February 25, 2015

Time to Wake Up: The Effects of Climate Change From New York to Florida

As delivered on the Senate floor

Mr. President, I am here for the 90th time to urge my colleagues in the Senate to take action on climate change.  It is time to wake up.  The science is clearly worthy of our trust, and it is indeed time to wake up.

The human contribution to climate change is no longer up for legitimate debate. 

We know that carbon pollution accumulates in the atmosphere.  We know that carbon dioxide traps the sun’s heat.  We’ve actually known that since Abraham Lincoln was president. We know that the atmosphere and the oceans are heating up; we can measure that. Ocean acidification and sea level rise are also measurable, and they are caused by carbon pollution.  These risks to our environment, to our health, to our economy, and to our national security are every week more apparent.  

News this week from New York City was that an advisory panel of scientists, engineers, and risk-management experts just reported that the sea level rise along that city’s shoreline—approximately 12 inches since 1900—may have expanded Superstorm Sandy’s flood area by about 25 square miles, 25 square miles, flooding the homes of some 80,000 people.  That’s pretty real.

The report’s prognosis for the future puts the city in pretty deep water.  New York City expects its local sea levels to rise by 11 to 21 inches more by 2050, and as much as six feet by 2100.

So when he was mayor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg began, in the wake of  Hurricane Sandy, an ambitious plan to shore up New York City with levees, storm barriers, and other coastal defenses—to make that great city more resilient in the face of rising seas.  That plan is estimated to cost nearly $20 billion, to fortify just one city, albeit a great one, New York City against rising seas.

Let’s look south to another major American metropolitan area, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, which also faces daunting projections of rising sea levels. 

This map shows three feet of sea-level rise in Miami-Dade County.  This is before, and this is after. As you can see, you have lost acres, all of this back to the coast is gone, acres upon acres of that city.  This nuclear power station right here, Turkey Point, and this sewage treatment plant, which serve that municipal area have both become islands.

I visited Florida last year to hear firsthand about the threats that climate change poses to this Sunshine State, I met Glenn Landers, a senior engineer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Everglades Division.  He has worked on water resources and restoration projects in Florida for nearly twenty years.  This is the map he uses to show me what just two feet of sea level rise would mean for South Florida. There is a lot less of it.

Like New York, they’ve measured almost one foot of sea level rise in South Florida in the last 100 years.  And like New York, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact, which is a bipartisan coalition of four South Florida counties. Mr. President, what you get away from this building, it turns out that this can actually be a bipartisan issue, that cloud of special interest money that wraps the Congress isn’t as apparent when you get to Florida counties. And, that bipartisan coalition predicts—like New York again —continued sea level rise: indeed, the waters around Southeast Florida could surge up to another two feet in less than fifty years.  And, as you can see, most of the iconic Everglades, which is the largest tract of wilderness east of the Rocky Mountains and home to some of the most rare and endangered species in America, will be under seawater.

Now there’s some resemblances between New York an Florida in the threat of sea level rise. But the resemblances to New York diverge, when you look at some of the unique features of the Florida peninsula.  First is its low elevation.  Miami is just six feet above sea level.  So, six feet of sea level rise goes a long way. 

Second, Southern Florida, as the Army Corps of Engineers constantly attests, rests on porous limestone.  So, in New York, levees and dams can be built that will hold the oceans back.  You can fortify New York City, and wall it in like Holland.  In Miami, you’d be building those structures on a geological sponge.  The rising water will just seep right under.  And , even in that higher areas that might still stay dry, saltwater will infiltrate the underground drinking water.

Of all the people and homes in the nation at risk from rising seas, an estimated 40 percent are in the state of Florida.  The Risky Business Project estimates that between $127 billion and $150 billion worth of property in Florida will be under the mean high tide by 2050.  You might want to be careful where you buy in Florida, if you plan on being around for a while. If you take into account damage from coastal storms, Florida could face an addition $4 billion in damage per year.

Luckily, Florida is home to a number of the country’s leading research institutions.  Scientific experts at Florida universities are actively researching and trying to plan for the state’s changing climate.  

Professor Harold Wanless at the University of Miami puts it pretty bluntly. Here’s what he says, I’ll quote him:  “Everyone wants a nice happy ending.  But that’s not reality.  We’re in for it.  We have really done a job warming our ocean, and it’s going to pay us back.”

The Florida Climate Institute is a network of universities and public organizations that provides Florida policymakers and businesses with reliable, region-specific factual information.  The group includes the University of Florida, Florida State, the University of Miami, Florida A&M, the University of Central Florida, Florida Atlantic University, the University of South Florida, and Florida International University.

