May 12, 2017

Time to Wake Up: RI Archipelago

Mr. President, it is perhaps a providential happenstance that I should be giving this particular speech while the Senator from Louisiana is presiding because we are both from coastal States. I am sure he will find things that are familiar in my Rhode Island remarks, particularly given that his Governor has declared the Louisiana coast a state of emergency due to sea level rise.

As the Presiding Officer knows, one place where the effects of climate change are most evident is in our oceans and along our coasts. Rhode Island is the Ocean State, and we have almost 400 miles of beautiful coastline. Everyone in Rhode Island lives less than a half hour from the shore. We count on a healthy ocean and vibrant coast. Our ocean economy, including fishing, tourism, and shipbuilding, amounts to nearly $2.5 billion every year–perhaps not what Louisiana’s coastal economy is but pretty good for our small State.

It employs over 42,000 Rhode Islanders. Warming, acidifying, and rising oceans are a clear and present danger to many aspects of our Rhode Island way of life. Sea level rise now threatens to remake our Rhode Island coast, swallowing low-lying land, widening existing inlets, eroding beaches, and stranding higher shorefronts as new islands.

For my 166th “Time to Wake Up” speech, I want to show the Senate what this new island chain, the new Rhode Island Archipelago, would look like. The latest modeling software allows us to visualize these projected changes, and the latest science shows that they may be coming sooner than we thought. How soon and how much? Well, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a new report in January updating global sea level rise estimates based on the latest peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Ice sheets, it turns out, and glaciers, are melting faster than expected, raising the so-called extreme scenario for average global sea level rise in this century, the “we do nothing on climate change scenario,” by around 20 inches.

When NOAA and its partners applied these findings to America’s coasts, taking into account things like regional variations in ocean circulation, in gravitational pull, and in landside conditions like erosion, settling, and depletion of groundwater, the news was particularly harsh for the northeast Atlantic coast–from Virginia through Maine, including Rhode Island.

Our Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council is now telling us that for planning purposes we need to face the possibility of 9 to 12 vertical feet of sea level rise along our shores by the end of the century. A little girl born today at Rhode Island’s Women and Infants Hospital will likely actuarially live to see all of these changes. That invasion of our shores by the rising oceans will leave Rhode Island’s map unrecognizable.

Early explorers to Rhode Island found our coastline looking much like it does today. Before the 1600s, it had looked much the same for many centuries before that to the Narragansetts and the Wampanoags who lived here. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution, which began in America in Rhode Island, brought our Nation great wealth, but it also created manmade pollution which began changing our climate.

Climate change causes sea levels to rise. As oceans warm, they expand. As the world warms, ice sheets melt and pour water into the oceans. We measure these things happening. This is not a guess or a projection.

Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council has developed STORMTOOLS, which is an online simulation that models sea level rise and storm surge so we can see ahead what is coming at us. Once again, science gives us the headlights to look forward and see what is coming at us. This is what Rhode Island can expect.

Here is the high water scenario. This is the upper part of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, including Providence, up here, Warwick, and Warwick Neck and Greenwich Bay over here to the west. Bristol and Warren here, with Mount Hope Bay to the east.

This graphic shows the same image overlaying that previous scenario with the scenario that Rhode Island’s CRMC now predicts for our State. This bright blue color depicted is land that gets covered up with 10 feet of sea level rise, and this teal color is what we get when the sea level rise hits 12 feet. Over here, Bristol gets two new islands, and Bristol and Warren become an island themselves.

If you cross over the bay to Warwick Neck, which is now part of our new coastline, that becomes a new island, Warwick Neck Island. Much of Barrington, which is a well-developed and prosperous bedroom community, just disappears under the water. As I said, Warren and Bristol become their own island.

Now we move down the bay to historic Newport, RI, and the historic waterfront area completely floods, the historic Point section here floods, down here the western part of Newport becomes a new island. Again, all of this is now land that we lose to rising seas.

