June 14, 2016

Time to Wake Up: Chafee Hearings, Climate Change, and Trump

Mr. President, in a Chamber where the debate on climate change has become woefully one-sided and in a Congress where House Republicans just voted unanimously to oppose the only climate solution Republicans have come to, I want to use my 140th climate speech to remind us of a time when global warming concerns came from both sides of the aisle.

Nearly 30 years ago this week, a Republican chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Environmental Pollution, who also served twice as Governor of my State and as Secretary of the Navy, convened a two-day, five-panel hearing on Ozone Depletion, the Greenhouse Effect, and Climate Change. It was June, 1986, and Senator John Chafee, a Republican of Rhode Island, gave opening remarks warning of “the buildup of greenhouse gases, which threaten to warm the Earth to unprecedented levels. Such a warming could, within the next 50 to 75 years, produce enormous changes in a climate that has remained fairly stable for thousands of years.”

“[T]here is a very real possibility,” Senator Chafee went on to say, “that man–through ignorance or indifference, or both–is irreversibly altering the ability of our atmosphere to perform basic life support functions for the planet.”

Last weekend, the Washington Post wrote an article recalling this historic hearing, entitled “30 years ago scientists warned Congress on global warming. What they said sounds eerily familiar.”

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record that article at the conclusion of my remarks.

Imagine, by the way, a Republican-controlled Senate that would even have a Subcommittee on Environmental Pollution. How things have changed.

The present Republican Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee is the author of “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.” The contrast is stark between what Senate Republicans and their hearing witnesses were saying 30 years ago and what the polluter-funded GOP is saying today.

Thirty years ago, Senator Chafee declared, “This is not a matter of Chicken Little telling us the sky is falling. The scientific evidence … is telling us we have a problem; a serious problem.”

According to our current EPW Committee chairman, “Much of the debate over global warming is predicated on fear rather than science.”

The depth and sophistication of climate science has done nothing but increase since the Chafee hearings, and the damage from climate change is not just a projection; it has started to occur. Scientists are now able to connect the dots. Australian researchers, for example, have determined that the ocean warming that led to widespread and devastating coral bleaching, killing off a significant chunk of the Great Barrier Reef in March, was made 175 times more likely by human-caused climate change. As one researcher put it, “this is the smoking gun.”

Sadly, as the scientific consensus about the causes and consequences of human-driven climate change has strengthened over 30 years, the GOP’s trust in science has eroded. They don’t appear to even believe the science in their home State universities. All you have to do is go look at your own home State universities’ positions on climate and how they are presented. It is right there.

But when one looks at how that party is funded and how it has now become virtually the political wing of the fossil fuel industry, one can understand this sad state of affairs.

Three decades ago, Republican Senator Chafee said: “Scientists have characterized our treatment of the greenhouse effect as a global experiment. It strikes me as a form of planetary Russian roulette.” He went on to say:

By not making policy choices today, by sticking to a “wait and see” approach, ….. [b]y allowing these gases to continue to build in the atmosphere, this generation may be committing all of us to severe economic and environmental disruption without ever having decided that the value of “business as usual” is worth the risks.

Those who believe that these are problems to be dealt with by future generations are misleading themselves. Man’s activities to date may have already committed us to some level of temperature change.

Even with 30 more years of solid science buttressing it, many in the present-day GOP deny that basic understanding and ignore even the home State mainstream climate science that underpins it. A few–a very few–Republicans in Congress are now so bold as to accept mainstream, established science as it is taught in their home State universities, as is accepted by all our national science agencies and laboratories, and as it is warned of by our military and intelligence services, which is a nice step. But none will yet act on that understanding. Even that tiny cohort behaves in the face of this known risk–a risk the party recognized 30 years ago–as if it is enough to accept the science and do nothing. All 14 of the House Members who sponsored the House Resolution on climate change–all 14 of them–just voted with ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers against a carbon fee. When the whip comes down.

Thirty years ago, the Chafee hearing witnesses included the long-time director of NASA’s Goddard Center, Dr. James Hansen; Dr. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton; Dr. Robert Watson; and then-Senator Al Gore of Tennessee.

Dr. Hansen, now one of the leading advocates for immediate and decisive climate action within the science community, educated the subcommittee on the theory underpinning global climate models.

Dr. Oppenheimer, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, talked about the need for immediate–30 years ago–climate action. Uncertainty, he told the Senators, was no excuse for inaction.

Dr. Watson, who would go on to chair the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change between 1997 and 2002 said: “It is not wise to experiment on the planet Earth by allowing the concentration of these trace gases to increase without full understanding the consequences.”

Senator Gore agreed with these scientists, testifying that “there is no longer any significant difference of opinion within the scientific community about the fact that the greenhouse effect is real and is already occurring.”

The current GOP chair of our EPW Committee has mocked Dr. Hansen and the IPCC and Vice President Gore, reserving a particular disdain for Vice President Gore, who he says is “drowning in a sea of his own global warming illusions,” and “desperately trying to keep global warming alarmism alive today.”

