09.15.20

Time to Wake Up: Recent Reports

As-prepared for delivery

Mr./Mdm. President, I rise for the 271st time to call this chamber’s attention to two reports on the defining issue of our generation.

As I speak, wildfires devour the American West, and consume American lives: in East of Salem, Oregon, two people dead in a scorched vehicle; in Butte County, California, three dead, overrun by a fast-moving fire; in Ashland, a 1-year-old boy; almost the entire town of Malden, Washington burned down. Half a million Oregonians evacuated due to fire; one out of ten people in the entire state. Over the weekend, Oregon's Emergency Management Director said they’re preparing for a “mass fatality event.”

Paradise, California suffered apocalyptic destruction in the 2018 Camp Fire, and it’s once again under fire warnings, this time the “North Complex” fire, which has stunned firefighters with its rapid growth and ferocity.

We cannot avoid it, Mr./Mdm. President: climate change is here. Plenty of factors contribute to individual wildfires, but climate change is now always among them. Last fall, I visited the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, and met leading wildfire researcher Daniel Swain.

As Dr. Swain puts it, Climate change has not just made the extreme heat waves that coincided with fires worse. The bigger effect is the more subtle, long-term warming. That couple of degrees of (average) warming over decades ... it’s lurking in the background, sucking extra moisture out of the vegetation and the soil.

The new normal is smoke, ash, orange skies, and constant, nerve-fraying vigilance.

Climate change impacts throughout the West land crushing economic blows. The 2018 Camp Fire that burned Paradise cost $16.7 billion dollars. NOAA says natural disasters – mostly hurricanes and wildfires, both highly climate-related – inflicted $91 billion-worth of damage that year; and over the past 40 years, 241 climate- and weather-related disasters cost Americans $1.6 trillion.

But the first report warns: it’s not just what’s lost in floods and flames. As climate risk worsens, the harder it is for communities to rebuild, for bankers to write mortgages, cor owners to find insurers willing to continue writing policies and paying out claims. That risk spreads beyond burned or flooded land, through the rest of the economy. Climate risk becomes “systemic risk,” as economists call it. So one of our leading regulatory agencies, the CFTC, has done a report on risk.

Think of the 2008 Financial Crisis. The home mortgage problem spread far beyond mortgage lenders, into a brutal global economic recession. Millions of people who had no connection to a bad mortgage lost their jobs, their homes, or their retirement savings. We are still recovering from that collapse.

Now think even bigger. The Stanford Business School’s Corporations and Society Initiative believes “the financial risks from climate change are systemic”; that these risks are “singular in nature”; and that “[g]lobal economic losses from climate change could reach $23 trillion – three or four times the scale of the 2008 Financial Crisis.”

Senator Schatz and I have been calling for financial regulators to do a better job accounting for these risks. In May, we wrote to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission Subcommittee on Climate-Related Market Risk. We made two simple requests: one, recommend a carbon price, and two, urge our financial regulators to include climate risks in their core market risk assessments and supervisory practices.

The CFTC Subcommittee report is out, and I’m happy to say, they did both. They write:
Financial markets will only be able to channel resources efficiently to activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions if an economy-wide price on carbon is in place at a level that reflects the true social cost of those emissions.

-and-

Climate change poses a major risk to the stability of the U.S. financial system and to its ability to sustain the American economy . . . U.S. financial regulators must recognize that climate change poses serious emerging risks to the U.S. financial system, and they should move urgently and decisively to measure, understand, and address these risks.

What if we don’t? The CFTC report goes on: Failing to act would lead to “disorderly repricing of assets” with “cascading effects” through the economy. Put simply: do nothing, and trigger financial chaos far and wide. Just like 2008.

The report calls for corporate America to tell the truth about climate-related risks to their business models. Investors need to know the truth for the free market to work. The Subcommittee writes that we must require “disclosure by corporations of information on material, climate-related financial risks . . . to ensure that climate risks are measured and managed effectively.” That’s a key point. We’ve seen Exxon downplay climate risks to investors and the general public. That mischief will stop if financial regulators require an honest accounting of climate-related risks.

