April 28, 2015

Time to Wake Up: Climate Change in the Arctic

Mr. President, the evidence of climate disruption caused by carbon pollution is clear and overwhelming. Yet the Senate is sleepwalking through this history. I am here today for the 97th time to say that we must wake up. Climate disruptions are felt in every corner of the globe, from the ocean floor to the reaches of the atmosphere and from pole to pole.

Indeed, the United States is an Arctic Nation. We have been so since Secretary of State Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1878 for about $7 million. From our vantage point at the Arctic Circle, we are witnessing some of the direst climate disruptions.

The Arctic region has been warming now for decades, twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Alaska’s warmest year on record was 2014, going back to at least 1918. Here I am talking about measurements, not a theory. This year the Alaskan winter was so mild that the start of the famous Iditarod race had to be moved from Anchorage to Fairbanks, more than 300 miles to the north, so that the mushers could find snow and hard, frozen rivers to sled on.

The Arctic Biodiversity Assessment, a project drawing on more than 250 scientists from 15 countries, detailed the risk to the iconic wildlife and landscape of the Arctic. The report’s chief scientist said:

Polar bears and other highly adapted organisms cannot move further north, so they may go extinct. We risk losing several species forever.

The report is clear. Climate change is the most serious threat to Arctic biodiversity and to its fisheries and tourism. Arctic warming has wreaked havoc on the ice cover of the Arctic terrain and ocean.

Look at the Greenland ice sheet. In 2012, the National Snow and Ice Data Center recorded melting over a larger area than ever in more than 30 years of satellite observation.

Here is a map of the average annual days of melting across the Greenland ice sheet from 1979 to 2007. That is the average. Here is 2012. Some areas, such as along here, the southwestern coast, saw more than 120 days of melting in 2012. Scientists estimate that the water pouring out of this ice sheet accounts for 30 percent of current global sea level rise. If the entire Greenland ice sheet were to melt, the seas would rise 6 meters.

Here is what 20 feet of sea level rise would look like for the east coast. Much of Rhode Island’s coastline here would be lost. Florida, ground zero for climate change, would lose the entire southern region of the State. Here is Miami, completely underwater. Here is Tallahassee’s new oceanfront.

Sea ice in the Arctic, not just land ice, is also in full retreat. Our scientists at NASA track disappearing sea ice using satellites. Since NASA started measurements in 1979, Arctic ice coverage has diminished in almost all regions and seasons. The winter record low ever–ever–was this March.

The ice is not just a feature of the Arctic landscape. It supports the way of life of Native people. Thinning ice, dangerous to traverse, threatens traditional sustenance such as quail hunting. Sea ice protects the shoreline from powerful ocean storms and waves. As that ice barrier fades away, land and infrastructure flood and wash away. Entire villages are facing wholesale relocation, as Senator Murkowski from Alaska has indicated on the floor. It is the climate that has sustained them for generations that is being disrupted.

A new national security theater has opened in the Arctic as melting ice frees up the Northwest Passage for transportation and shipping, for new fishing grounds, and for its natural resources. The Departments of Homeland Security and Defense need new strategies and equipment to protect American interests in this new theater.

In 2013, the Pentagon released its “Arctic Strategy.” Then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the former Republican Senator, said:

Climate change is shifting the landscape in the Arctic more rapidly than anywhere else in the world. While the Arctic temperature rise is relatively small in absolute terms, its effects are significant–transforming what was a frozen desert into an evolving navigable ocean, giving rise to an unprecedented level of human activity.

His words are echoed by former Coast Guard Commandant ADM Robert Papp, Jr., who is now the U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic Region. It is his job to help manage risk in this remote but increasingly accessible region of the world. He had this to say about the disruptions of the Arctic climate:

I am not a scientist. I can read what scientists say, but I am in the world of consequence management. My first turn in Alaska was thirty-nine years ago, and during the summertime we had to break ice to get up to the Bering Strait and to get to Kotzebue. Thirty-five years later, going up there as commandant, we flew into Kotzebue at the same time of year; I could not see ice anywhere. So it is clear to me there are changes happening, but I have to deal with the consequences of that.

Last weekend, Secretary Kerry headed to the Canadian city of Iqaluit to assume the chair of the Arctic Council on behalf of the United States. The Arctic Council is the international forum for Arctic nations to work together to ensure a secure and sustainable Arctic future. Secretary Kerry made it clear that climate disruption would be a focus for America’s chairmanship, saying plainly:

The ability of future generations to be able to adapt, live, and prosper in the Arctic the way people have for thousands of years is tragically but actually in jeopardy. ….. So if we want to know where the problem begins, all we have to do is look in the mirror.

Secretary Kerry sees this problem for what it is and knows we need to lead in addressing climate change. Congress, too, should seize the opportunity to do big things, to understand the changes that are occurring, and to protect against these climate disruptions. Our executive homeland and national security leaders must deal in real world consequences. So should we. They do not have the privilege of shrugging off serious risk analysis; neither should we.

But the big polluters and their front organizations ignore the consequences of carbon pollution, cherry pick the evidence, and traffic in denial, doubt, and delay. Deniers are quick to point out that Antarctic sea ice is increasing while Arctic sea ice is melting. But the fact is that, overall, the globe is losing sea ice at a rapid peace. Since satellite measurements began, the planet has been losing sea ice at an average rate of 13,500 square miles per year.

The deniers usually also leave out the melting of the great ice sheets of Antarctica. Remember, see ice floats on the sea and its melting does not much raise the sea level. Ice sheets rest on land. Their melting adds to the seas. Scientists now warn that the melting of some of those massive Antarctic ice sheets may have “passed the point of no return.”

Rhode Island has already experienced nearly 10 inches of sea level rise. The implications of an Arctic ice sheet melting are measured in feet, not inches. Many thought that the Alaska Purchase was a mistake. Some called it “Seward’s folly.” But Secretary Seward had vision when he secured Alaska for the United States, and now it is a treasured part of this great Nation.

We in Congress, in the Senate, should try to see through the haze of polluter influence and muster some vision ourselves on what scientists and world leaders alike call the greatest challenge of our time. The United States should be leading–not stalled by special-interest politics. Secretary Kerry knows we should lead. He has made fighting carbon pollution a priority for the State Department in the lead-up to the global climate talks in Paris this fall. More than 100 Democratic Members of Congress sent a letter last month to the President, supporting U.S. leadership in these talks. We told the President: “We stand ready to help you seize this opportunity to strengthen the global response to climate change.”

But what do our Republican colleagues try to do? They try to undermine American leadership. The majority leader openly warned other countries that the United States would not be able to meet its climate plan and that they should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal. It is past time to take action. The price of being wrong on this will be very high, particularly if the reason turns out, in the eyes of history and of our fellow nations, to have been partisan politics and special-interest influence.

One of America’s great powers is the power of our example. What a sickening example we are setting now. Our inaction is our folly. It is, indeed, time to wake up.

I yield the floor.