July 8, 2015

Time to Wake Up: Climate Change in Tennessee

Mr. President, this is the 105th time I have come to the Senate floor to urge my colleagues to wake up to the reality of climate change. I know the Presiding Officer is a veteran of several of these speeches. For far too long, far too many of us in this Chamber have simply dismissed the evidence of climate change. They have ignored the sober warnings of scientists, generals, of doctors, of economists, even of big company CEOs that these risks are real. The warnings are clear: If we continue on our present path, we will leave our children and grandchildren with a world very different from our own and not for the better.

By denying the science, dismissing the risks or simply by their silence, Senate Republicans have effectively pledged allegiance to the fossil fuel companies-companies that make a lot of money polluting the atmosphere with carbon emissions and that spend big on politics.

Outside this Chamber, however, the American people want action. Americans overwhelmingly favor limits on greenhouse gases and getting more electricity from renewables. It is happening across the country. It is definitely true in Rhode Island, my home State, but it is not just Rhode Islanders.

Over this past recess, I went to Tennessee. I found that people in the Volunteer State see the effects, they see the risks, and they see the opportunities that come with climate change.

In Knoxville, I met with Mayor Madeline Rogero, and I heard about the great work she is doing. Knoxville is making their infrastructure more resilient to flooding and storms and working to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, partnering with local utilities and citizens groups. Greenhouse gas emissions from the city’s operations were down 12 percent in 2014, compared to 2005. Their goal is to make it to 20 percent.

Mayor Rogero told me about the risks climate change poses in Eastern Tennessee: changes in the Smoky Mountains parks nearby, programs like Round It Up that help people with utility bills getting hammered by earlier, hotter summer weather. She told me Knoxville wasn’t alone. Even little Ducktown, TN, built a 28-kilowatt solar array.

I visited Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is researching how climate change will affect Tennessee and the United States and the rest of the world. Let me tell you, they are not doubting climate change at Oak Ridge. They are planning for it. They are modeling warming up to 18 degrees Fahrenheit in the vast boreal forest regions of the Northern Hemisphere.

They are concerned about the phony science being propagated by the fossil fuel industry front groups–what I have called the parallel science designed to look like science without actually being peer-reviewed or meeting the standards–and they are saddened to see the public taken in and Congress stalled. They have a brilliant animation of industrial-era carbon emissions climate. If I could use a monitor instead of this piece of cardboard I would show it to you, but I can’t. So you will have to find it. You can go to my website where I have a link: whitehouse.senate.gov/climatechange.

One employee at Oak Ridge, a Tennessean who had grown up nearby, told me about the recent trouble with fire ants. The fire ant is an invasive species from South America that can deliver a nasty sting. She said growing up she had never seen them–not a worry. Now she has to worry about a swarm of them getting on her children. Normally, cold nights and winter freezes limit the range of the fire ant. But this invasive species has moved north into Tennessee with the warming temperatures.

For those colleagues who believe the only values that matter are those that can be monetized, the USDA estimates that U.S. losses to the invasive fire ant are almost $6 billion a year.

Fire ants aren’t the only invasive pests that benefit from warmer nights and winters. The threat of the invading emerald ash borer and the Asian longhorned beetle means that campers visiting Tennessee can’t bring their own firewood into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park anymore. As of March 1, only heat-treated firewood is allowed, certified by the USDA or the State.

Climate change threatens the Great Smoky Mountains with much more than invasive species. The national park may lose up to 17 percent of the mammals that presently live there as climate change shifts their habitat and changes the composition of the forest.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency says that “Tennessee’s wildlife and natural resources face a serious threat from climate change.” The agency did a comprehensive assessment of the potential effects climate change would have on the State’s wildlife.

These are some of its key findings:

Tennessee’s forests are expected to undergo changes in forest growth and composition. ….. [S]ome high elevation forest types will be dramatically impacted or lost entirely; brook trout populations are expected to decline; migratory songbirds may alter their ranges, with some species disappearing from Tennessee altogether; and larger floods and longer droughts could cause increased erosion, reduced water supply, and the spread of invasive species.

Meeting with local environmental leaders and advocates at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, I learned that air quality is another significant problem for the Volunteer State, especially in Eastern Tennessee.

Here is a map I got from them showing the counties that still get a D or an F for air quality: Sullivan County, D; Knox County, D; Loudon County, D; Jefferson County, D; Sevier County, F; Blount County, F; Hamilton County, which has Chattanooga in it, F; Cannon County, D; Wilson County, F; Williamson County, F; Shelby County, F.

If you fix the carbon pollution from the coal plants, you will fix a lot of these air quality problems, too, and these air quality problems in the famous Great Smoky Mountains. They were smoky enough, I guess, to begin with. This is not helping.

I also learned of the threats posed by flooding from storms. In May 2010, a massive storm rolled over Tennessee and caused $1.5 billion damage in Nashville alone. FEMA declared disaster areas in 30 counties and more than 60,000 families received Federal aid. Precipitation has measurably increased in parts of Tennessee during the last century, and as climate change continues, heavy rains and extreme weather are expected to increase. For fishermen, in addition to the warming of the stream water, streams that are blown out by extreme rains are bad for trout fishing.

