January 9, 2017

Time to Wake Up: Climate Road Trips

Mr. President, this is the 152nd time I have come to the floor for my “Time to Wake Up” speech, warning about the perilous effects of climate change. I am going to continue this in the new Congress, continuing to present the latest and most compelling scientific evidence of the changes that are coming our way driven by carbon pollution.

Nobody should take my word for it. I urge my colleagues to listen to their own home State’s climatologists, their own home State’s university researchers, their own home State’s public health officials, and their own constituents who are out there fighting to protect their communities from the changes that are already happening right before their eyes.

In Rhode Island, we have a lot of fishermen, just as Louisiana has, Mr. President. The president of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association is Chris Brown. Just this past week, he was the subject of a New York Times article. “Climate change is going to make it hard on some of those species that are not particularly fond of warm or warming waters,” he told the Times. “We used to come right here” –where he was on his boat, The Proud Mary–”and catch two, three, four thousand pounds a day, sometimes 10.” But the whiting, the fish he was after, have moved north to cooler waters.

The Times reports that two-thirds of marine species off the northeast coast have moved from their traditional ranges into deeper and cooler water.

John Manderson is a biologist at NOAA’s northeast fisheries science center, and he told the Times in that article that public policy needs to keep pace with the rapidly changing oceans, where species are shifting northward in response to warming 10 times as quickly as they do on the land. “Our ideas of property rights and laws are purely land-based,” he said, “but the ocean is all about flux and turbulence and movement.”

In Rhode Island, fishermen are getting clobbered by that flux.

Captain Dave Monti is a member of the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council. He wrote in the Providence Journal this week:

I often think about the fish and how important it is to grow them to abundance so there are more fish for all to catch and eat. ….. In 2017 we need a fish-first agenda, or someday there may be no fish left to catch. Climate change, acidification, overfishing by world nations, and changing federal strategies could make it the worst of times for fish in 2017. ….. We need to make an effort to understand what is happening to the environment and the fish, and then take that second step of communicating it to others to affect policy.

That is what I am being asked.

The Providence Journal also recently wrote about how in Rhode Island the sea is moving higher and farther inland, as it is in Louisiana, which is the State losing ground fastest to the ocean of all the 50. They reported on StormTools, a program developed by Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council director Grover Fugate and University of Rhode Island emeritus professor of ocean engineering Malcolm Spaulding. StormTools provides 3D maps of the potential flooding damage along Rhode Island’s coast. The Journal described the project as “one of the most sophisticated models developed anywhere to project future damage from storm surges and sea level rise.” And we are taking the results seriously.

The Journal quoted William DePasquale, who is the director of planning in one of our cities, Warwick, RI. He said, “When I saw some of those scenarios, my jaw hit the ground.” That is what we are looking at, and Warwick is now using those maps to prepare for the future.

The Providence Journal has also recently written about Matunuck Beach in South Kingstown. Town manager Stephen Alfred warns that if the sea takes out Matunuck Beach Road, 240 homes will be totally cut off, without a water supply or access to emergency services. The article features Kevin Finnegan, who owns the Ocean Mist, a renowned local establishment. The Journal said:

The Ocean Mist has occupied the same spot under different names since Prohibition ended in 1933. But the ocean has moved. Where once beach bathers had to plan a trek across sand to reach the water from the Mist, waves now flood the supports holding up the tavern’s deck.

Finnegan and the town of North Kingstown are scrambling to build seawalls. Engineer Bill Ladd, who works for Finnegan and who the Providence Journal reports had his first beer at the Ocean Mist back when the drinking age was 18, estimates that the two walls may only buy Matunuck Beach 20 or 30 more years against the oncoming ocean.

That is because, as The Independent–a local newspaper in the southern part of Rhode Island–reported in December, about 4 feet of Matunuck Beach is eroding every year. According to Director Fugate of the CRMC, that erosion will more than double by the end of the century. Rhode Island is not a big State. We cannot afford to have this much reclaimed by the ocean.

The Independent article quotes North Kingstown Town Council president Kerry McKay, who says that climate change threatens the property values of his community’s coastal homes, which is a significant portion of the town’s revenue base.

He said historical values “will have to change” as coastal concerns rise, and residents “have to be more receptive” to redoing building infrastructure, such as through elevating houses.

He also said that homes “may not be there” in 20 years, resulting in a “major revenue loss.”

Another Providence Journal article last week featured Tanner Steeves, a wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which has to tear up roads and parking lots along the Sakonnet River as the seas rise. The Journal writes:

As the barrier beach just south of Sapowet Point has narrowed–losing nearly 100 feet since 1939–the salt marsh on the other side has become more susceptible to flooding.

The Independent made Rhode Island’s case for climate action in a December editorial. They said:

The signs are clear, if not immediately visible to most.

There are the well-documented, widely publicized shifts with global import, such as the loss of polar ice and the growing frequency of extreme weather events. Locally, there are changes in the ecology of Narragansett Bay, and locations at which the effects of a rising sea level–sometimes subtle, sometimes less so–may be plainly seen.

