September 17, 2019

Time to Wake Up: We Did Start the Fire

As-prepared for delivery

Mr./Madam President, I rise today for my 253rd “Time to Wake Up” speech. 

If you felt like the heat this summer was particularly brutal, you were not imagining things.  July was the hottest month ever recorded, according to NOAA.  The Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization noted “July has rewritten climate history, with dozens of new temperature records at [the] local, national and global level.”  NOAA says 2019 is on track to tie for the second hottest year on record.  Overall, the past five years are expected to take the title of hottest five-year period in recorded human history. 

This rapid heating of our Earth is wreaking havoc on our environment and public health.  In one day, the Greenland ice sheet lost 12.5 billion tons of ice to melting.  Throughout the world – from France to India to the Arctic Circle – temperature records shattered.  On July 4, the people of Anchorage experienced their first ever 90-degree day.  At one point in July, excessive heat warnings forced nearly 170 million Americans to avoid the outdoors and take shelter in air conditioning, where available.

According to Deke Arndt, head of climate monitoring for NOAA, these record heat waves are “almost entirely due to climate change.”  Jack Williams, a professor with the Center for Climatic Research at the University of Wisconsin, told NBC News the “[h]eat waves of today are going to be the normal events of tomorrow.”

Where there’s heat, there’s apt to be fire. 

In the United States, wildfires rage on a remarkable scale.  According to a new report by the major data analytics company CoreLogic, over 8.7 million acres burned in the United States in 2018.  That is about the land area of 74 of the 75 largest cities in the United States combined.

This summer, the Arctic experienced a record-setting wildfire season.  Places that have not traditionally burned in parts of northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Siberia were engulfed in flames visible from space. 

Gullermo Rein of Imperial College London told Wired “Arctic fires are rare, but they’re not unprecedented.  What is unprecedented is the number of fires that are happening.  Never before have satellites around the planet seen this level of activity.”  As of August 28, fires cut across more than six million acres of Siberian forest and 2.5 million acres of Alaskan tundra and forested land.

Not only are these fires scarring the Arctic landscape, they are also releasing tons of carbon dioxide, causing more climate change.  Researchers estimate the Arctic fires have released more than 180 million tons of CO2.  For comparison, the state of Rhode Island was responsible for around 9.75 million tons of carbon dioxide through fossil fuel combustion in 2016.

NASA scientists are also tracing soot from these fires, which absorbs sunlight and warms the atmosphere.  When soot settles and covers Arctic ice, it absorbs more sunlight than it reflects, speeding the melting and warming.  Once set in motion, the vicious cycle of warmer temperatures, wildfires, ice melt, and ever warmer temperatures is hard to break.

Far from the Arctic, fires rage in another iconic ecosystem: the Amazon.  So far this year, the Amazon region has seen over 40,000 fires.  Unlike the Arctic, our changing climate is not to blame for the devastation in Brazil.  It’s humans. 

Again, natural forest fires in the Amazon are rare, but warmer and dryer conditions under climate change can make the fires larger and longer-lasting than in the past.

However, the true culprit is man-made deforestation, accelerating under the new Brazilian president.  Enforcement against illegal logging and clearing has declined.  In the first six months of this year, over 1,300 square miles of Amazon forest were destroyed in Brazil, sometimes at more than three football fields per minute. 

The journal Science Advances warns that deforestation in the Amazon is close to a threshold beyond which the rainforest will undergo irreversible changes.  Without the healthy forests of the Amazon, the world will lose one of its most important terrestrial carbon sinks—areas that naturally absorb carbon from our atmosphere.  The Amazon captures about five percent of annual global carbon dioxide emissions.  A 2015 study published in Nature shows that the amount of carbon dioxide the Amazon absorbs has fallen since the 1990s by nearly a third. 

The air has gotten so thick with smoke in Porto Velho, a city in the upper Amazon basin, that over 400 children landed in a local hospital with respiratory problems in the first three weeks of August.  Public health officials and resources are overwhelmed.  A pediatrician in Porto Velho said, “Every year we have some fires and issues with smoke, but this was the worst year of them all.”

The tragedy in Brazil is reminiscent of the forests burned in Southeast Asia to make way for palm oil plantations.  Sumatra, Borneo, and parts of Malaysia saw over 70 percent of their peat forest lost to manmade deforestation.  In Indonesia, nearly 106,000 acres burned in the first five months of the year.

Wildfires don’t burn in the ocean, but unprecedented heatwaves are surging through our seas, laying waste to coral reefs in much the way wildfires ravage forests.   The harm to the Amazon rainforests and to Arctic steppes from wildfire finds an aquatic echo in the death of the Great Barrier Reef, and reefs all over the world, from climate-driven, unprecedented, ocean heatwaves.  Our willful blindness to these obvious calamities, largely due to malign influence of the fossil fuel industry and its great armada of front groups, needs to stop.   

From the equator to the Arctic, an Earth aflame will have life-or-death consequences for generations to come. 

Yet, our news media are turning their collective backs.  In late August, as the fires raged, Media Matters chronicled that not one of the five influential Sunday news shows covered it.  Indeed, Media Matters showed cable news devoted to wildfires in the Amazon only seven percent of the time they devoted to the Notre Dame Cathedral fire. 

Whether in Indonesian or Brazilian rainforest, or Arctic tundra, the costs of corporate greed and paid-for political ignorance are on full display.  Our planet suffers as a consequence.  We avert our eyes in the pursuit of cheap fossil fuel and food.  But nothing comes without a cost, and our debt has come due.  Pope Francis drove home this point in a recent Sunday address, saying, “We have caused a climate emergency that gravely threatens nature and life itself, including our own.”

Mr./Madam President, our world is on fire.  I’m sorry to quarrel with Billy Joel, but this time we did start the fire.  If that can’t get the attention of my colleagues in Congress, I don’t know what can.  

We must wake up.  I yield the floor.