May 13, 2015

Time to Wake Up: A 21st Century Trade Deal Must Acknowledge the Reality of Climate Change

Mr. President, I am here today for the 99th time to remind us that we are sleepwalking our way to a climate catastrophe, and that it is time to wake up.

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States, recently announced an ominous milestone. This March, for the first time in human history, the monthly average of CO 2 in our atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million. This chart shows the global concentration of carbon dioxide over the last few years as measured by NOAA. The level varies with the seasons. The Earth sort of inhales and exhales carbon dioxide as the seasons pass. But overall, we can see the steady prominent upward march of CO 2 levels, rising right here to above 400 parts per million for the month of March 2015.

Scientists at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii first measured an atmospheric concentration of CO touched 400 parts per million for the first time and then receded again. Now, 2 years later, as we continue dumping carbon pollution into the atmosphere, the average weekly air sample from NOAA’s entire global network of sampling stations measured an average–a month-long average–of 400 parts per million for the entire month of March. That is a daunting marker.

Global carbon concentrations haven’t been this high for at least 800,000 years, much longer–much longer–than humankind has walked the Earth. Every year, that concentration increases.

The fact that increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere warm the planet has been established science for 150 years. Science on this was being published in scientific journals when Abraham Lincoln in his top hat was walking around Washington. We have pumped more and more carbon pollution into the atmosphere, and we have measured corresponding changes in global temperatures.

Now, there is some mischief afoot, people who cherry-pick the data to create false impressions–to create false doubt. Well, the honest thing to do is to look at all of the data. When we look at all of the data, we see long-term warming. We see warming so obvious that scientists call the evidence unequivocal–unequivocal. That is about as strong a science word as we can have.

Evidence of the changing climate, the consequences of unchecked carbon pollution, abounds: more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and warming and acidifying oceans–all as predicted. These changes are already starting to hurt people, through more severe heat waves, parched fields, flooded towns and homes, altered ecosystems, and threatened fisheries. We have certainly seen the fisheries change at home in my State of Rhode Island. We are already starting to pay the price of our continued and reckless burning of fossil fuels.

Dr. James Butler, the Director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division, says:

Elimination of about 80 percent of fossil fuel emissions would essentially stop the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but concentrations of carbon dioxide would not start decreasing until even further reductions are made.

We need to cut our use of fossil fuels, we need to cut energy waste, and we need to generate more of our energy from clean and renewable sources. We need to do it, and we can do it. We have the technologies and the policies available right now. We can choose to level the playing field for clean energy, to make polluters pay for the climate costs of their pollution, and to move forward to a low-carbon economy–the one with the green jobs, with the American innovation, with the safer climate. But we are not going to get there with business as usual.

That brings me to the fast-track trade bill, which, I am glad to say, failed its procedural vote in the Senate this week–a bill that would make it easier for the administration to commit the United States to new sweeping trade agreements.

The first agreement waiting to get through is the Trans-Pacific Partnership–some call it the TPP–which is being sold as “a trade deal for the 21st century.” But when it comes to climate change, the fast-track bill and the Pacific trade bill aren’t 21st century solutions. They are business as usual.

Past trade deals have not been kind to workers in Rhode Island. I have been to Rhode Island factories and seen the holes in the floor where machinery had been unbolted and shipped to other countries for foreign workers to perform the same job for the same customers on the same machines. That is what we saw from trade bills. The trade advocates always say it is going to be wonderful, but then what do we see? Jobs offshored again and a huge trade deficit.

Past U.S. trade deals have required participating countries to join some multilateral environmental agreements, including agreements to protect endangered species, whales, and tuna; to help keep the oceans free of pollution; and to protect the ozone layer by reducing the use of HFCs and other ozone-depleting gases. But I haven’t seen much enforcement, and everywhere we look things are getting worse. I am not impressed.

When it comes to climate change, the fast-track bill is silent. There is no mention of, let alone protection for, commitments the United States and other countries might make to cut carbon pollution.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the main international agreement for dealing with climate change. The Senate ratified this treaty in 1992, and since then, under various administrations, the United States has taken a leading role under the framework to reach global accord and, particularly, to work to reach a global accord in Paris later this winter. The Paris accord is perhaps our last best hope to put the world on a path that avoids severe climate disruption, even climate catastrophe.

That fast-track bill and the Pacific trade bill ought to enable and support our trade partners to live up to their climate agreement. Those bills ought to protect countries that act to address climate change. In particular, they ought to protect them from the threat of trade sanctions or from corporate challenges seeking to undermine sovereign countries’ climate laws.

These 21st century agreements on trade ought to match our 21st century commitments on climate, but they don’t. Fast-track is silent on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and on climate change more broadly. Fast-track provides no protection for our own or any other country’s climate commitments. And we have heard nothing to suggest the Pacific trade bill will be any better.

What we do know about the Pacific trade bill is not encouraging. The Pacific trade bill, in its agreement under negotiation as we see it now, includes the horrible investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, called ISDS, a mechanism that allows big multinational corporations and their investors to challenge a country’s domestic rules and regulations–outside of that country’s judicial process, outside of any traditional judicial process, outside of appeal, outside of traditional judicial baseline principles such as precedent.

Increasingly, these ISDS challenges are being turned against countries’ environmental and public health standards. Fossil fuel companies such as Chevron and ExxonMobil have brought hundreds of disputes against almost 100 governments when those governments’ policies threaten corporate profits. In fact, more than 85 percent of the more than $3 billion awarded to corporations and investors in disputes have come from challenges against natural resource, energy, and environmental policies.

Last week, on the floor I compared the Big Tobacco playbook–that is the one that was found by a Federal court to be a civil racketeering enterprise–to the fossil fuel industry’s scheme to undermine climate action in the United States.

The comparisons are self-evident. Well, the tobacco industry is in on the trade challenge game as well, challenging countries’ antismoking measures under the guise of protecting free trade.

If a country wants new health or environmental rules, big multinationals can use this ISDS process to thwart them. They don’t necessarily even have to bring the challenge. Just threatening to seek extrajudicial judgments in the millions or even billions of dollars from panels stacked with corporate lawyers can be enough to make countries stop protecting the health of their citizens. We have seen the polluters use these tools already. This is not conjecture. It is what is happening.

Why open U.S. climate regulations to this risk? Why put our commitment to climate action at the mercy of these sketchy panels? What will keep the fossil fuel industry from threatening smaller countries in Paris to discourage them from climate accords? Where are the safeguards? Why should we accept trade deals that do not keep safe from that kind of threat a country’s legitimate efforts to control carbon pollution? Why give the polluters this club?

It is not news to Congress that the fossil fuel industry does not play fair; it plays rough. We see that every day. The fossil fuel industry has used Citizens United to beat and cajole the Republican Party in Congress into becoming the political arm of the fossil fuel industry. The party that brought us Theodore Roosevelt, the party that brought us the Environmental Protection Agency, the party of my predecessor, John Chafee, who is still revered across Rhode Island as an environmentalist, has now become the political arm of the fossil fuel industry. It is not its high point in history. It is a party that lines up behind climate denial.

If the fossil fuel industry is willing to impose its will that way on the Congress, why would we trust them with this ISDS mechanism to threaten and bully governments around the rest of the world?

A 21st-century trade deal ought to acknowledge the 21st-century reality of climate change. We have right now the technology and the ingenuity to address this problem and to boost our economy into the future. For the first time in years, we have international momentum to address this threat. But it does not make sense to act on climate change in Paris and undermine climate action in our trade deals. We need to wake up to that little problem, too.

I yield the floor.