July 15, 2015

Time to Wake Up: In RI, Our Home, Our Shores, and Our Way of Life Are at Stake

Mr. President, as folks around here know by now, I come to the floor once a week to say as clearly as I can that it is time to wake up to the mounting hazard of climate change. Today is the 106th consecutive time.

Why do I do it? Why do I care so much? Because I know the harm we are causing through carbon pollution spells trouble for my home State of Rhode Island. I see it already. We are the Ocean State.

Here is a recent headline from the Washington Post: “Human impact on the oceans is growing–and climate change is the biggest culprit.”

But I don’t have to read the Washington Post to know that. With the changes from carbon pollution, our Rhode Island fishermen see strange catches coming up in their nets. Our homeowners and business owners along the coast see rising sea levels, worsening erosion, and extreme weather. It is no longer rare for extreme weather to claw people’s homes into the sea. Sandy took several.

Rhode Islanders get all of this. But unless and until the men and women in this Chamber decide to heed the warnings of all of our best scientists–not to mention America’s insurance companies, faith leaders, our military leaders, virtually every big American company not associated with the fossil fuel industry, and, of course, the American public–Rhode Island and all States will continue to risk even worse effects.

For the fossil fuel industry, we are the best Congress money can buy. For everyone else, we are a disaster.

Last year I went to New Hampshire to talk with people about the changes they see there. I met climate scientist Dr. Cameron Wake of the University of New Hampshire. He showed me a detailed analysis on climate change in New Hampshire–what scientists have already measured and what projections indicate the future may hold. We had a good talk and after my visit he ran for me a similar analysis of climate change in Rhode Island.

This is what he found. This chart shows measurements of the average annual maximum temperature for three weather-monitoring stations in Rhode Island. Block Island is in blue, Kingston is in red, and Providence is in orange. It measures the highest daily temperature for each day, averaged over the whole year from 1895 to 2012. Let me remind everyone that these are measurements. This is not theory. These are measurements.

This is climate change on the march in Rhode Island. What does it show? Warming. The trend is indisputable.

Dr. Wake’s analysis shows that the average annual maximum temperature has increased at a rate of 3.6 Fahrenheit per century in Block Island, 2.8 degrees per century in Kingston, and 3.1 degrees per century in Providence.

Dr. Wake then looked to the future of Rhode Island. This chart shows the same thing we were looking at on the last chart–the average annual maximum temperature. But while that one just looks backward, this one looks forward. It shows two scenarios: business as usual in red or reduced carbon emissions in blue. It shows us, in effect, the difference that cutting back on carbon pollution could make for future generations of Rhode Islanders.

If we do nothing to curb our carbon pollution here, the annual average goes up toward 68 degrees, some years close to 70 degrees Fahrenheit by year’s end.

Remember the last chart, which ended around here in 2010? The historical record there ended at around 60 degrees. Carry on this flood of carbon pollution and here is where you end, around 8 degrees warmer on average.

Between 1980 and 2010, the average annual maximum temperature of Washington, DC, was 68 degrees. That is the 8-degree difference. The difference that this flood of carbon pollution portends is Providence feeling like steamy, sweltering, Washington, DC. But if we take action to dial back our pollution, the warming is about half as much and less severe.

This is not the only measure of what carbon pollution will bring to Rhode Island. Winter temperatures going up mean fewer snow-covered days. Extreme precipitation will likely increase, and as the average annual maximum temperature increases, there will also be more very hot days in the summer.

This chart shows the increase in the number of days with a maximum temperature above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot days such as that are common here in sweltering Washington, but historically Rhode Island might see maybe three 90-degree days a year. People come from all over to our cool, beautiful shores to swim in our cool, beautiful Atlantic.

This chart shows that even in the best case, Rhode Island can expect to see 18 such sweltering 90-degree days per year and, in the worst case, that number could rise to over 50 90-degree days every year, with the mercury soaring over 95 degrees Fahrenheit for 16 of those days.

Well, if you want to sit inside watching TV, cranking up your air conditioner, that may be fine, but Rhode Islanders like to go outside. We enjoy the beach, and we enjoy the bay. We are not looking forward to what these temperature consequences mean for our health.

Earlier this year, the Rhode Island Department of Health produced an in-depth report on heat and health in Rhode Island, concluding this: “The destabilizing effects of climate change on our environment are among the most significant potential health threats faced by individuals and Rhode Island communities today.”

That is the official word of the Rhode Island Health Department. So don’t expect me to ignore this issue here because it is uncomfortable for someone. Rising temperatures and extreme heat cause serious human health effects, such as dehydration, heat exhaustion. Hospitalizations result and even death. The department of health projected that the calculated temperature increases in Rhode Island will result in almost 400 additional emergency room visits in the year 2022 alone and nearly 1,400 more in 2084.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health just published a study showing that death rates among seniors in New England increased when summer temperatures rose significantly. The risk, they believe, comes not only from the hotter temperatures but also from variability in temperatures as climate change makes the weather weirder and more unpredictable.

There is a documentary series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” which looked at how this works, as has the Rhode Island Department of Health, working with Brown University. Both found that a pronounced increase in emergency room visits and deaths as temperatures rise was statistically related to heat.

In many cases, it was not specifically indicated in the chart as related to heat. This suggests that heat-related deaths and illness may be underdiagnosed if you just look at medical charts. So this is a significant health issue that we face.

Then there are the storms. Climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in Rhode Island, such as Hurricane Sandy, to the tune of $2 billion to $6 billion in Rhode Island, according to one report. In a State of 1 million people, that is a lot of damage. The heavy rains that brought on our floods in 2010 will become more frequent as well.

