January 29, 2015

Time to Wake Up: Let’s Start Debating Solutions

Mr. President, I am here now, for I guess the 87th consecutive week that the Senate has been in session to urge action on climate change.

We’ve had an interesting couple of weeks on the Keystone Pipeline, but from a climate change and carbon pollution point of view, this would obviously not be helpful, indeed it would be a disaster, leading to as much as 27 million metric tons  of additional carbon dioxide emitted per year. To put that number into some perspective, that’s the equivalent of adding up to 6 million cars and trucks to our roads for fifty years. So it is a very, a very considerable carbon price to pay.

We have seen a poster used on the Senate floor that says it will have no environmental effect, that is not precisely true, indeed precisely the opposite is true. This is the environmental effect that it will have, and it is considerable. What the report then went on to say was that it would be off-set by the fact that this fuel would go out by rail anyway, but that off-set was conditioned on a fuel price above $75 dollars per barrel of oil, and we are at $50, so there’s just no way that conclusion can stand, and the underlying fact is what prevails, 27 million metric tons of additional carbon dioxide.

So, it’s obviously very bad from an environmental perspective, and it’s a lot of not much from a jobs perspective. Every four days we add more jobs than the construction of this pipeline, just through the economic recovery that’s taking place, and it’s a little bit hard to explain, except, particularly when you think that this bill is going to be dead on arrival at the White House. We’ve known from the beginning that this is going to be vetoed, but it has allowed the oil and the fossil-fuel industry to show their hands.  This is all being done on behalf of a foreign oil company, and on the behalf of the fossil-fuel industry.

When we look at what we have been through in the past couple of days, there are some interesting choices the Senate has made if you are a foreign oil company. If you are a foreign oil company, we will let you use eminent domain to extinguish the property rights of farmers and ranchers and take their farms and ranches away. If you are a foreign oil company, we will exempt you from the oil spill recovery fund–the Federal excise tax on petroleum–so you don’t have to pay the taxes American companies have to pay.

If you are a foreign oil company, we will not require you to use American steel in a pipeline being built across America being touted as a source of American jobs. If you are a foreign oil company, we won’t require you to sell it in the American market even though it is touted as a product that will help balance America’s energy portfolio.

So, so far, not much good to show for all of this but one thing, and that is that this exercise has at last brought the issue of climate change to the floor of the Senate.

We have not had much debate about climate change since the Citizens United decision back in 2010 allowed the fossil fuel industry to cast a very long shadow of intimidation across this body. They spend a huge amount of the money that has been freed up by Citizens United. They spend a huge amount of dark money that flows post Citizens United. And since then, the Republican Party has been virtually muzzled on that subject. So having Republicans talk about climate change on the Senate floor was something of a revelation, and I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of that or undervalue what was said.

The senior Senator from South Carolina came to the floor and said the: “The concept that climate change is real, I completely understand and accept. To the point of how much man is contributing, I don’t know, but it does make sense that manmade emissions are contributing, and the global warming effect, the greenhouse gas effect, seems to me scientifically sound. The problem is how we fix this globally is going to require more than just the United States to be involved.”, which I think is something we can all agree on.   

The senior Senator from Alaska, who is our Chairman of our Energy Committee and Floor Manager of this bill, agreed, stating that she hopes we can “get beyond the discussion as to whether or not climate change is real and talk about…what do we do.” 

I look forward to that discussion about what do we do. It is not enough just to say, OK, we finally concede that climate change is really happening. We really do have to get on to what do we do.

Even if you disagree with me that climate change is real and very significant and consequential for our country, if you will spot me that there is just a 10-percent chance that I am right–even just a 2-percent chance that I am right–when we consider the possible harms, it is something that grownup adults and responsible people ought to take a look at and come together and decide what to do.

We have been through some very notable benchmarks.  We hit for the first time last year 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere for more than 3 months. They have been tracking this in Hawaii, at the top of the mountain at the Mauna Loa laboratory for decades now, and 400 parts per million for more than 3 months is a new record.

To put that in context: For as long as human beings have been on this planet, all the way back to when we were living in caves, the range of carbon in the atmosphere has been 170 to 300 parts per million. So we are well outside the range that has been our comfortable safe range for human habitation of this planet during our entire human experience, and 400 is a big move when our entire range is only 130 points and now we are 100 parts per million out of that.

Some of this lands in the oceans. The oceans have absorbed about a quarter of all our carbon emissions. We can measure their pH level. This isn’t complicated. This isn’t something we have to do with elaborate computer models.

