September 9, 2020

Time to Wake Up: Ocean Warnings

As-prepared for delivery

Mr./Mdm. President, I rise today for the 270th time to call this chamber to action on the issue of climate change.

The world is in the clutches of a pandemic disease that touches, directly or indirectly, virtually every human being on the face of the earth. It is costing us in lives, money, and immeasurable human pain. It didn’t have to be this way.

We could have been better prepared. President Trump was left a detailed playbook from his predecessor, but he ignored it. Trump did away with key safety systems, like the National Security Council’s pandemic response unit. Once the pandemic struck, Trump and his team assured us that it would all go away in time – no urgency necessary.

It is a cautionary tale; a lesson. We cannot wait flatfooted for the next foreseeable crisis to engulf us.

Mr./Mdm. President, climate change is a foreseeable crisis. It was a foreseen crisis, even by Big Oil. And it is an actual crisis right now. It’s a crisis we probably can manage if we act swiftly and decisively. But if we fail to heed the warnings our natural world is screaming at us, we will be lost.

The fossil fuel industry runs a massive dark-money influence campaign to foment fake uncertainty about climate change. But the evidence is overwhelming. We see climate effects in harsher wildfires, more frequent and intense storms, and more extreme heatwaves. Mother Nature’s warnings grow louder every day.

The ocean signals some of the strongest warnings. The changes in our marine world are clear. Oceans are acidifying; oceans are warming; and oceans are rising. Fishermen and sailors see the changes. These are changes measured with thermometers, tide gauges, and simple pH tests. The tide gauges in Rhode Island don’t lie about sea level rise; sea levels are up nearly a foot over the last century. In other areas of the globe, sea levels are even higher. And the rate of sea level rise is accelerating.

We just learned more about Greenland, whose melting ice sheet is an enormous contributor to global sea-level rise. Over a fifth of global sea level rise since 2005 is Greenland icemelt. Last month, Greenland broke its previous record for ice loss, and the pace of the melting is accelerating.

A team at Ohio State University just released a new study of the Greenland ice sheet based on 34 years worth of satellite data. The data show that Greenland poured an average of 300 billion tons of melted glacier into our oceans every year during that period; but over the last two decades, that rate of melting – or glacial collapse, as the scientists put it – is up sevenfold from the first years they studied.

That means Greenland’s ice is melting so quickly that winter snows that typically replenish its glaciers can’t keep up. We are now on course for the entire Greenland ice sheet to disappear. “Glacial retreat has knocked the dynamics of the whole ice sheet into a constant state of loss,” says Ohio State’s Ian Howat.

Greenland’s glacial collapse portends dramatic, destructive sea level rise. Scientists reckon Greenland holds enough water to raise sea levels about 20 feet. (Antarctica holds enough for 60 feet.) It’s not hard to see the problem: total coastal inundation.

But well before that, coastal property values would plummet. Financial experts have been following the sea level economic threat for years because a coastal property values crash would radiate quickly through the rest of the economy. That crash creates what financial experts call systemic risk — a threat to the entire economic system. In 2016, the top economist for mortgage giant Freddie Mac warned that climate-driven flooding along U.S. coasts will lead to economic losses “greater . . . than those experienced in the housing crisis and the Great Recession.”

It’s not just Rhode Island. Pulitzer Prize-winning outdoors reporter Bob Marshall has warned of losing essentially all of Louisiana south of I-10, and said “voting for congressmen who oppose emissions regulations is a vote to drown this coast.”

It’s not even just coasts. A new study out of the University of Arkansas shows sea level rise could push inland water tables higher, flooding communities many miles from the sea. We already see this phenomenon in inland Florida.

Last: there’s really no dispute about the data. A tide gauge is a simple and ancient measure. But we see this, and do nothing.

Another alarm bell ringing in the ocean is temperature. Oceans are warming, and the warming is accelerating: the rate of ocean warming has already doubled, and the ocean is projected to absorb up to 5 to 7 times more heat by 2100. Why? The oceans regulate our planet’s temperature by absorbing atmospheric heat; the oceans have absorbed over 90 percent of the excess atmospheric heat fossil fuels have caused. It’s a lot of heat. By one measure, our oceans are warming at the rate of multiple Hiroshima explosions’ worth of heat per second. There’s not a lot of dispute here, either, unless you want to argue with a thermometer.

