March 25, 2015

Time to Wake Up: Oceans Warn, We Don’t Listen

Mr. President, I have come to the floor today to urge this Chamber to wake up to the urgent threat of climate change. I have done this every week the Senate has been in session for nearly 3 years. Today is my 94th time.

I have asked my colleagues to heed the warnings from our scientists, from our military and national security professionals, from many of our leading American corporations and executives, from their own home-State universities, and from so many of our faith leaders.

Since it is budget week, we would do well to also consider that for years the Government Accountability Office has placed climate change on its biannual high-risk list of the greatest fiscal challenges facing the Federal Government. But even so, there is no attention from the other side.

This risk is particularly great in coastal areas, such as in my home State of Rhode Island, where sea levels rise ever closer to infrastructure and property, and extreme weather exacts an ever heavier toll. Secretary of the Treasury Lew put it pretty plainly:

If the fiscal burden from climate change continues to rise, it will create budgetary pressures that will force hard tradeoffs–larger deficits or higher taxes. And these tradeoffs would make it more challenging to invest in growth, to meet the needs of an aging population, and to provide for our national defense.

My Republican colleagues want to slash spending. Indeed, they have almost a fixation on slashing spending. They say they do not want to leave a financial mess for future generations to bear, but they ignore the need to slash our carbon emissions and don’t care a bit about leaving an environmental mess for future generations to bear.

They refuse because the polluters and their allies have built a fearsome political machine in Citizens United, and the polluters demand that the Republicans follow their denier script.

Well, unfortunately, nature won’t wait for our politics to sort themselves out, and nowhere are these changes occurring more clearly than in our oceans.

The changes in our oceans are real, and they are measurable. They follow the laws of biology, of chemistry, and of physics. Our steady flood of carbon pollution has real consequences.

Scientists from the University of California, Stanford, and Rutgers recently published a peer-reviewed paper in Science magazine on “Marine Defaunation”. “Defaunation” is a big word for the widespread loss of animal life in the ocean. Human activities, they argue, including overfishing, pollution, and carbon emissions, are wiping out sea life. Populations of marine vertebrates, including sea birds, mammals, and turtles, have decreased by an average of 22 percent over the last 40 years. Fish have declined by nearly 40 percent. Major fish species have crashed 90 percent. Coral is having massive bleaching and die-off. We are living, the authors say, in a time of “empty reefs,” “empty estuaries,” and “empty bays.”

How is it that carbon pollution changes the ocean environment?

Pretty simply, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap heat. That is not news. We have known that since Abraham Lincoln was President. Much of that heat goes right into the ocean. Globally, oceans absorb 90 percent of the heat captured by greenhouse gases.

Well, all that heat disrupts marine life. Corals, for example, will expel the algae living in their tissues when water is too warm, causing the coral to turn completely white and die in what is known as coral bleaching.

Other species that aren’t stuck in one place like coral are literally swimming away. We have seen fish, accustomed to specific temperatures, migrating to cooler waters. Along the entire Northeast seaboard, the movement of fish farther north and into deeper waters is well documented. NOAA has even developed tools to allow fisheries managers and scientists to go online and track the movement of different species through time.

I have had fishermen back home tell me they are catching fish their fathers and grandfathers never saw come up in their nets. One Rhode Island fisherman told me: “Sheldon, it’s getting weird out there.” Forty percent of fishermen in the Northeast reported catching new fish species in places where they wouldn’t expect to find them. In a recent Center for American Progress survey, those who believe climate change is happening outnumber deniers four to one.

Just last week, the Providence Journal, my own home State paper, reported on the continuing loss of ice smelt from the waters of the Northeast. The smelt live in estuaries and bays in the wintertime, once making it a favorite for ice fishermen. But now where the ice-fishing cottages used to cover the ice, there are very few. That fishery has crashed.

In Narragansett Bay, the winter flounder fishery has crashed.

From Maine comes a recent news article from our former Republican colleague, Olympia Snowe. It is titled, rather bluntly, “Lack of Action on Climate Change is Costing Fishing Jobs.” Senator Snowe reports that the shrimp fishery in the Gulf of Maine was closed this winter for the second year in a row because the shrimp are nowhere to be found.

