Time to Wake Up: There Will be no Avoiding Climate Change in the 2016 Election

Mr. President today is my 103rd time coming to the floor to ask my colleagues to wake up to the urgent problem of climate change.

Pretty much everyone is telling us climate change is a problem. First of all, there are the scientists, virtually every major scientific society and agency. Then there are our military and national security leaders, leading American companies, doctors, and faith leaders who are all telling us this is a problem and asking us to wake up.

The American people understand climate change is real. Nearly 80 percent think that doing nothing to reduce future warming will cause a very serious or somewhat serious problem for the United States. Two-thirds of Americans, including half of Republicans, favor government action to reduce global warming, and two-thirds, including half of Republicans, would be more likely to vote for a candidate who campaigns on fighting climate change.

I have visited with voters in early primary states, with people in Iowa, in New Hampshire, and in South Carolina--business owners, teachers, community leaders, and elected officials.

There will be no avoiding this issue in the 2016 election.

So we might expect Republican Presidential hopefuls to present to the voters their plans for climate action. We might expect the Republican candidates to address this problem in an honest and straightforward manner. But we would be wrong.

Republican Presidential candidates who venerate our military turn deaf when that military warns of climate change's national security dangers. Republican Presidential candidates who are conspicuously religious ignore Pope Francis and other religious leaders when they warn of the fundamental indecency of not addressing climate change. Republican Presidential candidates who seek to represent our corporate elite ignore those corporations' own business case for addressing climate change. And Republican candidates who root boisterously for their home State university sport teams ignore the climate change warnings of scientists and researchers at those very same universities.

The Republican Presidential primary is a festival of climate denial, with candidates competing to tie themselves in knots to avoid acknowledging carbon pollution.

A few even subscribe to the big hoax theory. One candidate wrote in his book that climate science is based on “doctored data” and that “it's all one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight.”

Another even claims to know who is behind the hoax. He said: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” Wow, he got to the bottom of that. “This very expensive global warming”--I will delete the word since this is the Senate floor--”has got to stop. Our planet is freezing,” the same candidate wrote last winter.

Then there is the “who knows” caucus. One Republican hopeful seems to think we don't really know one way or the other. “We may be warming, we may be cooling,” he says.

Another has said that people who are concerned about climate change “don't like to look at the actual facts and data.” Now there is a really perverse piece of rhetoric, because what do the actual facts and data show?

The data show that the amount of carbon in the Earth's atmosphere has risen dramatically, since the onset of the industrial revolution just over a century ago, to the highest levels mankind has ever experienced and the highest levels Earth has experienced in at least 800,000 years. It is a fact of basic science that carbon dioxide traps heat and alters the climate. That has been known since the days of President Abraham Lincoln. The data match and show decades of increase in global temperature. The scientists we pay to know these things say that warming of the climate is “unequivocal.” The ocean is warming. Sea levels are rising. Ocean water is growing more acidic. We measure all of that. It is not theory.

Those are the facts.

At least two candidates, by the way, have compared those who accept the established science of climate change to people who believe the Earth is flat. That is particularly rich when we consider that NASA scientists are among the strongest and most articulate proponents of the science of climate change. Do we really think that NASA scientists believe the world is flat? Do we think the scientists who launched a rover through space, landed it safely on the surface of Mars, and are now driving it around are confused about the circular nature of the Earth?

Then there is the “always changing” crowd. One Republican Presidential hopeful says: “The climate is changing. I don't think the science is clear on what percentage is manmade. ..... And for the people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant.”

Actually, it is just really factual.

“There's never been a moment where the climate is not changing,” another candidate observed. “The question is: What percent of that is ..... due to human activity?”

Well, the links of climate change to human activity are something that scientists have studied extraordinarily closely.

According to the leading scientific body on climate change, the best estimate is that pretty much all of the recent rise was due to human activity.

The lead scientific organization says greenhouse gas emissions, along with human activity, “are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” And, by the way, “extremely likely” is defined in that document as 95 to 100 percent certainty.

So this gaggle of Republican presidential hopefuls is willing to take the “worse than 1 in 20” bet that human activity is not the dominant cause of recent climate change. Or, as another Republican candidate put it, “the conclusions you make from that are not conclusive”--whatever that means.

Then, of course, there is this: “I'm not a scientist.” At least three of the declared Republican candidates have used that line. Imagine if Congress answered other policy questions that way. What is your position on abortion? Oh, I am not a gynecologist. What should we do about health care? Oh, I am not a medical doctor.

We are not expected to be experts. We are expected to listen to the experts and to make conscientious, informed, and prudent decisions--and, oh, are we failing that test.

There are even Republican candidates for President who in this American century would abdicate American leadership on the climate crisis. “Is there anything the United States can do about it?” one of the Republican candidates asked. “Clearly, no”--reducing greenhouse gas emissions “will have zero impact,” he said, on climate change. Another candidate said: “A single nation acting alone can make no difference at all.” I would love to hear Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt conversing about whether America can make a difference.

Last week the senior Senator from Oklahoma, whose skepticism about climate change is well documented, was the keynote speaker at the climate denial conference of a creepy outfit called the Heartland Institute. Here is what he told them--and by the way, when I say “creepy,” they are the group that put up a billboard comparing climate scientists to the Unabomber--pretty responsible stuff. “If you look at the Republican candidates,” he assured the attendees at that forum, “they're all denying this stuff, with the exception of Lindsey Graham. ..... They're all with the people in this room”--quite a room to want to be with.

I am glad that our colleague from South Carolina, Senator Graham, has called for reducing carbon pollution with smart pro-business policies. He has lit a path for other Republican colleagues to follow, and he is not the only one on this path.

Prominent conservative thinkers and former administration officials from Nixon, Reagan, and both Bush administrations have voiced support for putting a fee on carbon emissions. Prominent conservatives and libertarians think that we can put a price on carbon, relieve taxes on profits and work, and come out economically for the better. Even setting aside the environmental and climate benefit, just economically, that is a win.

So I offered a carbon fee bill last week with our colleague Senator Schatz, what one conservative called an “olive limb”--doing better than just an olive branch--to conservatives who are ready to address this problem.

So Lindsey Graham has articulated one path. There is a different, darker path. It is the path of obedience to fossil fuel interests. The fossil fuel companies, their super PAC allies, and their front groups swing a heavy financial club, and they want to herd Republican candidates down the darker path. Americans for Prosperity, part of the Koch brothers-backed political machine, plans on spending $900 million in the 2016 election cycle--$900 million. Its president, Tim Phillips, threatened publicly that any Republican candidate in the 2016 Presidential campaign who supported climate action “would be at a severe disadvantage in the Republican nomination process.” Gee, what might candidates conclude from that? And that is just one part of the fossil fuel political machine.

So I ask myself: Why are there all of those preposterous statements by the Republican Presidential candidates? The only conclusion I can reach is to signal that very obedience. We are now at the stage in the Republican Presidential primary where candidates caper and grovel before the fossil fuel industry's political machine, hoping they will be the chosen beneficiaries of fossil fuel election spending. Remember that there is $900 million from just one group. It looks like that earns the industry a lot of groveling and capering.

Eventually, the Republican Party is going to have to find its true voice on climate change. It can't continue indefinitely as the political arm of the fossil fuel industry in an environment in which 80 percent of Americans want climate action and a majority of young Republicans think that climate denial is ignorant, out of touch or crazy, according to the words they selected in the poll. Ultimately, the Republican Party is going to have to find its true voice. Until then, America is presented the unseemly spectacle of Republican Presidential candidates fighting to have the best position on climate change that money can buy.

I yield the floor.

I suggest the absence of a quorum.