels of vehicle fuel efficiency.

The fossil fuel industry likes to blame China for our climate problems.  What they omit is that by the end of 2017, 40 percent of all the electric cars in existence were in China.  In 2018, China manufactured nearly half of all electric vehicles worldwide.  China dominates global markets for electric buses and electric two-wheelers.  Exxon fabulously predicted to its shareholders that there would be zero electric buses by 2040; China is already operating 400,000.  We’re going to get run away from by Chinese manufacturing if we don’t smarten up and compete. 

More good news:  The price of digging out and transporting and burning dirty fuels is staying high – nearly $110 for a megawatt hour of coal-fueled power – but renewables are dropping fast – just $40 per megawatt hour of solar photovoltaic. 

Over the last decade, the average cost of solar dropped from over $200 per megawatt hour to less than a quarter of that today.  The cost of wind power is down, and offshore wind is emerging.  Battery storage now competes on price with gas-fired, peak-demand plants in many areas.  Even with the massive subsidy we all have to pay to prop up fossil fuel, renewables are starting to win on price.

If the prices of wind, solar, battery storage, and other renewable technologies continue to drop, we could reach 100 percent renewable energy by the middle of the century.  We will need to if we’re going to stay within the 1.5 degrees Celsius safe zone.

Here’s where we went in the last decade.  The power sector paid attention, and net emissions steadily declined.  Transportation, industry, buildings, not so much.  These sectors have plenty of room for improvement.  Of course they have no incentive because it’s still free to pollute.  There’s no price on carbon emissions.  The fossil fuel industry has fought this with all their vast, dark-money might.  And so far they have won.  If you can call not preparing for calamity winning. 

To review the lessons of the ‘10s:

  • The science is clear; we’ve blown by 400 ppm.  That’s uncharted territory for humankind.
  • Climate change is a massive threat to our economy, particularly the danger of crashes in coastal property values and carbon assets.
  • Americans get that climate change is a big problem; particularly young Republicans, who totally get it.  I challenge my Republican colleagues to sit down with their own young staffers and hear them out.
  • Coal is on the ropes, experts predict huge stranded assets in gas and oil; solar and other renewables are booming as they outcompete fossil fuels on cost – a genie even the crooked fossil fuel machine can’t put back in the bottle.
  • And the fossil fuel industry is still up to no good, with its vast array of phony front groups, its stables of paid liars, and its slimy rivers of dark money polluting our politics as badly as their emissions pollute our planet.

Mr./Mdm. President, the ‘20s are going to be tough, that’s for sure.  I have spent time running rivers, from the placid Rapahannock to the mighty Colorado and lots in between.  When you’re running a river, you can look at your map, and see ahead of you where the falls and rapids are.  The scientists showed us, they warned us, but we ignored them. 

Then you get closer, and you can start to hear the falls and rapids roaring up ahead.  Wildfires, flooding, seas changing, tides rising, species relocating on the planet; that’s enough for us to see and hear, to know we’re getting close.  But we still do nothing.  

Then comes a last chance to avoid the roaring hazard ahead.  You’ve ignored all the warnings, so now you’ll have to paddle really, really hard to avoid the roaring rapids ahead – the Roaring Twenties, you might say.  Nature’s forces pull you inexorably toward the cataract.  You’ll have to paddle for your lives. 

That’s where I believe we are.  We have to paddle for our lives now, to avoid being sucked over the climate falls, into dangers we don’t want to see.

So let’s wake up here, and get paddling.  For our lives.

I yield the floor.