January 7, 2015

Time to Wake Up: Senate Dems can Still Make Progress on Climate Change

As delivered on the Senate floor

This is my first “Time to Wake Up” speech in the Senate as a member of the minority.

Being in the minority will give me the opportunity for the first time to use the tools that are uniquely available to members of the Senate minority.  On the issue of climate change, which is affecting all our states, particularly Rhode Island, I intend to use them, politely and persistently.

We have just left a period of partisanship and obstruction by the minority unique in the Senate’s history.  I do not intend to return us to those days. 

My intent is to enliven the Senate, and see to it that it does its duty, that we as senators do our duty to our fellow Americans.  My intent is not to blockade and degrade this great institution with obstruction for the sake of obstruction.

My goal, in short, is Senate action, not Senate inaction.  

Pope Francis recently spoke to the world about mankind’s care of God’s creation.  He warned us against, what he called, “negligence and inaction.”  I hope to be a spur in the Senate against negligence and inaction, specifically the negligence and inaction that is our present Senate standard of care for God’s Earth.

I know powerful forces of negligence and inaction are arrayed against us.  I know the Supreme Court’s reckless and shameful decision in the Citizens United case has empowered those forces like never before.  I know that there has resulted an unprecedented campaign by polluting interests of political spending and threats.  It is plain to see that the polluters’ campaign has, for now at least, silenced meaningful bipartisan debate about carbon pollution.  You can line up the Citizens United decision and the silence almost exactly. Coal and oil interests are enjoying massive economic subsidies, massive subsidies, and like any special interest they will fight to protect those special benefits. 

But, it can’t last.  It can’t last.

My confidence is strong because our American democracy is ultimately founded in the will of the American people, and the American people understand the need to end our days of negligence and inaction.  They want us to run the blockade that polluters have built around Congress.

Polling shows this.   More than 80 percent of Americans say they see climate change happening right around them.  63 percent say they’d pay more for electricity if it would help solve this problem.  Among independents, 64 percent. 

Even among young Republicans, voters get it, young voters anyway: under the age of 35, most Republican voters according to polls, think climate denial is “ignorant,” “out of touch,” or “crazy”; under 50, a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents support action against climate change.  Among all Republicans of all ages, fully half support restrictions on carbon dioxide, and nearly half think the United States should lead the fight.

Trusted American institutions get it, too.  From the Joint Chiefs of Staff of our military services to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; from all of America’s major scientific societies to the experts we trust at day in and day out at NOAA and NASA; and from the leaders of America’s corporate community—Walmart and Target, Apple and Google, Ford and GM, Mars and Nestle USA, ALCOA and Starbucks, Coke and Pepsi.  From all of them and from many other respected voices, comes the message that climate change is a serious threat.  I have confidence that Congress will soon have to heed their voices.

And we might mention the recent agreement in Lima where 194 countries all agreed to carbon reductions.  Does the Republican Party, in the United States of America, really want to be aligned with Vladimir Putin, the great international climate denier?

My confidence also comes from necessity.  This simply must be done. 

Our human species developed on this Earth in a climate window that has always been between 170-300 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, always.  For as long as human kind has been here on Earth, carbon concentration has wobbled up and down, but always within that range.  We have now rocketed outside that range, and broken 400 ppm, a condition on Earth that is a first in millions of years. 

Our oceans, as a result, are acidifying measurably at a rate unprecedented in the life of our species.  One has to go back into distant geologic time to find anything similar, and if you go back that far and look at what the Geologic Record  tells us about what what life was like on the planet in those primal eras it presents a daunting prospect.

The scientific warnings about what this means are now starting to be matched in our experience, with unprecedented rainbursts and droughts, wildfires and heat seasons, sea levels and ocean temperatures.  In the tropic seas, coral reefs are dying off at startling rates; in the Arctic seas, sea ice is vanishing to levels never recorded by man; everywhere, the oceans shout a warning—to those who will listen.

Rhode Island, as a coastal state, as the Ocean State, is particularly hard hit.  We get the land problems, like the rainbursts heavily associated with climate change that in 2010 brought unprecedented flooding along our historic rivers.  And we have the sea level rise expected to now be several feet by the end of the century, by a warming sea that has disturbed our fisheries and distressed our fishing economy.  “It is not my grandfather’s ocean out there,” as one commercial fisherman told me.

This only goes one way.   There is no theory of how this gets magically better on its own.  Every theory, and now most observations, all point to all this getting worse, and perhaps very badly worse.

So, the time for negligence and inaction has passed.

In the Senate, we need to begin a conversation about this.  We have to begin at the beginning.  We have to agree on a baseline of facts and principles and laws of nature that can then inform our judgments about what to do.  I do not think it is asking too much of the new majority in the  United States Senate to begin an honest conversation about carbon dioxide and climate change, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask the new majority in the Senate that we undertake this conversation  in a serious and responsible manner.  I do not think that is extreme or unreasonable.  We need to begin at the beginning in this conversation, and I will make every effort to see to it that we begin. 

But even as we begin, we can keep the end in sight.  That end is a world where polluters pay the costs of their pollution, that in turn creates a world where market forces work properly in our energy markets.  The end is a world where it is America that seizes the economic promise of these new technologies, where we are builders, not buyers, of the energy devices of the future.  And the end is a world that turns back from the brink of a plainly foreseeable risk, where the consequences of negligence and inaction could well be dire, for us and for the generations that follow us.

In sum, we in the Senate have a duty before us, and negligence and inaction will not meet what that duty demands.  For those of you with a coal or oil economy in your state, I understand and I want to work with you.  There are answers to be found.  But please do not pretend that this problem doesn’t exist. That is false and unacceptable.

I must, on behalf of my state and on behalf of our future insist that we in the Senate meet our duty, even under this new Senate majority, and I will.

I yield the floor.