November 29, 2017

Time to Wake Up: Storms of Change are Brewing

Mr. President, in this season of Thanksgiving, let me say that I am thankful, as I rise for my 187th “Time to Wake Up” address, for the spirit of commitment and innovation that this great Nation devotes to tackling the challenge of climate change, even with this President.

The United States now is alone in the world as the only Nation not committed to the historic Paris Agreement, but at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Germany, I saw firsthand that Americans are still committed to climate action. Corporate leaders like Mars, Microsoft, Facebook, and Walmart were there to discuss the role American corporations can take on climate change. American Governors, mayors, universities, and many other corporations all brought the same message to Bonn; that notwithstanding the corrupted Trump administration, America is still in.

Senators Cardin, Markey, Schatz, Merkley, and I sent the message that most of our constituents and the majority of the American people believe that climate change is a serious threat to our country and the planet and that American action and leadership is necessary.

An entire day was dedicated to the changes we are seeing in the world’s oceans. This is where the industry liars and climate deniers get stumped. The oceans bear the brunt of our carbon pollution. Sea levels are rising, waters are warming, and seas are acidifying. These undeniable measurements have no answer from the climate denial apparatus, so the denial apparatus just chooses to ignore the oceans, but we can’t ignore the oceans, certainly not in coastal States. The reality of ocean climate change hits home along our coasts: Warming waters move our fisheries around, sea level rise erodes our shores, and we must prepare for more frequent and intense hurricanes and storms.

The Trump administration is more or less completely crooked on this subject, but even they had to throw in the towel and release without amendment the recent U.S. “Climate Science Special Report.” They had no scientific rebuttal—none—to the dozen Federal Agencies and Departments that assembled the latest and best understanding of the effects of climate change on the United States. They couldn’t rebut it. They chose to ignore it.

Will that report affect this administration’s industry-paid climate policies? Of course not. Those policies are bought and paid for.

But it is worth looking at the “Climate Science Special Report.” This report gave special attention to storms. The report says: “For Atlantic,” that is, the ocean off my home State of Rhode Island, “and eastern North Pacific,” That is, the ocean off our western coast, “and eastern North Pacific typhoons, increases are projected in precipitation rates and intensity. The frequency of the most intense of these storms is projected to increase.”

The report continues: “Assuming storm characteristics do not change, sea level rise will increase the frequency and extent of extreme flooding associated with coastal storms, such as hurricanes and nor’easters.” Extreme flooding matters quite a lot in Rhode Island. The report continues: “A projected increase in the intensity of hurricanes in the North Atlantic could increase the probability of extreme flooding along most of the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coast states beyond what would be projected based solely on relative sea level rise.” It is going to happen just from projected sea level rise. This means that extreme flooding could exceed those predictions because of storm activity.

Humans are driving these changes, the report says, not the alternative explanation for these changes offered by the climate deniers. Oh, wait; that is right. They have no alternative explanation. They have nothing. They have nothing but industry-funded denial. There is no alternative explanation to what the scientists say, which is actually consistent with the finding of the “Climate Science Special Report” that there is “no convincing alternative explanation.”

That is not the only report. Last year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a report titled “Effects of Climate Change and Coastal Development on U.S. Hurricane Damage: Implications for the Federal Budget.” That report projected that by 2075, annual damage from hurricanes will increase by $120 billion as coastal populations increase, sea levels rise, and U.S. landfalls of strong hurricanes become more frequent. That is the prediction. Of that increase, around 45 percent can already be clearly attributed to climate change. In a presentation from early November, CBO summarized: “Expected damage from hurricanes will grow more quickly than GDP. The share of the population facing substantial damage will grow fivefold by 2075. On the basis of past patterns, Federal spending on hurricanes will also grow more quickly than GDP.”

The World Meteorological Organization has also released a report connecting “extraordinary weather” to man-made climate change. Warmer temperatures spur increased precipitation, the report says, and higher sea levels amplify storm surge as driven by hurricanes and other coastal storms. This is not new. It is just being frequently and constantly reported with no convincing alternative explanation.

During the typical Atlantic hurricane season, storms develop in the warm, tropical waters off the western coast of Africa. These storms gather heat and energy as they pass over this band of warm seawater across the Atlantic known as the hurricane highway. This is the west coast of Africa. Here is South America. Here is the United States. There is Florida. And here is the hurricane highway leading to the Caribbean. Whether these storms become devastating category 4 and 5 hurricanes or weaken and disperse along the way depends on atmospheric conditions and on this ocean heat that powers up those hurricanes.