The shrimp fishery has crashed, and the crash has been precipitous. As recently as 2010, shrimpers in the Gulf of Maine hauled in 12 million pounds of northern shrimp. By the time they had to close the fishery, the catch was down to less than 600,000 pounds. One likely culprit is warming seas. The Gulf of Maine is at the southern end of the shrimp’s range, and the Gulf of Maine is warming exceptionally fast. An estimate from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute shows that water temperatures in the gulf rose eight times faster than the global average in recent years.

The rapid changes in the Gulf of Maine are causing things to get strange for the other fisheries as well. Our colleague Angus King has come to the floor repeatedly to describe the northward march of the iconic Maine lobster.

Cod populations in the Gulf of Maine suffered for years from overfishing. Now the cod are struggling to recover as temperatures in the Gulf increase. The cod might not return, instead seeking out cooler water elsewhere.

Another scientific fact: Warmer temperatures make oxygen less soluble in water. When oxygen is too low for marine life to flourish, that creates dead zones, which are growing around our oceans in size and in number. If carbon pollution continues at pace, global oxygen levels in the ocean are predicted to drop by more than 3 percent over the century. Do we tell the fish to hold their breath while we wait to wake up?

Carbon pollution also makes the oceans more acidic–another scientific fact. Ocean water has absorbed roughly a quarter of all historic carbon dioxide emissions, driving down the pH level of the oceans at rates not seen in perhaps the last 300 million years. To put 300 million years in context, that is more than 1,000 times as long as our species has been on this planet. We are gambling with very big changes that we have never seen in human time and that are a long way back in geologic time.

Acidifying waters make it harder for animals such as oysters or even the humble pteropod–a main component of the salmon diet–and a lot of other creatures at the base of the oceanic food chain to make their shells and develop properly from juveniles to adults.

Increasingly, those acidic oceans are hurting U.S. shellfish, and shellfish are a $1 billion American industry. More acidic waters have already cost the oyster industry in the Pacific Northwest nearly $110 million, putting 3,200 jobs at risk. The Pacific Northwest is being hit first by ocean acidification, but the effects are expected to be felt hardest in the Northeast–my home–according to a recent article in the journal Nature Climate Change. Conditions in the Northeast will jeopardize the $14 million annual mollusk harvest in my State of Rhode Island, putting my home State’s coastal communities at real risk of economic harm.

Bill Mook, president of Mook Sea Farm in Maine, testified before the Environment and Public Works Committee last summer about the decline in oyster larva that he has linked to more acidic water. As he said, delicate shellfish hatcheries are “canaries in the coal mine,” the first victims of a growing menace.

Yet we still don’t listen. From coast to coast and pole to pole, the oceans are warning us, and we still do not listen. The authors of the Science magazine paper warned that we are headed into “an era of global chemical warfare” on the oceans–and we don’t listen.

We must wake up to the warnings that are coming from our oceans. The evidence is there for everyone to see. It is a matter of measurement, basic measurements of temperature, of pH, of sea level–real high school science class stuff–that are showing us these changes. Yet we won’t listen. Fishermen in Rhode Island and across the country are already feeling these changes. They see them around them. Colleagues, if you are not a scientist, go ask the coastal and ocean scientists at your home State university. They will give you the answer.

I conclude by going back to what Senator Snowe wrote:

The loss of Maine’s $5 million shrimp fishery should serve as a warning. A similar blow to our $300 million lobster fishery must be avoided at all costs. That will require honest, fact-based discussion and a genuine bipartisan commitment to solutions.

Well, we have had neither around here for a long time. There has been no honest, fact-based discussion, and there has been no bipartisan commitment to solutions. That has to change.

I hope Senator Snowe’s fellow Republicans in the Senate will join with us Democrats in that honest, fact-based discussion and in a genuine bipartisan commitment to solutions. I hope our colleagues will unshackle themselves from the fossil fuel industry–which is an industry riddled with appalling conflicts of interest on this subject–and wake the heck up.

I yield the floor.