But we encourage all Rhode Islanders, from coastal communities and beyond, to remain attuned to the situation–in terms of both what the sea is telling us and what is being proposed to prepare for coming changes. The stakes are enormously high, and the broadest possible effort is required to meet the challenge.

That is the message to me from Rhode Island. That is why I give these speeches.

As I continue to push for honest debate on this issue in Congress, I also tour around the country to see folks on the ground in other States. I have now been to 15 States. In the closing months of 2016, I hit Texas and Pennsylvania.

In Texas, I joined Representative Elliott Naishtat, the advocacy group Public Citizen Texas, and Texas environmental advocates at a public event in Austin to call out Congressman Lamar Smith, Republican chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, for his abuse of congressional power to harass public officials and climate scientists, including subpoenas demanding that States attorneys general divulge their investigative materials relating to their inquiries into ExxonMobil’s potentially fraudulent climate misinformation. The committee is also harassing the Union of Concerned Scientists, 350.org, Greenpeace, and various university scientists because they are exposing Exxon for years of misleading the public on its understanding of climate change.

Texans are taking notice. The San Antonio Express-News, which had previously always endorsed Congressman Smith for reelection, decided not to endorse him in this latest election cycle. The paper cited his “bullying on the issue of climate change” as behavior that “should concern all Americans.”

I joined a panel discussion with leading scientists from Texas universities to discuss their research into climate change in Texas. The panel included Dr. John Anderson from Rice University, Dr. Andrew Dessler from Texas A&M University, Drs. Charles Jackson and Kerry Cook from the University of Texas at Austin, and Dr. Katherine Hayhoe from Texas Tech University. They had a unified voice on the dangers of climate change.

Dr. Hayhoe said Texans are seeing changes all around them. “We get hit by drought. We get hit by heat. We get hit by storms. We get hit by sea level rise. And we’re starting to see those impacts today. ….. Texas is really at the forefront of this problem.”

Dr. Anderson of Rice agreed that the Texas climate is already changing. He said:

Accelerated sea-level rise is real, not a prediction. Its causes are known–thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of glaciers and ice sheets–and it is causing unprecedented change along the Texas coast.

Dr. Dessler from Texas A&M laid out what he called “the fundamental and rock-solid aspects of climate science: humans are loading the atmosphere with carbon, this is warming the climate, and this future warming is a huge risk to our society and the environment. We should insist that our elected representatives rely on this sound science when formulating policy.”

I returned to Austin in November to speak to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. President David Dooley of the University of Rhode Island had invited me to join a panel that he moderated with, among others, Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State climatologist and professor at Texas A&M University.

The bottom line was simple: Climate change is real, and the scientists at our universities will be increasingly forced to defend good science, academic freedom, and climate action. University leadership will have to defend their scientists against the onslaught of FOIA requests and personal attacks that are the modus operandi for climate deniers and against the phony science fronts propped up by the fossil fuel industry to spread calculated misinformation. The American scientific community faces a real threat from that operation.

On to Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to spend a day traveling with my friend and colleague Bob Casey around southeastern Pennsylvania getting a firsthand look at the effects of climate change and hearing about the work Pennsylvanians are doing to address it. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Morris Arboretum, leaders from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Community Asthma Prevention Program, Moms Clean Air Force, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and other groups talked about kids with asthma and other conditions that worsen when temperatures and pollution levels are high.

In Malvern, we toured the LEED platinum North American headquarters of Saint-Gobain, the world’s largest building materials company. The company is demonstrating that green building materials and technologies can be married with stylish design to produce stunning results. With operations in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and around the globe, Saint-Gobain is developing innovative technologies to reduce pollution, generate clean energy, and improve air quality for millions of people.

From there, we visited the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, which is the Nation’s first urban wildlife refuge and Pennsylvania’s largest freshwater tidal wetland. Lamar Gore, the refuge manager, showed us how the refuge is at risk from the saltwater pushed in by rising sea levels. The refuge is adjacent to the Philadelphia International Airport, along the Delaware River.

As you can see from these graphics reproduced from the New York Times, at 5 feet of sea level rise, some of the city goes underwater and the refuge is in real trouble. Water encroaches upon the Philadelphia airport. At 12 feet of sea level rise, 6 percent of the city–including the refuge, airport, and parts of downtown Philly–is underwater.

Projections that parts of Philadelphia will one day be uninhabitable due to sea level rise are one of the major drivers for forward-looking climate mitigation and adaptation policies of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability. Senator Casey and I met with them too.

Being in Pennsylvania gave me a chance to connect with Dr. Robert Brulle of Drexel University. He is the scholar who documented the intricate propaganda web of fossil fuel industry-funded climate denial, connecting over 100 organizations, from trade associations, to conservative think tanks, to plain old phony front groups. The purpose of this climate denial apparatus is, to quote Dr. Brulle, “a deliberate and organized effort to misdirect the public discussion and distort the public’s understanding of climate.”