A typical Atlantic hurricane season used to generate roughly six hurricanes, three of which reached category 3 or higher. That was then. Typical is no longer typical. During August of 2017, this hurricane highway that I showed you reached 9 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the 30-year average.

This exceptional warming supercharged storms into hurricanes bearing catastrophic damage. The superheated 2017 hurricane highway fueled not 6 but 10 named hurricanes, and 6—not 3—reached category 3 strength or higher, including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria. What is more, all 10 of the season’s hurricanes occurred in a row—the greatest number of consecutive hurricanes in the satellite era.

Typically, what happens is that a storm will churn up cooler water in its wake. So during typical years, a following storm will weaken over the cooler waters left in a preceding storm’s wake. That is the way it ordinarily works. This should have been the case for Hurricane Irma as it charged northwest through the Caribbean just days after Harvey.

But as I said, hurricanes are powered up by sea surface temperatures, particularly sea surface temperatures above 82 degrees Fahrenheit. And by September 7, as Irma moved over the coast of Cuba and up into the Bahamas and Florida, the hurricane highway surface temperature Harvey had left behind measured up to 87 degrees Fahrenheit.

The result of that onslaught was that the entire island of Puerto Rico is still recovering. The Virgin Islands were also slammed. Houston saw epic, widespread flooding. Welcome to the new typical, thanks to ocean warming, which comes to us thanks to climate change, which comes to us thanks to carbon pollution, which still comes to us in such a polluting flood, thanks to a generation of industry lying that has not stopped to this day.

At the Southern New England Weather Conference earlier this month, University of Rhode Island Professor Isaac Ginis presented his worst-case scenario models for a “Hurricane Rhody,” which would bring levels of destruction to Rhode Island not seen since we were hit by the Great Hurricane of 1938, the destruction of which is seen here in downtown Providence, or Hurricane Carol, which brought similar destruction in 1954. That is Providence City Hall. This is the roof of a streetcar. Another streetcar is half-flooded. And this is water in a river pouring in downtown Providence through the streets. Essentially, this is white water in downtown Providence.

The flooding that Providence endured in Hurricane Carol caused us to build a hurricane barrier across what is called Fox Point to protect downtown. However, even with the hurricane barrier in place, Professor Ginis’s simulations show 3 feet of flooding in downtown Providence if a category 3 hurricane were to hit us at high tide. And, he proposed, if our “Hurricane Rhody” were to swing back around and make a second landfall, as Esther did in 1961—he modeled it based on the previous experience of Hurricane Esther—then if it came back, even in a weakened category 2 state, Providence could see up to 14 feet of flooding.

But wait, there is more. Fast forward a few decades and several feet of projected sea level rise, and then Providence doesn’t stand a chance. The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put 9 to 12 projected vertical feet of sea level rise riding up Rhode Island’s shores by the end of the century. According to CRMC—our Coastal Resources Management Council—at 10 feet of sea level rise, Rhode Island would lose 36 square miles of total land area. Good-bye to much of Newport, Warwick, Barrington, Block Island, Point Judith, and other coastal communities Rhode Islanders hold dear. This is the present projection by our State agencies, our State University, and NOAA.

As the Senate prepares a third disaster relief funding package, we can’t just fund immediate hurricane recovery. We must also help coastal communities look ahead to the next storm. We need better coastal flood mapping and risk modeling. We need to prepare for damage to natural and engineered coastal infrastructure. We need research and modeling to understand what coastal populations face from the new typical: stronger hurricanes, sea level rise, heavy precipitation, disrupted fisheries, and increased storms and storm surges. We have to prepare for this. It would be stupid not to put a small percentage of what we are spending in cleanup and recovery into prevention, protection, and preparation. It is just common sense.

The Trump administration does not represent American views on climate change. It has been captured by an industry that has been dishonest about this issue for a generation, and it now represents the falsehoods of that industry. For that reason, it also no longer represents American determination to tackle this challenge. That determination is now found in State Houses, in corporations, in our great universities, and with the American people. Americans know that we can pull together to avoid some of these worst-case scenarios. Coastal communities, in particular, are keenly aware of the special risks they face. In the Senate, I remain eager to work with my colleagues on all of the above. You know where to find me.

I yield the floor.