December 5, 2018

Time To Wake Up: Rising Tides and Coastal Risks

As-prepared for delivery

I am grateful to be joined today by my colleague, Senator Merkley, for my 222nd “Time to Wake Up” climate speech.  Though thousands of miles apart on the West and East costs, Oregon and Rhode Island share a common connection: our oceans.  Fisheries and coastal tourism are major drivers of our economies.  Our coastlines are filled with homes, families, and businesses.

So we’re here to talk about the challenges of human-driven climate change for our oceans and coasts: sea level rise, ocean acidification, deoxygenation, warming, and increased storm surge.  Our local agencies and officials, and our coastal residents, understand the changes coming at them.  Not all states are prepared, however, and in the aftermath of severe storms like Hurricane Florence and last year’s hurricanes powered up by higher seas and superheated ocean water, we’re seeing the consequences of this failure.

Last month was the 80th anniversary of the Great 1938 Hurricane.  The storm barreled through Southern New England, destroying roads, ports, businesses, and homes.  Over 560 people lost their lives.  The National Weather Service estimates Providence experienced a storm surge of around 20 feet and sustained winds above 100 mph.  Providence was flooded by around 14 feet of water and coastal towns were inundated.  If this storm were to hit the Rhode Island coast now, it would carry ashore an additional 10 inches of ocean, thanks to sea level rise since the 1930s.

If we continue to do nothing to slow climate change, by the end of the century, sea level rise will be on the scale of additional feet, not inches.

Hurricane Florence just brought feet of rain, high winds, and massive storm surge to the Carolinas.  At around 500 miles wide, it was bigger than Hurricane Katrina, and it dumped more rain than Hurricane Harvey.  Sadly, nearly 50 people have lost their lives from the effects of Hurricane Florence, and flooding recovery is slow.  The condolences of Rhode Island go out to the Carolinas and Virginia.

As Hurricane Florence was building strength and making its approach, researchers were connecting its power to climate change: a team of researchers estimated climate change made Florence’s rainfall 50 percent worse than it would have been without the known effects of humankind on the climate.  Hurricanes are powered by warmer oceans; one of the study’s authors estimated that for every degree Celsius of ocean temperature increase, “extreme precipitation events can increase by over 60%.”

And the oceans are warmer.  Oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by our greenhouse gas emissions, sparing our climate on land, but wreaking havoc in our oceans.  Marine heatwaves are so new they were first identified and characterized in 2011, but they have already left a permanent scar in our oceans.

Starting in 2014, the northeast Pacific Ocean has experienced inordinately warm temperatures— “The Blob,” it was called; a mass of warm water around the size of Canada.  As the Blob spread towards Alaska, a trail of millions of dead birds followed.  The warm water drove their prey to cooler waters; unable to adapt to the sudden shift, the birds starved.  Starving sea lion pups and toxic algae blooms that poisoned whales were also attributed to the warm Blob.

The recent massive coral die-off in the Great Barrier Reef that left half the reef dead was driven by abnormal water temperatures.  Dr. Terry Hughes, one of the world’s leading coral reef researchers, was quoted in The Atlantic as saying the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem “has collapsed…transformed into a completely new system that looks differently, and behaves differently, and functions differently, than how it was three years ago.”

Marine heatwaves are becoming warmer and more frequent, to the point that there is a movement within the scientific community to start naming and categorizing marine heatwaves much like we do hurricanes. 

Warming seas rise, and this will hit coastal properties.  The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a report that estimated by 2100, “nearly 2.5 million residential and commercial properties, collectively valued at $1.07 trillion today, will be at risk of chronic flooding.”  These numbers are based on sea level rise alone; storm surge and rain-driven flooding only amplify the risks.

Long before your house is actually flooded, its value can crash if the house becomes uninsurable or unmortgageable to the next buyer.  Freddie Mac has warned of this property value crash in America’s coastal regions: “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.”

The insurance industry trade publication Risk & Insurance had this 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.”

Despite this warning, the federal government has failed to prepare for these coming changes and build coastal resiliency.  Congress is used to investing in our coasts only after a disaster.

We’ve let our National Flood Insurance Program fall into billions of dollars of debt.  We’ve let FEMA provide inaccurate and incomplete flood risk maps.  And the Trump administration is purposefully blind to climate science, ocean changes, and flood mitigation requirements that would help us get ahead of the changes coming to our coasts.

We’re not out of time yet.  We still have a chance to avoid the worst consequences of climate change and prepare our coastal infrastructure for the rising tides.  We have to move past futile denial and into action.  It’s time, Republicans and Democrats alike, West Coasters and East Coasters together, to wake up.