03.02.17

Time to Wake Up: It's Basic Chemistry

Mr. President, this is my 159th “Time To Wake Up” speech.  In giving these speeches, I’ve realized some of my colleagues seem to have a hard time wrapping their heads around the basic understanding of climate change.  Some of President Trump’s cabinet nominees seem to have the same problem. 

They say the scientific community is split on the issue.  (It’s not.) 

They say the climate’s always been changing.  (Not like this, it hasn’t.) 

They say we can’t trust projections and complex computer models.  (But overall, they’ve actually been right.)  

And they had the notorious “I’m not a scientist” dodge.  Well, Mr./Madam President, if one can’t understand this, then perhaps one ought to trust the scientists at NOAA and at NASA, at our national labs, and at universities in Rhode Island and across the country—scientists whose job is to understand it.    

I also trust Rhode Island fishermen who see the changes in their traps and nets, and our shoreline homeowners watching the sea steadily rising toward their homes.  You don’t need fancy computer models to see the ocean changes already taking place.  You just need a thermometer to measure rising temperatures, basically a yardstick to measure sea level rise, or a pH kit to measure the acidification of our oceans.

Let’s look at ocean acidification.  The oceans have absorbed about a third of all the excess carbon dioxide produced by humans since the Industrial Revolution—around 600 gigatons worth.  When that carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean, chemistry happens, and it makes the ocean more acidic.

Carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid.  Carbonic acid isn’t stable in ocean water, so it breaks down into biocarbonate ions (a base) and hydrogen ions (an acid).  The increase in acidic hydrogen ions is the crux of ocean acidification:  more hydrogen ions lowers the water’s pH. 

For regular viewers of my “Time to Wake Up” speeches, you may remember I demonstrated this in a simple experiment on the Senate floor just a few weeks ago.  Using just the glass of water here on my desk, and the carbon dioxide in my own breath, I showed—with the help of a little pH dye—how easy it is to measure the effect of CO2 on the pH of water.  With just a few breaths, I was able to visibly make my glass of drinking water more acidic. 

That little experiment, Mr./Madam President, is a microcosm of what is happening in our oceans right now.  Except instead of bubbles blown through a straw, it’s a transfer of excess CO2 from the atmosphere into the surface waters of the ocean all around the globe.   

Observations confirm that what the laws of chemistry tell us should happen is actually happening.  Massive carbon pollution resulting from burning fossil fuels is changing ocean acidity, faster than ever in the past 50 million years.  

This chart shows measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, and it shows carbon dioxide in the ocean and the pH of ocean water at the nearby Station ALOHA.  The connection is clear, and consistent with the chemistry: as the carbon concentration in the air increases, so does the carbon concentration in the ocean.  And the more carbon in the ocean, the lower the pH—the water becomes more acidic. 

We measure that surface seawater on the Earth’s oceans has, since the Industrial Revolution, become roughly 30 percent more acidic.  NOAA predicts oceans will be 150 percent more acidic than now by the end of the century.

Ocean acidification disrupts life in the sea when those loose hydrogen ions we talked about latch onto free carbonate ions.  Usually, carbonate is plentiful in ocean water.  Shell-forming marine creatures, like oysters and clams, use this loose carbonate to form their shells.  If the carbonate they need is bound up by hydrogen ions instead, they can’t get enough to build their shells. 

We have seen acidification scenarios in which shells even start to dissolve.

Shellfish hatcheries on the West Coast have seen devastating losses of larval oysters due to acidic waters.  When ocean pH fell too low, baby oysters couldn’t form their shells and quickly died off.  Dr. Julia Ekstrom, the lead researcher for Nature Climate Change’s 2015 study on ocean acidification, told CBS that it has cost the Pacific Northwest oyster industry more than $100 million, and jeopardized thousands of jobs.  Her research flagged fifteen states where the shellfish industry would be hardest hit, from Alaska to Florida to my home state of Rhode Island. 