This is what our health director wrote: “In Rhode Island, where our economy, culture, and identity are all so closely tied to the ocean and to Narragansett Bay, the effects of climate change will be particularly acute.” Again, that is the official word of our health department.

Climate change threatens our water systems as temperatures increase and as we see more intense rain events. Stormwater and sewer overflows can contaminate Rhode Island coastal waters. Warmer waters can foster bacterial growth that can be harmful. Swimming in or consuming polluted water obviously can cause illness.

Then there is vibrio. The world-renowned shellfish of Narragansett Bay are becoming susceptible to a group of marine bacteria known as vibrio. If vibrio gets into seafood, it can be very unpleasant. Symptoms can be especially severe in people with compromised immune systems. Rhode Island health officials now have to work with the State’s shellfish industry, with the University of Rhode Island, and others to monitor water quality and shellfish growing and harvesting conditions to protect this important resource.

These are just a few of the health threats laid out in the report. The department of health is just one of many agencies and organizations in our State that have had to put climate action and clean energy at the heart of their work as we in Congress pretend this problem does not exist.

Dozens of the most dedicated and innovative minds in our State recently came to Washington for my sixth annual Rhode Island Energy and Environmental Leaders Day. Our attendees represent some of the best work being done in Rhode Island to stave off the devastating effects of climate change.

Janet Coit, our director of environmental management chairs the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council, created by our Governor to coordinate State agencies to address threats from climate change, threats to the State’s environment, the State’s economy, and the State’s people.

The council was established by the Resilient Rhode Island Act, passed by our general assembly in 2014. That law also set specific greenhouse gas reduction targets and incorporates consideration of climate change effects into the powers and duties of all State agencies. The bill’s author, Representative Art Handy, also came down and joined us for the Rhode Island Energy and Environmental Leaders Day, along with his colleague Representative Carlos Tobon, a member of the Rhode Island House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

Dennis Nixon was there. He heads Rhode Island Sea Grant at the University of Rhode Island School of Oceanography. Sea Grant works with the Rhode Island government agencies and coastal communities to support climate resiliency and to protect vibrant waterfronts.

Marion Gold, our commissioner of the office of energy resources, was there. She has advanced incentives for large and small renewable energy development in our State, and she has helped Rhode Island become the third most energy-efficient State in the Nation.

Recently, we saw this report: “Study shows Northeast states benefit from carbon cap program.” We are a part of RGGI. Marion Gold helps supervise that. It has created jobs, it has saved money. It is proving that solving the carbon pollution problem is not actually a burden on the economy. It is a boost to the economy.

One of the special breakout sessions at the Energy and Environmental Leaders Day focused on corporate sustainability efforts to spur innovation, save money, and reduce emissions.

Representatives from Microsoft, Mars–the company–FedEx, and Schneider Electric shared their sustainability success stories. For these companies, efforts to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions are more than good intentions; they are good business.

Another breakout session looked at faith perspectives on environmental stewardship. Rev. Anita Schell of Rhode Island Interfaith Power & Light came. She works with local faith-based institutions to raise awareness about climate change and about safeguarding the poor of the world, who are least responsible for and most vulnerable to climate change. As Pope Francis gives his voice to this moral calling, these faith perspectives were especially welcome.

Dozens of other smart, hard-working Rhode Islanders attended–too many to mention them all. But I am always proud of the important work going on in Rhode Island to combat climate change. It is my inspiration to continue fighting for responsible action in Washington.

As our senior Senator Jack Reed told the group, “Rhode Island is one of the leaders in the country in smart policies ….. and it’s is the result of the culmination of lots of individual activities.”

Rhode Island gets it, and we are pulling together in one direction. Our homes, our shores, and our way of life are at stake. We need every State in the Nation to join us to take this issue seriously, and we need every Senator to pay attention. It is truly time to wake up.

I ask my colleagues here today, if this were you, if something this threatening were happening to your State, would you really expect me to stand down because it was uncomfortable for big powerful industries and big aggressive donors? You would not. You would go to war to protect Utah and to protect Iowa from a threat such as this.

So forgive me if I am impatient, but this is serious in our Ocean State. If your department of health projected these kinds of threats for your home State people, you would be up in arms. So forgive me for being a little bit up in arms.

I will close with this. Look at this picture. Do you know what that is? That is a picture of Pluto. That is a picture of the dwarf planet Pluto. Do you know how we got that? We got that off of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. It made it to Pluto after crossing the solar system for 9 1/2 years. It traveled 3 billion miles from Earth and came within 8,000 miles of the surface of Pluto. It was traveling at more than 31,000 miles per hour, and it took 3 minutes to cross the face of Pluto, where it took innumerable images and samples for our scientists.

Let me quote one of the lead scientists, whose name is Bowman, who managed 1 hour of sleep in her office Monday night. She said:

I have to pinch myself. Look what we accomplished. It’s truly amazing humankind can go out and explore these worlds, and see Pluto revealed just before our eyes. It’s just fantastic.

And it really is. These are American scientists who are able to run an American craft 3 billion miles to cross within 8,000 miles of Pluto traveling 31,000 miles an hour. When those scientists from NASA tell us that climate change is real, what do we have to say to them? We say that they are part of a hoax.

Really? Is that going to be the position of Members in this body–that the people driving a rover around on the surface of Mars and the people who flew this New Horizons craft by Pluto don’t know what they are talking about when they say that climate change is real?

We have people trying to unfund their satellites so that we don’t have the information to prove what is happening on climate change. Is that responsible with respect to NASA?

A day of reckoning is going to come on this, and we had better start getting this right.

I yield the floor.