What we see is that the pH level of the oceans is changing rapidly. The oceans are acidifying rapidly. When I say rapidly, they are acidifying at a rate that we have not seen in not seen in at least 25 to perhaps 30 or 50 million years.  Indeed, some studies say nothing like this has been seen on the face of the Earth for as long as potentially as much as 300 million years. When we consider that our species has been around for about 200,000 years, that is a pretty long window to be launching new and dramatic changes in our oceans.

There is nothing new about the science that supports this. John Tyndall wrote the first report about the greenhouse gas effect to the British Academy of Sciences in 1861. The pages who are here and have studied history will know that 1861 was the year President Lincoln took office. So the scientific community has been aware of the greenhouse gas phenomenon since Abraham Lincoln was driving up and down Pennsylvania Avenue in a carriage with his top hat on.

There is not much new that is there, and the latest data is clearer and clearer that we just continue apace to warm the planet.

Professor Johnathan Overpeck is at the University of Arizona, and Arizona is certainly feeling the heat. Professor Overpeck said: “the global warmth of 2014 is just another reminder that the planet is warming and warming fast…. Humans, and their burning of fossil fuels, are dominating the Earth’s climate system like never before.”  

It’s equally clear when we look at the oceans. They not only absorb a lot of the carbon dioxide and acidify as a result–they absorb most of the heat. In fact, they absorb 90 percent of the excess heat that has been trapped by the greenhouse gases that we have flooded our atmosphere with.

I certainly see that  in Rhode Island, where Narragansett Bay’s mean winter water temperature up since we had our big hurricane of 1938.

It is associated with sea level rise. We have 10 more inches of sea level at the Newport Naval Station. So if the 1938 hurricane were to repeat itself now, it would have 10 more inches of sea to hammer against our shores. And that is not a complicated measure, either. We do that with thermometers..

So since the Industrial Revolution, human beings have dumped 2 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air and into the atmosphere. Said another way, that is 2,000 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The notion that has no effect, when we have known since Abraham Lincoln’s day that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and when we put that much in and when we can measure that it is at 400 for the first time in human history–connect the dots. How much does it take? It is really pretty obvious.

Folks who remain skeptical–well, I know, I am not a scientist. I get that. So ask one. That is all I request. And I don’t think that is too much to ask of colleagues. And, by the way, do me one favor. You can ask the scientist that you please, but please don’t ask a scientist who is in the pay of the fossil fuel and the denial industry. There are a bunch of them who are out there. They turn up at all the usual denial conferences. They write in the denial journals. They take money from the denial organizations that all have fossil fuel industry funding behind them. Go to someplace neutral.

For instance, go to your own State university, like the University of Arizona or the University of Oklahoma. The dean of the relevant department at the University of Oklahoma signed the IPCC report and started Climate Central. Ask your own university. Ask any major scientific organization. All the major recognized scientific organizations in the United States of America are on board, agree that this is real, agree that this is important, agree that it is vital, and believe that we are actually near the tipping point that may make the damage irrecoverable.

If you don’t want to go to your home State university and if you don’t want to go to America’s major scientific societies, try NOAA and NASA.

Think about NASA for a moment. As I give this speech, there is a Rover that is the size of an SUV being driven around on the surface of Mars. We built a Rover, shot it to Mars, landed it safely, and are now driving it around. Do we think those scientists might actually know something? Do we think they might know what they are talking about? Do we think they might merit our confidence? So ask them and see what they say.

Or, if you want, ask some of America’s leading corporations. If you are from Arkansas, go and ask Walmart. They will tell you. If you are from Georgia, go and ask Coca-Cola. They will tell you. This is not hard to discover once you get away from that little stable of denial scientists who are so closely affiliated with the fossil fuel industry.

I do this every week because we have the arrogance so often here to think how much our laws–the laws that we pass–matter. But the laws that we pass are passing things. They come and they go. They have their time. They are repealed, they are replaced, they fall into desuetude.

But some laws last, and those are the laws that God laid down upon this Earth that guide its operations. Those are the laws of physics, the laws of chemistry, the laws of biology, the law of gravity. We cannot repeal those laws. We must face their consequences. And we know the consequences of continuing to emit gigatons of carbon dioxide into our planet is going to launch us into an environment in which the habitability of Earth as we have known it will be put into question.

History makes its judgments about every generation. If we do not take calm and reasonable and sensible precautions about this obvious known and admitted risk, then when that risk comes home to roost, we will be duly shamed.

So let us avoid that. Let us get to work. Let us take advantage of the opening that the distinguished senior Senator from Alaska and the distinguished senior Senator from South Carolina have opened for us, and let us do what is right by our country and by the judgment that we can anticipate from history.

I yield the floor.