I will wrap up with a special thank-you to one of the folks who helped organize my Texas trip: Tom Smith, who has been director of Public Citizen of Texas for more than 30 years. Known by his friends and colleagues as Smitty and known for his signature straw hat, over his career he has testified more than 1,000 times before the Texas Legislature and Congress–Mr. Uphill Struggle indeed. He was successful, though, and central in creating the Texas Emissions Reduction Program, which led to wide-scale deployment of solar and wind across Texas. A true environmental champion, Smitty retires this year.

I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record a recent tribute from the Texas Tribune entitled: “Analysis: `Smitty,’ a Texas Lobbyist for the Small Fry, Retiring after 31 years.”

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:

Analysis: “Smitty,” a Texas Lobbyist for the Small Fry, Retiring After 31 Years

(By Ross Ramsey)

Tom “Smitty” Smith, a colorful lobbyist and liberal activist who turned Public Citizen Texas into a strong voice on environmental, utility, consumer and ethics issues, is hanging up his spurs after 31 years.

In the early 90s–the heyday of consumer rights legislation and regulation in Texas–Robert Cullick, then a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, gave Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen Texas an unofficial title: Everybody’s Third Paragraph.

Smith, 66, announced his retirement Tuesday from his official post after 31 years, ending a long run of organizing and lobbying on behalf of consumers and citizens on a range of issues like utilities, insurance and political ethics. He was often the voice of the opposition in legislative fights and in the media, which earned him that reporter’s epithet.

He’s from that part of the Austin lobby that doesn’t wear fancy suits, doesn’t drive the latest luxury cars and doesn’t spend its time fawning over and feeding elected officials. Smitty has a beard, an omnipresent straw hat and, often, a colorful sheaf of flyers making his points on whatever cause he’s pushing at the time.

Smitty has been a leading voice for government intervention and regulation of big industries and interests in the capital of a state with conservative, business-friendly politicians from both parties who pride themselves on light regulation, low taxes and a Wild West approach to money in politics.

For the most part, Smith seems to have disagreed strongly, vociferously, but agreeably. He doesn’t wear his wins or his losses on his sleeve.

“The thing that I learned time after time, story after story, is that people standing up does make a difference,” Smith says. “It does change policy.”

“Citizen activism does matter, and it’s the only known antidote to organized political corruption and political money,” he says.

His causes over the years have included food security, decommissioning costs of the nuclear reactors owned by various Texas utilities, insurance regulations, ethics and campaign finance laws. He’s lobbied on environmental issues and product safety.

He counts the ethics reforms of 1991 as one of his big wins. As unregulated as Texas political ethics and campaign finance might seem today, things were a lot looser before reformers used a flurry of scandals and attendant media coverage to force changes . Smith is proud of a medical bill of rights that gave consumers some leverage with their doctors and their health insurers.

Public Citizen was a key player in the creation of the State Office of Administrative Hearings, which took administrative courts out of several regulatory agencies and put them in a central office, farther from the reach of regulated industries and elected officials. Smith now points to the Texas Railroad Commission, which still has its own administrative hearings, as an example of a too-close relationship between regulators, the companies they regulate and the judges supposed to referee their differences.

He was an early and noisy advocate for renewable energy, urging regulators and lawmakers to promote wind and solar generation–and transmission lines to carry their power–as an alternative to coal plants and other generating sources. That looks easier from a 2016 vantage point than it did in 1989, when an appointed utilities regulator derided alternative energy in an open meeting by saying that he hadn’t smoked enough dope to move the state in that direction.

That regulator is gone now, and Texas leads the nation in wind energy. Chalk one up for the environmental advocates.

Smitty is leaving with unfulfilled wishes. He’d like to have made more progress on Texas emissions and climate change , on campaign finance reforms and conflict-of-interest laws.

The ethics reforms of 1991 included creation of the Texas Ethics Commission and a number of significant regulations on the behavior of the Texans contending for and holding state office. There is always more, of course. Smith had a list of 13 reforms that year, and eight made it into law. Some of the remaining items remain undone 25 years later.

“All the time I’ve been working here, Texas politics has been largely controlled by organized businesses pooling their money together and making significant contributions to key legislators,” Smith says. “Legislators are more concerned about injuring their donors than they are about injuring their constituents.”

He illustrates that with stories, like one about a legislator asking, during a House debate, if his colleagues knew the difference between a campaign contribution and a bribe. “You have to report the campaign contribution.” And another, when a member–former state Rep. Eddie Cavazos, D-Corpus Christi, who went on to become a lobbyist–was making a plea for cutting the influence of big donors. Cavazos recalls telling a story about getting simultaneous calls from a big donor and from someone who wasn’t a political friend. He says he told his colleagues, “You know which one you’re going to answer first.”

“I’m sorry to see Smitty go,” Cavazos said Tuesday. “He provided a large voice in the Legislature that was needed–a balancing voice. He’s a good guy.”

Mr. President, in the article, he is quoted as saying: “The thing that I learned time after time, story after story, is that people standing up does make a difference. It does change policy.”

Good words to end the speech by. Thank you, Smitty.