09.15.14

Time to Wake Up: Rhode Island Energy and Environmental Leaders Day

As delivered on the Senate floor

Mr. President, I rise today for the seventy-eighth time in my “Time To Wake Up” series to urge my Republican colleagues that it is long past time, long past time, to wake up to the growing threat of global climate change.  For those who still deny the science, and believe it or not, that’s where some of our colleagues still are, I remind them that virtually every credible scientific authority—and no, the ones funded by the big carbon polluters don’t count, virtually every credible scientific authorityhas moved beyond the question of whether our climate is changing, or whether human carbon pollution drives these changes.  To now, how it’s happening, where it’s happening. Climate change is no longer a forecast.  It’s happening before our eyes, all around us. 

The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of the world’s top climate scientists, call the fact that our Earth is warming “unequivocal.”  Just last week, the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization said, and I’ll quote “We know without any doubt”, I’ll repeat that, “without any doubt that our climate is changing and our weather is becoming more extreme due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels.” Without any doubt. Well, it’s actually evident to our own eyes.  Now.  From observations—not projections—of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level. A phenomenon that means a lot to my coastal state of Rhode Island, and the presiding officer’s coastal state of Maine.

Back home, our constituents—our neighbors—get it.  On our coasts, they brace against the unrelenting rise of the seas, and watch mystifying changes in fisheries that they had been familiar with for generations.  On the Plains, they toil to raise crops under unprecedented drought.  In the mountains, they watch as ancient acres of forest are killed by the spread of invasive pests.  Yet here in Washington, we do nothing.

In Rhode Island, the waters of Narragansett Bay are getting warmer—three to four degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the winter, just since the 1960s.  Long-term data from the tide gauges in Newport, Rhode Island, just off Naval Station Newport show an increase in average sea level of nearly ten inches since 1930, and accelerating.  Sea-level rise is contributing to erosion, and brings storm surges and waves farther inland. 

While Washington fiddles, Rhode Islanders act.  Earlier this month, more than 200 Rhode Islanders came together in Providence for my annual Rhode Island Energy and Environment Day.  The event brings together Rhode Island in renewable energy and sustainable development businesses, community development non-profits, brings together state and local officials, and advocates and academics, to share ideas with each other and national leaders and federal agencies on promoting green energy, improving resiliency, and combatting climate change.

The innovation taking place in my Ocean State was on full display this year.  Rhode Islanders are leading the effort to improve our environment and develop clean technology and energy and prepare for the changes that carbon pollution has looming over us.

Shelia Dormody, the Director of Sustainability for the City of Providence, was there to discuss the recently released “Sustainable Providence” plan for making our Capital City cleaner and greener.   The plan covers everything from reducing food waste to improving energy efficiency and increasing alternative transportation options.  These actions benefit public health and the environment, and they create economic opportunity.  These aren’t job killers, these are job builders. You can’t send efficiency upgrades or solar panel installation jobs overseas. Those are Rhode Island jobs, American jobs.

Grover Fugate is the Executive Director of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council. He was there to discuss the collaboration they have with the Rhode Island Realtors Association to create a Rhode Island Coastal Property Guide.  We need a Rhode Island Coastal Property Guide because climate change is loading the dice for more frequent and severe storms and hurricanes that put businesses and homeowners along the shore at risk from flooding, erosion, and wind damage.  Super storm Sandy was a harsh warning.  This property guide helps residents and business owners understand the risks and the costs that they now face both today and in the future because of the carbon pollution that we’re not doing anything about. 

Extreme precipitation – rain bursts, heavy rains, or snows –have increased 74 percent in the Northeast between 1958 and 2010.  Rhode Islanders have always cared a lot about our Narragansett Bay. We love our Bay, we want to protect it, but now these heavy rains, these sudden rains, these rain bursts, what they do is drive polluted and nutrient-rich runoff that might otherwise be filtered or captured straight into the Bay, where it can close beaches and harm the Bay’s marine life.  Climate change, the carbon pollution, means we will have to work harder and invest more dollars in storm water and waste water infrastructure.  And it’s not cheap.

Our Narragansett Bay Commission, our wastewater utility, is overhauling its sewer and storm water collection to address that overflow during big storms.  When big storms hit now, the underground storage tunnel that was completed in 2008, stores up the sewer and storm water until the extra water can be processed, until the capacity in the treatment plant is there to pump it out and process it.  As a result of the first phase of this what’s called Combined Sewage Overflow Project, the Commission estimates that through 2012, 4.6 billion gallons of storm and wastewater that would have been dumped directly into Narragansett Bay untreated were instead processed at the Field’s Point Wastewater Treatment Facility. 

One of our small towns, the Town of Tiverton, RI, has recently received funding through the USDA to help pay for upgrades to the town’s water system, connecting thousands of residents now on inefficient, old septic tank systems to a town sewer.   Leroy Kendricks, who is Chair of the Tiverton Wastewater District, told the group that these improvements will protect the Sakonnet River and Mount Hope Bay from mounting levels of pollution. 