Let me focus on Florida International, in Miami.

FIU leads the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research Program to study the effect of climate change and human activity on freshwater availability in the Everglades.

FIU hosts the International Hurricane Research Center on its campus, and recently established the Extreme Events Institute, devoted to making communities more resilient to extreme weather.  Institute director Richard Olsen, who was an international expert on disaster response and resiliency, has called sea level rise “a slow onset disaster” for South Florida.

Four professors of FIU’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication set up a media outreach initiative called Eyes on the Rise.  Students in this program have produced documentaries to air on local television about the effect of sea level rise on local communities, real estate prices, and on economic growth in Southern Florida.

And FIU is a member of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a network of schools taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote climate research.  FIU has adopted a plan to bring emissions 25 percent below 2007 levels before 2030.

On my Florida visit, Dr. Mike Heithaus, a marine scientist and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at FIU, said this:  “We’re really standing here at ground zero.  There’s just about nowhere else on the planet where there’s more at risk from sea level rise so fast.”  He gets it. They get it. That’s why Florida International University is at the fore of climate research and education—particularly as it affects the State of Florida. 

But, Mr. President, there’s another member of that faculty, who doesn’t seem to get it, one of our Senate colleagues, the junior senator from Florida. He teaches part-time at FIU.  Political science.  Last month, however, that junior senator from Florida voted against amendments to the Keystone XL bill stating that climate change is real and that humans contribute to it.  Apparently, the message from experts across Florida— and frankly from experts across campus—that manmade climate change, especially sea level rise, is a big problem for Southern Florida. Well, that message apparently has not gotten through.

What are Florida’s other elected officials doing?  Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler is working with NOAA, state and Broward County officials, and the South Florida Regional Planning Council to protect his city from flooding and climate change. 

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine showed me the huge pumps his city has installed to pump back out the flooding that comes in on high tides and with storms.

Republican Mayor Sylvia Murphy of Monroe County, which covers all of the Florida Keys and some of the Everglades. She is a remarkable lady, and she has put climate and energy policy at the heart of her 20-year growth plan for the county. She’s going to lose a lot of her county, if we don’t get ahead of this.

And, the senior senator from Florida, my friend Bill Nelson, is an outspoken advocate to preserve the Florida coast and the Florida economy in the face of climate change.  As the Miami Herald recently:

South Florida owes Sen. Nelson its thanks for shining a bright light on this issue.  Everyone from local residents to elected officials should follow his lead, turning awareness of this major environmental issue into action.  It is critical to saving our region.

So, said the Miami Herald.

Unfortunately, the junior senator does not seem to have followed his senior colleague’s lead,  either in shining a light on this issue or in turning awareness into action..

It is a little bit surprising because according to a recent New York Times poll, an overwhelming majority of Americans support us taking action on climate change—including half of Republicans. Again, this is not much of a partisan issue when you get away from the polluter money that surrounds this building. Two-thirds of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate for president or Senate who explicitly campaigned on a platform of climate action.  I ask unanimous consent to continue for another two minutes. That includes 48 percent of Republicans, as opposed to only 24 percent of Republicans who said they would be less likely to vote for such a candidate. So, even among Republican voters, the balance tips in favor of climate action. And, if you look at young Republican voters, as I’ve said over and over on this floor, under the age of 35, they think that climate denial is out of touch, ignorant, or crazy. Those are the words they selected in the poll, not my words.  

So let’s move west to Arizona.  The folks at NASA, pretty reputable organization. They’ve got a rover driving around on Mars right now that they control. These are people who know something about what they’re doing. And the folks at NASA have made understanding our planet and its systems their life’s work.  Their researchers this month released a study showing an 80 percent chance, 8-0 of a decades-long “megadrought” in the American Southwest, a multi-decade drought, between 2050 and 2099, unless we act aggressively to mitigate the effects of climate change.  Arizona could see half as much precipitation in the second half of this century as it did in the second half of the last century. It is a call to arms to protect the State of Arizona.

Finally, here is this morning’s newspaper headline: “As ice melts, the future fades. Climate change may force Alaska natives to abandon their village.” Lisa Murkowski, the Senator from Alaska, is quoted here. Senator Murkowski acknowledges the impacts of climate change on Alaska’s coastal community.

So maybe we are beginning to make some progress, but all around the country these effects are ones we have to begin to take more seriously. It is indeed time to wake up.