Toward the bottom of the oceanic foodweb is the humble pteropod.  Pteropods are sometimes called sea butterflies, because their tiny snail foot has evolved into an oceanic wing.  In 2014, NOAA found that more than half of pteropods sampled off the West Coast were suffering from severely dissolved shells due to ocean acidification.  And it’s worsening.

Here in Mammon Hall, it feels laughable to care about anything that can’t be monetized.  We may talk a good game here in the Senate about God’s Earth, God’s creation, and God’s creatures, but we care about the money.  So let’s monetize this. 

Who cares about a humble sea snail, you may ask?  Salmon do.  As the West Coast loses pteropods, that collapse will reverberate up the food chain.  So the salmon care.  And the West Coast salmon fishery is a big deal.  So our salmon fishermen care.

Another foundational marine species, krill, is also affected by ocean acidification.  In the Southern Ocean, nearly all marine animals can thank krill for their survival.  From penguin diets to whale diets, krill is king. 

A 2013 study in Nature Climate Change found ocean acidification inhibiting the hatching of krill eggs and the normal development of larvae.  The researchers note that unless we cut emissions, collapse of the krill population in the Southern Ocean portends “dire consequences for the entire ecosystem.”  Closer to home,  the University of Alaska’s Ocean Acidification Research Center warns that ocean acidification “has the potential to disrupt [Alaska’s fishing] industry from top to bottom.”

Turning to warmer waters, coral reefs are also highly susceptible to ocean acidification.  A healthy coral reef is one of the most productive and diverse ecosystems on earth, home to 25 percent of the world’s fish biodiversity.  Those reef-building corals rely on calcium carbonate to build their skeletons. 

Further, coral depends on a symbiotic relationship with tiny photosynthetic algae, called zooxanthellae, that live in the surface tissue of the coral.  There is a range of pH, as well as temperature, salinity, and water clarity, within which this symbiosis thrives.  Outside that comfort range, the corals get stressed and begin to “evict” their algae.  This is called “coral bleaching,” as corals shed their colorful algae.  Without these algae, corals soon die. 

The effects of acidification on sea life are far-reaching.  Studies have found ocean acidification disrupts everything from the sensory systems of clownfish (little Nemos, for those who’ve seen the movie); to phytoplankton populations; to sea urchin reproduction; to the Dungeness crab, another valuable West Coast specialty. 

When I asked Scott Pruitt, now our ethically-challenged Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, about ocean acidification he gave these answers:  one, “the oceans are alkaline and are projected to remain so,” and two, “the degree of alkalinity in the ocean is highly variable and therefore it is difficult to attribute that variability to any single cause.”  Let’s look at thos answers.

The first answer is nonsensical, because the harm to ocean creatures comes from the dramatic shift in ocean acidity, not from where along the acid/base scale the shift takes place.  The observation is irrelevant to the pattern.

The second answer exhibits purposeful ignorance of the role humans’ carbon pollution plays in damaging the ocean, because the chemical principles at issue are indisputable, and as I showed in a very little demonstration, are replicable even here on the Senate floor. 

Like its carbon cousin, climate change, ocean acidification doesn’t care whether you believe the chemistry.  It doesn’t matter to chemistry if you swallow the propaganda pumped out by the fossil fuel lobby.  The principles of science operate, the chemical interactions take place, by law of nature, whether you believe it or not. 

If you believe in God, then these laws of nature are God’s laws, the basic operating principles he established in His Creation.  But of course here in Mammon Hall, it’s about the money.

Any decent EPA Administrator is obliged to trust in real science, and to take action to protect human helath and the environment.  I remain unconvinced Administrator Pruitt will live up to those obligations, but I challenge him to prove me wrong.

Likewise, I similarly challenge my colleagues here in the Senate.  This chamber and our nation will be judged harshly by our descendants, both for our pig-headed disregard of the basic truths—the basic operating systems—of the world we live in, and for the shameful reason why we disregard them.  Mr./Madam President, it’s time for the Senate to wake up before it’s too late. 

I yield the floor.