September 10, 2015

Time to Wake Up: Louisiana Governor Ignores Threat of Climate Change

Mr. President, I rise today for the 110th time to ask my colleagues to wake up to climate change. Long after today’s debate has died down, it will still be looming and threatening. We stand now at the precipice of an environmental catastrophe. The burning of fossil fuels has unleashed a flood of carbon pollution that is pushing the climate system planet wide into conditions that are unprecedented in human history. It has already permanently altered the world that we will leave to future generations. If we keep sleepwalking through this and allow the carbon flood to continue, we will leave even bigger changes and risk absolute catastrophe.

Last month marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. When that storm made landfall in Southeast Louisiana on August 29, 2005, it was a category 3 hurricane. Katrina’s 125-mile-per-hour winds pushed a massive storm surge before it that overtopped New Orleans’ systems of levees and flooded the city. By the end, Katrina killed an estimated 1,200 people and caused more than $100 billion in damage. Images of broken levees, flooded streets, and people stranded on their rooftops are seared into our national memory. This natural disaster–compounded by manmade errors–showed how vulnerable we are to major storms and how vigilant we must be in planning for these extreme events.

We can’t say that climate change caused Katrina, but we do know that climate change increases the risk posed by future storms. The oceans are warming, and warmer water temperatures load the dice for more intense storms and heavier rainfall.

Meanwhile, sea levels rise on the shores of the gulf coast and the Southeastern States. Storm surges riding in on higher seas will push even more floodwater inland. For those who suffered in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, we owe them to learn from that catastrophe and take to heart the human threat we face from climate change–lost lives, lost property, and scarred communities. But that seems unacceptable to some on the Republican side. That would be admitting to the scale of the problem, would oblige them to offer a solution, and would offend the fossil fuel industry. The polluters’ grip on the Republican Party is remorseless.

President Obama went to New Orleans to honor the memory of those lost in Katrina and to hail the city’s resurgence. But get this: Before the President’s visit, Louisiana Governor and Republican Presidential candidate Bobby Jindal sent a letter to President Obama urging him not to talk about climate change, not to insert what he called “the divisive political agenda of liberal environmental activism.” Really? So when is it OK to talk about climate change, and what does Governor Jindal have to say about it? “I’m sure that human activity is having an impact on the climate,” he said. “But I would leave it to the scientists to decide how much, what that means, and what are the consequences.” Sounds to me like just another version of that Republican climate denial classic, “I’m not a scientist.”

OK, Governor. Let’s leave it to the scientists. The scientific community has determined that human activity is responsible for just about all of the warming we have observed around the globe since the 1950s.

In 2012, scientists from Louisiana State University and the Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program, which is a consortium of researchers from NOAA, LSU, Texas A&M, and the University of Oklahoma, reported on the risks climate change poses for Louisiana and the gulf coast. Through their research, they found the following:

  • Over the past century, both air and water temperatures have been on the rise across the region.
  • Rising ocean temperatures heighten hurricane intensity, and recent years have seen a number of large, damaging hurricanes.
  • In some Gulf Coast locations, local sea level is increasing at over 10 times the global rate, increasing the risk of severe flooding.
  • Saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels damages wetlands, an important line of coastal defense against storm surge and spawning grounds for commercially valuable fish and shellfish.

I don’t need to tell the Presiding Officer the importance of the fish and shellfish industry to the State of Louisiana.

The study’s lead author, Hal Needham, said:

“Climate change is already taking a toll on the Gulf Coast, but if we act now to become more resilient, we can reduce the risks, save billions in future costs, and preserve a way of life.”

I certainly don’t need to tell the Presiding Officer about the way of life.

Dr. Needham continues:

“The Gulf Coast is one of the first regions to feel the impacts of climate change.”

Sea level rise is already an immediate problem for Louisiana, and it is one that is going to get rapidly worse.

This chart comes from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. It shows how sea level rise will inundate the Louisiana coast. This area on the chart is New Orleans. Red areas, such as these, will be lost underneath 1 foot of sea level rise, 2 feet of sea level rise will inundate the orange areas, and the yellow areas will be lost and will disappear under water at 3.3 feet–1 meter–of sea level rise.

According to analysis from the Risky Business Project, mean sea level at Grand Isle, LA, will likely rise up to 2.4 feet by 2050. That takes us over the orange. It will rise up to 5.8 feet by 2100–i.e., at the end of this century. All of the red, all of the orange, all of the yellow, and more will be inundated. The Risky Business Project estimates that by 2030, almost $20 billion in existing coastal property in Louisiana will likely be below mean sea level. People own that property. That is $20 billion that will be lost. That is a lot to ask people to pay. By 2050, that number–the value of lost land to sea level rise–increases to between $33 billion and $45 billion.

The science is clear. Just look to the scientists at LSU, Tiger scientists. The threat is real. Yet, for Governor Jindal, climate change should not be mentioned. It is inconvenient.

Republican Presidential candidates–except one, the senior Senator from South Carolina–would rather avoid any talk of it. They all protest the President’s Clean Power Plan to limit carbon emissions from powerplants, but which of them offers an alternative? None. And, like his fellow candidates, Governor Jindal’s stated position is to have no plan.

State and national scientific agencies and experts, local officials around the country, corporate leaders, military professionals, physicians and health care professionals, and faith leaders are all telling us this is a problem and begging us to wake up. Yet, the Republican Presidential candidates and, frankly, the Republican Party here in the Senate have nothing–nothing. They don’t even want to talk about it.

The American people are in favor of action. Polling from Stanford University and the New York Times shows that two-thirds of Americans, including half of Republicans, favor government action to reduce global warming, and two-thirds, including half of Republicans, would be more likely to vote for a candidate who campaigns on fighting climate change. So why doesn’t the GOP have a climate plan?

Regular Louisianans are doing their part to rebuild their State’s natural defenses. Common Ground Relief, a Lower Ninth Ward-based operation aimed at creating resilient gulf coast communities, has been planting marsh grass and trees–about 10,000 trees every year–in the wetlands and barrier islands along the Louisiana coast. Those natural barriers can absorb some of the power of big storms and take some of the pressure off the new levees. Last July, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu joined Pope Francis at the Vatican to discuss global challenges, including climate change. Mayor Landrieu recalled the memory of Katrina. I will quote him:

We have now become a warning to all the others. Neglected environmental degradation has consequences. The poor are hit the hardest and they suffer the most. The levees broke, the water flooded in, and in the blink of an eye, the Gulf of Mexico surged over the rooftops of a great American city. Thousands of us, many of the most vulnerable who couldn’t find a way to evacuate the city, were left behind as if their lives did not have value.

We know that we are loading the dice for more damaging weather with our relentless carbon pollution. To pretend this threat does not exist is to put property at risk, to put communities at risk, and to put American lives at risk. And incidentally, it is also to put our heads in the sand.

Eventually the Republican Party is going to have to break itself free from the clutches of the fossil fuel industry. They are going to have to. They are losing the American people, their own young voters. And they are going to have to rise up to their duty to serve the people of their States and of this country. It is my hope that when they get around to doing that, it won’t be too late, but it is time to wake up.

I yield the floor.