Thirty years ago, the tone of the GOP was much different. Where Republicans today mock the prudential rule, Senator Chafee actually advocated for prudence in environmental policy. He said this:

The path that society is following today is much like driving a car toward the edge of a cliff. We have a choice. We can go ahead, take no action and drive off the edge–figuring that, since the car will not hit the bottom of the canyon until our generation is already long gone, the problem of coping with what we have made inevitable, is for future generations to deal with. We can hope that they will learn how to adapt. On the other hand, we can put the brakes on now, before the car gets any closer to the edge of the cliff and before we reach a point where momentum will take us over the edge, with or without application of the brakes.

Present-day Republicans just want to turn up the radio to the tune of “Drill, Baby, Drill” and jam the accelerator to the floor. Our current EPW chair has even said: “CO2 does not cause catastrophic disasters–actually it would be beneficial to our environment and our economy.”

Thirty years ago, Senator Chafee knew there was much yet to learn about climate change. Scientists will agree on the margins that there still is more to learn. But Senator Chafee said then that we have to face up to it anyway. I quote him again:

We don’t have all the perfect scientific evidence. There may be gaps here and there … Nonetheless, I think we have got to face up to it. We can’t wait for every shred of evidence to come in and be absolutely perfect; I think we ought to start ….. to try and do something about [greenhouse gases], and certainly, to increase the public’s awareness of the problem and the feeling, as you say, that it is not hopeless. ….. We can do something.”

Six and one-half years ago, the United States was preparing to join the gathering of nations in Copenhagen for the 2009 U.N. Climate Change Conference. When that happened, business leaders took out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for passage of U.S. climate legislation, for investment in the clean energy economy, and for leadership to inspire the rest of the world to join the fight against climate change. “[W]e must embrace the challenge today to ensure that future generations are left with a safe planet and a strong economy.”

“Please don’t postpone the earth. If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.”

Well, interestingly, one of the signatories of that advertisement was none other than Donald J. Trump, Chairman and President of The Trump Organization. It is also signed by Eric F. Trump and Ivanka Trump. Even the 2009 version of the man who is now the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee understood and put his name to the need to act on climate change.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that a copy of that advertisement be printed in the Record at the end of my remarks.

Mr. President, what does this individual, now the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, want to do? He is proposing to roll back President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and cancel the landmark Paris climate agreement. The same guy who signed this advertisement has since labeled decades of research by thousands of honest and honorable climate scientists as a “hoax,” a “con job,” and “BS,” to use a more polite form of his expression, all the while on his business side he wants a seawall to protect his golf resort from “global warming and its effects.”

What do actual climate scientists think of the energy policies of the Republican nominee-to-be?

Well, in reference to canceling the Paris Agreement and undoing the Clean Power Plan, Dr. Paul Higgins, who is the director of the American Meteorological Society’s Policy Program remarked: “Undoing these efforts would mean that future emissions of carbon dioxide would be larger and future atmospheric concentrations would be higher. Higher CO2 concentrations would mean larger changes in climate and faster rates of change. Larger and faster changes in climate, in turn, pose greater risk to society.”

Dr. Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said: “[My] quick reaction is that [his] comments show incredible ignorance with regard to the science and global affairs.” Incredible ignorance that is the party standard.

Dr. Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University–a State that has a GOP Member in the Senate–put it bluntly when he said, “[I]t is not an overstatement to say that [these] climate change views”–of this man–“and policy proposals constitute an existential threat to this planet.”

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University–that famous liberal, leftwing university, Texas Tech University–has spoken of the potential economic cost of inaction. She said: “As the impacts grow ever more evident, severe, and costly, what was obvious to the 195 nations who met in Paris will become obvious to every human on this planet: doing something about climate change is far cheaper than not.”

A quick aside on Dr. Hayhoe’s comment, when this becomes “obvious to every human on this planet,” what will then be the legacy of the Republican Party? Not a proud one. Indeed, it will be a legacy to run from. The fossil fuel companies, their trade associations, front groups, and many in the GOP have spent the 30 years since the Chafee hearings obstructing responsible climate action despite better scientific understanding and growing public support for climate action. The fossil fuel industry has particular blame. They have erected a multi-tentacled, climate-denial apparatus that has deliberately caused that obstruction, and there are plenty of scientists looking at that now. Citizens United is what gave that industry the unprecedented political weaponry that it has used to accomplish that end. The GOP-Citizens United-fossil fuel industry nexus will earn history’s condemnation. Let’s just hope it is not too late.

The Washington Post article asked Dr. Oppenheimer to reflect on the intervening 30 years. Dr. Oppenheimer said:

This hearing helped bring the concern together, and essentially painted a picture that things are kind of spinning out of control, that science is trying to tell us something, that the world seems to be changing even faster than our scientific understanding of the problem, and worst of all, our political leaders are way behind the eight ball.

I knew Senator Chafee. He was a family friend. He may have been my father’s best friend. He was an optimist and a pragmatist. He used to say: Given half a chance, nature will rebound and overcome tremendous setbacks, but we must–at the very least–give it that half a chance. He also knew nature’s tolerance is not unlimited. At those groundbreaking hearings, Senator Chafee warned:

It seems that the problems man creates for our planet are never ending. But we have found solutions for prior difficulties, and we will for these as well. What is required is for all of us to do a better job of anticipating and responding to today’s new environmental warnings before they become tomorrow’s environmental tragedies.

With those words, I close and yield the floor.