We had Julia Gold there, she’s the Climate Change Program Manager at the Rhode Island Department of Health, explained how the Department of Health has teamed up with the Division of Elderly Affairs to focus on the effects of climate change on the elderly; collaborated with the Departments of Environmental Management and Transportation to pilot a Lyme disease prevention training program for outdoor workers, those ticks spread more widely in warmer weather; and partnered with the Brown School of Public Health to examine correlations between rising temperatures and rising hospital admissions.  You may have seen a segment in the documentary series “Years of Living Dangerously” on deaths in Los Angeles from heat-related conditions worsened by climate change.  This work with Brown University is similar, and is showing similar results.

These were just a few of the many stories told in Rhode Island at Energy and Environmental Leaders Day.  Not only do Rhode Islanders connect with one another there, but we also have the chance to share our important work with national leaders, and to hear their perspective on regional and national trends.

The first of three keynote addresses came from renowned marine scientist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle.  Sylvia is truly a remarkable woman and a legend in oceanography circles.  Her passion for our living oceans is just about as deep as those oceans.  She reminded us that the oceans are the cornerstone of our human life-support system, indeed the oceans are the life support system for all creatures on our planet, not just the aquatic ones, and that our oceans bear witness to the unprecedented changes taking place. 

Her bad news was that these threats are grave; her good news was, that never before have we, we human been as well equipped with knowledge about the Earth and our climate.  The oceans are sick, but we have the power, simply by changing our behavior, to help them heal. 

In happy coincidence, Sylvia’s new documentary Mission Blue, which lays out the dire condition of Earth's oceans, was playing the night before at the Newport Film Festival.  Silvia went there and said, “Think of a film about the oceans fifty years from now,” It will be based on what we do now.” Our possibilities are terrific.

Here’s another thing that she said. I’ll quote her, “The good news—sounds like bad news—but the good news is that we know that it’s happening. We’re the only creatures on earth with the capacity to dive back into time, put ourselves into perspective, and plan a future based on evidence, based on knowledge.”

 So what are we doing now?  Congress snoozes in the snug embrace of the big polluting interests, President Obama has stepped into the vacuum.  His chief lieutenant in this effort is EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.  She delivered our second keynote.

“Climate change,” she told our assembled group, “is perhaps the most difficult, complex and necessary issue for us to face.”  She reminded us that EPA is, at its heart, a public health agency.  So when it comes to the carbon pollution that increases smog and rates of asthma, or increases the storms and floods that batter our communities, she says this:  “EPA’s job is to protect those who are most vulnerable from this pollution, so it is our job to take action on climate.  Period.  Full stop.” End of quote.

Administrator McCarthy has led an extraordinary effort to put out EPA’s proposed rule for the first time limiting carbon pollution from our country’s largest source: our power plants.  The rule is revolutionary in many ways, particularly in its adaptability—allowing states and regions to reach their own goals their own way.  It is the product of an intensely collaborative process and an enormous amount of give and take.  The roll-out has been viewed, by those, well those outside fossil fuel board rooms at least, as a real achievement, and I commend Administrator McCarthy on moving that rule forward with so much energy. I wish her and that rule god speed.

The road ahead offers many obstacles, as our third and final keynote speaker reminded us.  Jeff Goodell has reported on the energy industry and the changing climate for Rolling Stone Magazine, where he is a contributing editor.  His many books have explored the inner workings of the fossil fuel industry and the most far-reaching proposals for avoiding catastrophic global warming, among other topics.

Jeff has firsthand knowledge of the complex apparatus of phony denial, supported by the big polluters.  The fossil fuel producers are bankrolling entire political campaigns and phony front organizations peddling scientific misinformation.  As Jeff pointed out, these misinformation efforts even involve, not just the same strategies, but the very same scientists who were involved working for the tobacco industry. The scientists for-hire who worked for the tobacco industry in its decades-long venture to hide the dangers of tobacco from regulators and the public. They are still at it, but now it’s denying climate change, not denying that tobacco is harmful.

Not only do these polluter stall tactics stand in the way of responsible action to curb climate-change, Jeff reported, but they also hold back progress in the energy sector and in our economy, particularly in states and regions that have long relied on fossil fuel jobs.  He called on us, on his home country to finally take steps to move these communities into the twenty-first century economy.

Mr. President, the environmental and energy challenges facing our nation can seem daunting, but when we join together to share ideas and experiences, as we do each year at Rhode Island Energy and Environment Leaders Day, it’s clear that there’s a path forward. 

Rhode Islanders understand this. And they see the challenge. And we’re up to it.  We’re all up to it as Americans. One thing that Rhode Islanders will be doing is later this month, hundreds of us will board buses and head down to New York City for what will be known as the People’s Climate March. September 21st, New York City.  Organizers expect as many as a half million people will take part in this historic citizen action to call attention to the global crisis of climate change.  Marchers from Rhode Island, from California, from all across our country, from different organizations, from different industries, a patchwork of American will be there to demand responsible leadership in the fight against carbon pollution. 

I, Mr. Presient, will be among them.

I yield the floor.