Time to Wake Up: Coral Reefs and Ocean Acidification

Mr. President, today is the 135th time I have come to give voice to the issue that I feel will most significantly define this generation of leadership in the United States and, frankly, around the globe.

I know that there are many people in Washington who would prefer to ignore what our carbon emissions are doing to our oceans and to our climate, but we disregard nature's warnings at our peril.

The changes to our environment, fueled by our carbon pollution, are far-reaching--from the coastlines to the prairies, from mountain tops to deep oceans, from pole to pole. As a terrestrial species, we naturally pay more attention to what is happening on land, such as increasing average global temperatures and upheavals in extreme weather.

We don't so much see what is happening in our oceans.

Every year we emit into the Earth's thin atmosphere tens of gigatons of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels--nearly 36 gigatons of carbon dioxide in 2014. Not all of that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere. Our oceans--the Earth's oceans--absorb approximately one-third of all our carbon pollution. That means they have absorbed roughly 600 gigatons in our industrial era.

For the record, a gigaton is a billion tons--not a thousand tons, not a million tons, but a billion tons--and 600 billion tons of carbon dioxide have gone into our oceans. We know what that does. All that carbon dioxide in the oceans changes the ocean's very chemistry, and it makes ocean water more acidic. The chemical reaction, carbon dioxide reacting with water to form carbonic acid, is simple. You can replicate it in a middle school science lab, but its effects in the oceans are profound.

According to research published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the rate of change in ocean acidity is already faster than at any time in the past 50 million years on Earth. We are rapidly spiraling into unknown territory. By way of context, the human species has been around on Earth for about 200,000 years.

The human species started farming and herding, went from hunting and gathering to the basics of socialized human life less than 20,000 years ago. We are doing something to our planet now that has no precedent for 50 million years.

This line shows the increasing CO2 in the atmosphere in parts per million. This line shows the absorption of the CO2 by the ocean, and this line shows the pH change in the oceans as a result. I would point out that pH is actually measured on a logarithmic scale. So if you were to adjust this to the standard percentage-type display of information, you would see this falling much more steeply. This is a very conservative way of showing what is happening to our oceans. The logarithmic scale is a multiple, not just a steady line. So as you move down the pH numbers, you are actually creating much more massive effects in the ocean.

People have measured this drop in ocean pH from climate change. This is not a theory. You can go out and measure it with equipment that is not very different, again, from what a middle school with an aquarium would use to measure pH in the aquarium.

People measure something else in our oceans also. They measure the rise in ocean temperature. For decades, the oceans have absorbed over 90 percent of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gas emissions. The heat that comes in, that gets trapped in our thin atmosphere when the Sun's warmth gets trapped by these greenhouse gasses, lands in a variety of places. The Antarctic ice sheet gets two-tenths of a percent of the heat. The Greenland ice sheet gets two-tenths of a percent of the heat. Arctic sea ice gets eight-tenths of a percent of the heat. Glaciers and icecaps take up nine-tenths of a percent of the heat. All of our continents together, the land mass of the Earth, take up 2.1 percent of the added heat from climate change.

The atmosphere, that thin membrane that allows us to live and breathe on this planet, has taken up 2.3 percent of the heat. All the rest of it, 93 percent, has been taken up by the oceans. They are our refrigerant. They are our cooler. They are the air conditioner for the planet. But when you take up that much, things begin to change, and ocean heat is ramping up.

A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that in the last 20 years--actually, less than 20, from 1997 to now, to be exact--the oceans absorbed the same amount of heat energy just in that 20-year period as they had in the previous 130 years. That is a dramatic increase in heat uptake by the oceans.

It is our human activity, specifically our unfettered burning of fossil fuels, that has made our oceans both warmer overall and more acidic.

One result of this is the calamity now taking place in the world's coral reefs.

A healthy coral reef is one of the most productive and diverse ecosystems on Earth. It is an engine for the propagation of life. Coral depends on a symbiotic relationship with tiny, photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae. They live in the surface tissue of the coral. Within a limited range of temperature, pH, salinity, and water clarity, this symbiosis can thrive, and it gives us reefs all over the world--these engines of life in the ocean. Living coral has evolved for millions of years to maintain its symbiosis within that range. We are now measurably--not theoretically but measurably--altering the ocean in ways too fast for coral to adapt.

Push corals out of their comfort range for very long, and the corals get stressed and they evict their algae. This process is what is known as coral bleaching. Because corals get most of their food out of that symbiotic relationship with these algae, if the algae can't be reabsorbed quickly, the corals die. Coral bleaching sounds benign, but it is like cardiac arrest for a reef. There is a good chance it dies and, even if it doesn't, it is a long recovery.

We are currently in the middle of a massive bleaching of the world's coral reefs--cardiac arrest at a global scale. Dr. Mark Eakin of NOAA's Coral Reef Watch Program says of this coral cataclysm: “It very well may be the worst period of coral bleaching we have seen.” And when he says “we have seen,” he means that which we have ever seen in the human record.