Ocean warming displaces fisheries, disrupts ocean currents, destroys coral reefs, and depletes the oxygen levels and carrying capacity of the sea. These are the kind of changes that usually transpire in geologic time; they’re happening now.

Ocean warming sends its dangers ashore, because that ocean heat energy powers up storm systems. They power up into stronger storms, and they power up faster. We just watched Tropical Storm Laura spin up into category-four Hurricane Laura in less than 24 hours. As Bob Marshall, the Pulitzer-winning Louisiana writer, puts it, “High water temperature – the crystal meth of hurricane intensity.”

Warmer seas power up stronger storms, and they power up more storms. The Atlantic has already generated a typical full year’s worth of storms, pumping out about 55 percent more energy than usual into tropical storms and hurricanes. This year delivered the earliest ever C-, E-, F-, G-, H-, I-, J-, K-, L- and M-named storms. In 2019, 14 separate billion-dollar disasters struck the United States, the majority of them hurricanes. In 2018 and 2019, Dorian, Florence, and Michael slammed into our coasts. 2017 brought Harvey, America’s most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event ever recorded; and Irma, the strongest storm ever recorded outside of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, with sustained winds reaching 185 miles per hour; and Hurricane Maria, killing nearly 3000 Americans in Puerto Rico and laying waste to the island.

Ocean warming is altering basic operating systems of our planet. Physical systems are altered, biological systems are altered, basic features of the ocean are altered, and the change has just begun. Many of these changes are oceanic, but some come ashore. Buckle up.

Another ocean alarm bell: acidification. Oceans absorb about 30 percent of the carbon pollution from fossil fuels. They’ve sucked up a lot of excess carbon. Since the Industrial Revolution, oceans absorbed about 525 billion tons of CO2—22 million tons per day. That added carbon dioxide chemically changes ocean pH, making oceans more acidic. It looks like the oceans are acidifying at the fastest rate in at least 50 million years. As with warming and sea level rise, the rate of acidification is accelerating. And again, there’s no real dispute; pH testing is pretty reliable stuff.

A new Texas A&M study shows carbon dioxide levels rising at alarming rates in the Gulf of Mexico — bad news for shrimp, coral, and other marine life that are highly sensitive to acidity. Texas A&M warns of the acidification threat to the Gulf’s commercial fisheries, worth roughly $1 billion per year.

The Woods Hole Institute made startling findings about acidification on coral reefs triggering a kind of “osteoporosis” for coral, hampering the organism’s ability to grow their skeletons. Reefs are the nurseries of the sea. Without coral reefs, marine biodiversity plummets and our oceans become unrecognizable.

The University of Alaska has an entire Ocean Acidification Research Center because of the dangers to Alaskan fisheries. The lowly pteropod is a base species along the northern Pacific Coast; it is damaged in acidified seas; and no one quite knows what becomes of that ocean food chain when a foundation species like the pteropod collapses. We know it’s not good.

All these warnings are stark. Our oceans are in crisis. Our natural world hurtles toward a point of no return. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry keeps deploying lies and political influence, a carefully orchestrated covert operation run against our own government. The fossil fuel industry’s menacing climate denial apparatus has captured one of America’s major political parties. In the wake of Citizens United, fossil fuel dark money has so thoroughly corrupted American politics that Congress lost an entire decade — the lost decade — to industry mischief. We still fritter and dawdle.

Eventually, we will see the full contours of the covert operation the fossil fuel industry has run against us, as if we were an enemy nation. One day will come a full accounting of the industry’s wanton deception of the American people. One day we will see just how much money this industry paid for its malign influence; and who accepted that money and denied the science and ignored the problem. History will judge those involved harshly — deservedly. It is a crime in progress against our own children and the world they will inhabit. After the lost decade of Citizens United, time is short to heed the warnings of our oceans and end the fossil fuel pollution that threatens them. It’s truly now or never.

I yield the floor.