Not only does Western Newport become Western Newport Island, but it gains its own Castle Hill Island off to the side of it. Up here, the existing Goat Island virtually disappears.

This story is repeated all along Rhode Island’s coast. The tip of Little Compton breaks off to become its own tiny little archipelago of new islands. This is Tiverton, which is just north of Little Compton. On the other side, here, is the shore of Portsmouth on Aquidneck Island. What you see is that the sea level rise turns Nonquit Pond into ocean and makes an island of this section of Tiverton here near Fogland Point, another new island.

Here we see the point on the other side of the opening into Narragansett Bay from Little Compton. You have Little Compton here, Aquidneck Island comes down in the middle, and on the other side you have Point Judith. Point Judith also begins to break up into little islands.

If you go up here, Galilee is our fishing port. It is where most of the fishing trawlers have their home port and the entrance runs right up here into the protected harbor area. As you can see, Galilee is now pretty much underwater.

So for folks who like to go to Champlin’s Seafood, you will probably have to row there, and it might not even be there. For those who like Aunt Carrie’s better, it is here, and it is not in great shape for surviving storms.

So we can go offshore to Block Island, which has been designated by The Nature Conservancy as one of the world’s last 10 great places. Well, it is no longer one of the world’s last 10 great places, it is now two of the world’s last–I guess it would have to be 11 great places because it breaks into two separate islands. Block Island becomes Block Islands.

The beautiful town of Jamestown, which is its own island between Aquidneck Island and our mainland shore, breaks up into three separate islands. It is now one. Jamestown goes up a little bit further, that part stays intact, but the upper part breaks away from downtown Jamestown, here, and the Beaver Tail area breaks off into, I guess it would become Beaver Tail Island.

Now let’s go up to our capital city. We started with the first map showing Providence. This series of images will show what happens to Providence as sea levels rise. Just to orient people who are seeing this, this is the Providence River coming in. This is the Woonasquatucket River. This is the circle at Waterplace Park and the Woonasquatucket River goes out over the Providence Place Mall, and it goes on from there.

This is Providence’s downtown business district. That is 3 feet of sea level rise–not much change. Now you get to 7 feet of sea level rise, and you see the encroachment of the ocean into our business center. Seven feet used to be our worst-case scenario, but as the evidence comes in and we are seeing things happening faster and the sea level rise occurring greater than had been expected, we have been raising our expectations.

So here is the new worst-case scenario–10 feet of sea level rise. As you can see, the business section of downtown Providence is entirely overwhelmed. Twelve feet of sea level rise is a natural consequence once you get to 10 feet of sea level rise because if you have 10 feet of sea level rise, then what you get is a regular and recurring, what people call astronomic tides or king tides, when celestial bodies line up so you have a higher than usual tide. For sure people from Florida know about it because those are the days when the street in front of their house on a sunny day is filled with saltwater because the tide has washed in over it. If you go at king high tide time along the Boston wharf, you see parking areas and walking areas already flooded. So it is not unreasonable to look at 12 feet of sea level rise if you are expecting a baseline, what they call bathtub level of 10 feet.

As you can see, downtown Providence, our business district is more or less completely inundated. So this is Climate Central. Climate Central has allowed us to get these images of what downtown Providence looks like up close, with various levels of sea level rise, and this is something they run off of Google Earth. This, again, is downtown Providence.

This is Providence City Hall. This is Kennedy Plaza, you will be pleased to know, Senator. It is named after another John Kennedy because he gave his last speech in his campaign for President before he went home to take in the election results and find out that he had been elected–his last speech was right here to a huge crowd that had come out to see him in downtown Providence.

This is our famous Biltmore Hotel. This used to be the train station. Now the offices of the Rhode Island Foundation are there. As you can see, most of these historic buildings are up to their second floor. If you look at old pictures from the hurricane in 1954 and the hurricane in 1938, you see buildings where the water got that high, but that was at a peak of a hurricane surge. This becomes the baseline. This is what it looks like every day.