Worldwide, coral has already declined by approximately 40 percent. Closer to home, across the Caribbean and the Florida Keys, two key coral species have declined by an astonishing 98 percent in the last four decades. In my lifetime, I have seen once-radiant underwater ecosystems teeming with life become barren fields of white skeletons reaching into an empty ocean. One of my climate trips took me down to Monroe County, FL, where I met Mayor Sylvia Murphy, the Republican mayor of Monroe County, home to the famous Florida Keys. I asked her how the reefs were off the Keys. “Beautiful,” she said, “unless you were here 15 years ago.”

Australia's Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral ecosystem on Earth. It is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. Severe bleaching is now hitting “between 60 and 100 percent of corals” on the Great Barrier Reef, according to Dr. Terry Hughes of James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. Professor Hughes tweeted out a map of the current devastation, writing in the text: “I showed the results of aerial survey of bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef to my students, and then we wept.”

As with many other effects of climate change, it can be difficult to convey the magnitude of events when they aren't taking place in front of our terrestrial human faces. In his 2010 TED talk, one of the great marine scientists we have, leading coral ecologist Dr. Jeremy Jackson, tried to bring this coral bleaching calamity a little closer to home. He put it like this:

Imagine you go camping in July somewhere in Europe or North America, and you wake up the next morning, and you look around you, and you see that 80 percent of the trees, as far as you can see, have dropped their leaves and are standing there naked. And you come home, and you discover that 80 percent of all the trees in North America and in Europe have dropped their leaves.

Remember, this is his example from July.

And then you read in the paper a few weeks later, “Oh, by the way, a quarter of those trees died.” Well, that's what happened in the Indian Ocean during the 1998 El Nino, an area vastly greater than the size of North America and Europe, when 80 percent of all the corals bleached and a quarter of them died.

Jeremy came to speak to our caucus recently. He told us that every ocean ecosystem he studied in his career is gone, as he first found it, changed dramatically from his first visit.

Coral reefs are one of the first places that truly irreversible effects of climate change seem to be manifesting themselves--the proverbial canary dying in the coal mine of our carbon-ridden planet. To say the ocean we knew in our childhood is already gone is not doomsaying or pessimism, it is a grimly realistic assessment of where we stand, sadly.

In the Senate, there will likely be snickering about this. Some will say: Who gives a damn about coral reefs? If it can't be monetized by a corporation, the hell with it, is too often our motto here. Well, God made these glories. God made them on our planet. In some cases, they have been growing for tens of thousands of years. We are wrecking them in a single generation, and if that doesn't mean something to us, a long look in the mirror might be in order.

Even those who can only see this tragedy through their “monetizer goggles” ought to know that a decline in healthy coral reefs is a huge blow to us all. According to an article last month in The Atlantic, coral reefs are home to 25 percent of the world's fish biodiversity. Reefs are incubators for ocean life, support systems for fisheries we depend on, tourist attractions for divers and snorkelers who fill local communities with their visiting and their spending, and they are coastal protection for coastal infrastructure and homes against storm waves. It is not nice to fool with Mother Nature. As Pope Francis warned, “God always forgives; mankind sometimes forgives; nature never forgives. You slap her and she will slap you back.” As he says, we are sinning with our actions against nature, and nature will not forget. We just don't have that right. We are making a mark on the Earth in this generation that will not go away. If mankind lasts 10,000 years, well, 10,000 years from now they will see and know the mark of this generation on our planet, and they will justly inquire: How could we have been such fools? How could we, in this generation, have been such greedy, reckless, self-infatuated fools?

In 1954, the United States detonated a hydrogen bomb over the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The explosion vaporized everything on three islands, raised water temperatures to as much as 55,000 degrees, and left a crater over a mile wide and 240 feet deep. More than 60 years have gone by and scientists observe the corals in this part of the Pacific flourishing again. If you give it a chance, life finds a way.

Dr. Zoe Richards, one of the scientists involved in the study, said: “The healthy condition of the coral at Bikini Atoll today is proof of their resilience and ability to bounce back from massive disturbances, that is, if the reef is left undisturbed and there are healthy nearby reefs to source the recovery.”

So that is the caveat. Reefs can recover but not if we continue to stack the deck oceanwide against them by pumping so much heat and carbon pollution into the oceans.

Senator Schatz of Hawaii--not coincidently another ocean State--introduced, along with me, the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act last year to address climate change with a market-based solution built on principles espoused by leading Republican economists. We went to Republicans--former Cabinet officials, former Members of Congress, economists, think tanks--and we said: How should we do this? If you don't like the President's plan, if you don't like the regulatory way, what is your way? Virtually every single person on the Republican side who has thought this problem through to a solution has come to the same place, a revenue-neutral carbon fee with an appropriate border adjustment. So that is what we wrote.

When you are ready, we are here. We did it your way.

As a Senator, John F. Kennedy once said, “Let us not despair but act. Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past--let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

This is particularly true for our oceans. As one Florida mayor put it: “The ocean is not Republican, and it's not Democratic ..... it's a nonpartisan ocean,” and that nonpartisan ocean is screaming warnings at us that we ought to heed in nonpartisan fashion.

We have a clear scientific understanding of the problem, and we have a moral obligation to act. Time is not on our side. We need to pay attention to the evidence. We need to accept the reality of our predicament as it is communicated to us by the laws and signs of nature--God's signals to us on this Earth.

That is what healthy coral looks like under the water. Here it is bleached out and dying. It is our ocean. It is our responsibility. I urge this body to wake up and lead.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.