January 27, 2016

Time to Wake Up: Moving Toward a Clean-Energy Economy

Mr. President, today marks the 125th time I have come to the Senate floor to ask this body to wake up to the threats of climate change. This week is a little different because we are currently debating the bipartisan Energy Policy Modernization Act.

The bill was crafted by my colleagues, Senators Murkowski and Cantwell, and it may become our first comprehensive energy efficiency legislation since 2007. While the base bill is a good start, we have much work to do before we come anywhere near meeting the challenges we face as a result of our decades of carbon pollution.

As we begin debate on this legislation, calls for bold action on climate continue to mount. The World Economic Forum released its “Global Risks Report 2016,” which for the first time ranked an environmental risk–climate change–as the most severe economic risk facing the world. The report found that a failure to deal with and prepare for climate change is potentially the most costly risk over the next decade.

Cecilia Reyes, chief risk officer of Zurich Insurance Group, said: “Climate change is exacerbating more risks than ever before in terms of water crises, food shortages, constrained economic growth, weaker societal cohesion and increased security risks.”

Some of my Republican colleagues have begun to wake up to these risks. It was just last year that Chairman Murkowski said: “What I am hoping that we can do now is get beyond the discussion as to whether climate change is real and talk about what to do.”

The chairman deserves credit for reporting a bill that has solutions a broad majority of the Senate can support; however, she has been handicapped by the fact that many in her party still refuse to take seriously that human-caused climate change is real and that it presents a significant and growing risk to our economy, our national security, and our way of life.

Many of the provisions in this bill are not new. We saw much of it in the Shaheen-Portman Energy bill that Republicans twice before have filibustered. With so many Republicans seemingly incapable of supporting responsible energy legislation, those of us who want to promote energy efficiency and a clean energy economy sometimes feel a little bit like Charlie Brown, hoping that this time Lucy won’t yank the ball away yet again. These issues are too important, and I am hoping this time will, in fact, be different.

The bill contains commonsense reforms, such as reforming building codes to improve energy efficiency and directing the Secretary of Energy to establish a Federal smart building program to demonstrate the costs and benefits of implementing smart building technology. It reauthorizes the weatherization and State energy programs that States such as Rhode Island rely on and the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. That has shown the importance of government investment in new energy technologies. It will modernize and secure our electric grid and enhance cyber security safeguards.

My State, Rhode Island, is a national leader in promoting energy efficiency, so we know how programs like these are good for consumers, businesses, and the environment. In fact, I came here to the floor after a meeting with our grid operator. She said Rhode Island was the leading State when it comes to efficiency. Rhode Island has had energy policies guiding electricity and natural gas efficiency standards since 2006. We have consistently ranked in the top five States when it comes to energy efficiency.

We do this as one of the founding members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative–or RGGI for short–the Northeast’s carbon pollution cap-and-trade program. States that belong to RGGI are proving that we can grow our economies at the same time we cut our emissions. Between its founding in 2005 and the report of 2012, emissions in the RGGI States decreased by 40 percent, while the regional economy grew by 7 percent, so we won on both sides. Putting a price on carbon and plowing that money back into clean energy projects is, in fact, saving us billions of dollars while helping to reduce carbon pollution.

I hope this bill will be a small step forward toward solutions that will begin to help reverse the devastation carbon pollution is wreaking on our climate and particularly on our oceans. I have to ask my Republican friends, what is your best bet on whether this climate and oceans problem gets better or worse in the next 20 or 40 years? I ask this seriously because a great party’s reputation is on the line here. How are you going to bet–with the 97 to 98 percent of the scientists and 100 percent of the peer research? Do you want to bet the reputation of the Republican Party that suddenly all of this is going to magically get better?

Right now the American public sees what is going on. The American public knows that the Republican Party in Washington has become the political wing of the fossil fuel industry. There has always been a bit of this within the Republican Party, but since the Republican appointees on the Supreme Court gave the fossil fuel industry that great, fat, juicy gift of its Citizens United decision, the fossil fuel industry menace looming over the Republican Party in Congress has become near absolute.

Trapped by the fossil fuel industry, the Republican vision for energy policy has been stuck in the past. Most of the time, it is just complaints and obstruction: Oh, the President’s Clean Power Plan is no good. Oh, the States should engage in massive civil disobedience against the President’s Clean Power Plan. Oh, we should defund the EPA.

It will be no surprise if they try to block the Department of Interior’s plan to reform a coal leasing program that has not been updated in over 30 years. It doesn’t matter to them that the way we price the extraction of fossil fuel on Federal lands is a massive taxpayer giveaway to fossil fuel companies and it is based on a market failure that ignores the costs those fuels impose on taxpayers and our climate. Conservative and progressive economists alike agree on that market failure point.

Indeed, Republicans defend all the subsidies we give to the fossil fuel industry. There is no subsidy to the fossil fuel industry that does not earn constant Republican support.

Rather than gambling on more oil and gas production, I suggest we make the safe bet on a strategy that cuts emissions, encourages American investment in American clean energy, saves taxpayers billions of dollars, and creates and supports millions of jobs.

There is an old hymn that the Presiding Officer probably knows. It says: “Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.” Well, it is time to turn back and forswear our foolish fossil fuel ways. If we don’t, there will be a day of reckoning and a harsh price to pay.

Remember what Pope Francis told us:

God always forgives. We men forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives. If you give her a slap, she will give you one.

We have given our Earth one heck of a slap.

I will leave the Chamber with this: Last week, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 2015 was the warmest year on record globally. That is not a fluke. Fifteen of the warmest 16 years recorded occurred during this century, which, by the way, has had 15 years. They are all in the warmest 16 years ever recorded. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the most recent 5-year period–from 2011 to 2015–was the warmest 5-year period ever recorded. You can see that the long-term trend is going in one direction and one direction only–hotter. There is no pause. The pause was a trick. These changes are primarily driven by the excessive carbon pollution we continue to dump into our atmosphere and oceans.

By the way, for all of this measured heat, 90-plus percent of the heat actually goes into the oceans. There is little change in the oceans but big changes here. As the oceans stop absorbing as much warmth, I don’t know where that will lead.

As we bring our ideas to the floor during our discussion about modernizing our electric grid, we have an opportunity to also have a real conversation on climate change.

We still have a real responsibility to act.

It is time for this body to wake up.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.