Here is a closeup of Providence City Hall. Instead of coming along the sidewalk and walking up the steps, you would have to come over in one of our gondolas in order to get in the front entrance, and the first floor of City Hall is lost.

If you look at all of this, it represents a loss of billions of dollars in property value to Rhode Islanders.

Let me grab the original. All of these areas are occupied right now–people’s homes, people’s businesses are there, and if they disappear below rising seas, all that value is lost. It is actually worse than that because if this is the new coastline, then behind that coastline is going to be a new set of flood zones and a new set of velocity zones. For those who are not familiar with what a velocity zone is, that is the part of the flood zone in which it is deep enough and exposed enough that you actually get wave action against structures. So you get the physical force of waves damaging structures rather than just tides rising. Between the V-zones and flood zones, there is a much larger area in which structures become uninsurable, they become unmortgageable, and as a result they become unsellable. So the economic harm from this potential sea level rise inundation of Rhode Island is virtually incalculable, and we are not the only ones who are looking at this.

Looking ahead at this coastal threat also is the massive government-backed home loan mortgage corporation Freddie Mac. Freddie Mac has predicted “the economic losses and social disruption may happen gradually, but they are likely to be greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and Great Recession.”

Think about that. Think about the economic damage that this country sustained and the pain the families experienced after the 2008 Wall Street meltdown in that housing crisis, the great recession. Here is Freddie Mac saying this problem is going to be greater in total than the harm from the housing crisis and great recession. Some people would say you can’t trust the government about this stuff. You have to trust the private sector. The government doesn’t know what it is talking about.

Here is a quote from a recent article in the trade publication Risk & Insurance, an insurance trade publication. The editor of that publication wrote that this was what he called “a growing and alarming threat.”

He went on to say: “Continually rising seas will damage coastal residential and commercial property values to the point that property owners will flee those markets in droves, thus precipitating a mortgage value collapse that could equal or exceed the mortgage crisis that rocked the global economy in 2008.”

For anybody who wonders why I come and give these speeches every week, for anybody who wonders why I am up to No. 166, it is about seeing the coastline of my home State of Rhode Island being whittled away into this chain of islands–this new Rhode Island archipelago. If this were your State, you would be up here too.

We have a responsibility here in Congress to all Americans to face up to what is happening. This is not just a Rhode Island circumstance. It is going to be Louisiana. It is going to be North and South Carolina. It is going to be Massachusetts and Maine and California. It is going to be the gulf coast. We are all going to have to face up to this and help communities prepare.

The carbon dioxide that we have already pumped into the atmosphere will make some of this sea level rise inevitable. It is baked in now, and we just have to wait for it to happen. We can still avoid these worst case scenarios if we act promptly and if we will, for one minute, say to the fossil fuel industry: You have had enough. You have fed enough at this trough. You have silenced Congress enough. Your power and your greed will no longer prevail here. We are going to solve this problem for the people of our States.

We can still do that, but we do have to act promptly.

With regard to the stuff that we cannot avoid, we also have an obligation to help our coastal communities prepare for this, to make this transition. All of these islands are going to need bridges to get to them where there are now roads. Where things are falling into the ocean and you can shore them up and protect them with hard protection, you need to do that. Where not, you need to go back and adjust zoning and planning so that nature can defend herself a little bit better through dunes and through marshes and so forth. There is a lot of work we need to do with this coming at us.

This is not funny. Nature will not wait for our politics to sort themselves out. The laws of physics, the laws of chemistry, the laws of biology do not give a hoot about the laws in the Senate. They are going to do their thing, and we need to get ahead of them. When this happens, that big, old fossil fuel industry, with all of its lies and its long, dishonorable campaign of calculated disinformation and phony front groups–so that you do not see its hands–and deliberate political mischief to prevent us from acting, is not going to be around to help us. It will be no help when this flooding comes, so it is up to us. That is why we have to wake up.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.