The CFTC report is a big deal, but it requires Congress to act. America is among the few industrialized nations worst-prepared for wide-ranging reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Regulators will not be enough; Congress must act.

That’s where another report comes in: Senate Democrats’ Special Report on the Climate Crisis. Under Chairman Schatz’s leadership, we recently released a road map for fixing that problem. We propose a plan to cut emissions across our economy; to get on course to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius; to create a host of new, well-paying jobs in clean energy and other emerging industries; and to remedy the burdens of pollution across all sectors of the economy.

We know we have a battle ahead. The fossil fuel industry runs a covert operation that has blocked progress. This covert op is extremely well funded, and has reached its roots deeply into our politics. We need to tear up those roots. This is how.

First, our report tells the dark story of that covert op: the story of the fossil fuel industry apparatus built to obscure the industry’s hands behind phony front groups; the story of capture and control of corporate trade associations; the story of lies marketed by flashy PR firms; and of brute-force political spending and threats to blockade climate progress. The tactics were test-run by Big Tobacco. Manufacture false doubt in the science, and flex political muscle against anyone who dares challenge you. That bullying worked pretty well. And when the Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United, the fossil fuel industry supercharged its covert campaign with dark money, almost immediately turning the ability to spend unlimited money in politics into spending unlimited dark money in politics. Then the bullying worked really well.

Citizens United was a climate watershed. After that decision unleashed its fearful weaponry, not one Republican in this body joined any comprehensive bill to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The Senate heartbeat of bipartisan climate activity before Citizen United flat-lined under the supercharged political pressure unleashed by fossil fuel interests.

Our Senate report tells the full rotten story, because that’s step one in fighting covert influence. Follow the money. Show the American people how corporate interests pay to block progress on climate. Show the trade associations and front groups. See the scheme, and you’re less likely to fall for it.

Second is cleaning it up. Fully exposing and ending Citizens United dark money and the fossil fuel scheme will take reform. Bold transparency measures, like the DISCLOSE Act, are needed. Our report calls for that.

Then, we need to wake up the so-called good guys in corporate America. They need to see the mischief a few bad actors have perpetrated under their noses. They need to see how the fossil fuel industry commandeered their corporate trade associations, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is one of the two most obstructive organizations against climate action — right under their noses. And they need to examine how their own lobbyists, their own trade associations and their own political operatives are doing on climate. Because with very few and very rare exceptions, the answer is that they are doing nothing to lift a finger in Congress. Just last week the giant tech companies came in with a thirteen page list of their priorities — thirteen pages and not a mention of climate. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, the tech barons never even mentioned climate.

Everyone needs to understand the two faces of corporate America. Imagine how quickly Congress could act if powerful trade associations like the Chamber became actual advocates for serious climate policies. Or if other interests — like Big Ag, or Big Tech, or Wall Street, or the insurance industry — actually took an interest in something more than their own special-interest programs and tax benefits. It would be a game changer.

A 16th century alchemist by the name of Paracelsus is credited with the phrase “sola dosis facit venenum”—“the dose makes the poison.” The idea is that everything, from a nerve agent to the water we need to survive, can be lethal if delivered in sufficient dosage.

Right now in the American West, toxins in the climate wildfire smoke waft in such high concentrations that our typical measurement systems fail. The dosage is literally off the charts.

And in our Earth’s atmosphere, the dosage of carbon dioxide is way outside the entire range of human experience, putting all of mankind into uncharted territory, to face unprecedented dangers.

And Citizens United unleashed toxic doses of money, and unprecedented doses of virulent dark money, into our political atmosphere. Our democracy is poisoned, stunned by secret fossil fuel money and threats, and failing to listen to plain warnings. We must act before the poisons overpower us, and we must get the dosages back to safe and normal levels. A good start would be to wake up to the reality of climate change. I yield the floor.