In Tennessee I also saw great hope for climate action.

Mayor Rogero is working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to design a climate change sustainability plan for Knoxville and the area around it, including the lab campus. The laboratory is also a leading research center for advanced nuclear technology, including small modular reactors that could help unlock low-carbon energy with reduced risk of accidents or proliferation.

Tennessee is ripe with wind and solar potential, and the famous Tennessee Valley Authority, after a slow start, is getting around to renewables investments and supporting distributed generation. The TVA has learned from things such as having to derate powerplants on the Tennessee River because the river grew too warm to cool the thermal load of the plant and seeing giant demand sways from 12,000 to 35,000 megawatts.

I met with University of Tennessee professors who are helping the TVA make the move. The University of Tennessee has entire programs on climate change. They are not denying it. They have professors such as Dean Rivkin at the College of Law, Mary English at the Howard Baker Center, and John Nolt, recently the head of the faculty senate, who has written on the moral importance of counting climate casualties. By the way, Professor Nolt cites studies showing global deaths from the consequences of climate change every year in the range of 140,000, 300,000 and 400,000. But why should we care?

Private companies get it in Tennessee. I heard a lot about Wampler’s Farm Sausage, headquartered in Lenoir City, which has invested in solar and biomass energy production to cut down on energy bills and provide stability to its business. For them it is about business and the environment. The company sees consumer demand ahead for sustainably produced products. In the words of company president Ted Wampler, Jr., “being green is going to sell sausage.”

I had a nice dinner with lovely people from the Knoxville Garden Club. Some had come to Congress for the annual garden club trip to urge Congress to take action. They see in their garden the changes that are reflected in the USDA plant hardiness zone for Knoxville shifting in their very lifetimes.

A highlight of the trip was the annual meeting of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. I was invited by the executive director, Tom Saddler, and joined a panel with Dr. Cameron Wake from the University of New Hampshire, Hal Herring from Field & Stream magazine, and Todd Tanner, the president of Conservation Hawks. I urge anybody who is listening to this to take 10 minutes and look at the fly fishing clip “Cold Waters” on the Conservation Hawk’s Web site. It is called co2ldwaters.org, but the trick is there is a “2” in the middle. The Web site is co2ldwaters.org. One thing was crystal clear from our panel and from the discussion that followed, and that is this: Real outdoorsmen don’t deny climate change. If you don’t believe me, believe legendary outdoorsman Yvon Chouinard. Look at the clip at co2ldwaters.org.

If we in this Chamber could wake up and stop denying this problem, we could do a lot to help. Real legislative action, such as a price on carbon, could unlock energy innovation and it could make the fat-cat, politician-buying polluters actually compete fair and square on a level playing field with clean energy. Of course they would rather not. They would rather pollute the world and rig the politics to rig the competition so they can keep polluting for free.

If you think from my comments that I am mad about the disgraceful political conduct of the oil and coal barons, well, you are right; I am. It is sickening. It is a disgrace. And no, it is not good enough to say just enough good things about climate change to get through a cocktail party at Davos, while you keep your corporate money flowing to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, and other denial front groups to stop progress at all costs. You can’t have it both ways. I will know the Big Oil CEOs are serious when they publicly tell the Wall Street Journal editorial page that it is OK to knock off the climate denial.

What I would like is to take their high-priced lobbyists, to take their slippery lawyers, to take their paid-for bogus scientists and put them all up in the high country for a week with Yvon Chouinard or someone like him who really loves and knows the country they are wrecking. It just might be good for their souls.

Senator Schatz and I have a bill to level the energy playing field by levying a carbon fee on fossil fuel emissions. In our bill every nickel collected goes back to the American people, and most of it goes back through cutting taxes. When it is time for Republicans to break free of this filthy grip the fossil fuel industry has, we will be there. We will be there, and we will be waiting. Take a look at our bill. It would be a win-win-win for the American people, and it aligns with what so many Republicans outside of Congress are saying about the correct solution to the climate problem.

I hope my Republican colleagues, particularly my friends from Tennessee, take a close look at it. Both Senators from Tennessee recognize human-caused climate change. The senior Senator, our friend who has just done such a masterful job of bringing this elementary and secondary education bill to the floor and steering it so far through this process, is a renowned champion of clean energy research and of electric vehicles.

Tennessee’s junior Senator said in 2009, when cap-and-trade ideas were swirling:

I wish we would just talk about a carbon tax, 100 percent of which would be returned to the American people. So there’s no net dollars that would come out of the American people’s pockets. Gentlemen that is our bill.

I am open to this discussion any time, but let’s please not wait too long. As they know at Oak Ridge, as they know in the mayor’s offices in Knoxville and Ducktown, as they know at the University of Tennessee, and as the rangers know up in the Great Smoky Mountains, time’s a wasting, and we need to wake up.

I yield the floor.