April 6, 2016

Time to Wake Up: Why Don’t We Care?

Mr. President, I am here for my 132nd “Time to Wake Up” speech.

We are now back from recess, and while we were away, one little thing and three really big things happened. The little thing has to do with the so-called war on coal which we have heard so much nonsense about in this Chamber. There was this article, which I am showing on this chart, saying: “Natural gas has been waging a war on coal for more than a decade, and this is the year it plants the flag.”

Natural gas has been waging a war on coal. Not Obama. Not liberals. Natural gas. The article predicts a resulting “wave” of coal plant retirements. Who wrote this? Some green, lefty publication? Actually, it was the Wall Street Journal news department.  So as coal companies go bankrupt left and right, there is the coal story. Natural gas has been waging war on coal for more than a decade. Spinning this against the President has been easy politics, but false, and that false political strategy has left coal country with what? Nothing.

A carbon fee could produce revenues that could power wealth into coal country, but, no, what they got instead was someone to blame–someone to blame wrongly. Great job.

Now to the three big things that happened during our recess. First, a group of very distinguished scientists, led by legendary climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, warned us that this climate change thing is likely to be a lot worse than we thought. Their sweeping synthesis, which underwent an involved and public peer-review process, suggests the possibility of greater sea level rise in this century than forecast. It suggests, worse, even epic storms, and it posits “losing functionality of all coastal cities.” How about that for a phrase? They go on to conclude, obviously, that “the economic and social cost of losing functionality of all coastal cities is practically incalculable.”

That was one.

Second is the Great Barrier Reef, a wonder of the world, hit by the worst coral bleaching ever measured. For those of my colleagues who don’t know, uplanders who may not understand what coral bleaching is, it is like cardiac arrest for coral. You are not necessarily dead yet, but there is a very good chance you will be, and for sure you are in serious trouble and you will need time to recover. That is what is happening in the Great Barrier Reef.

The third thing is a new study out of UMass and Penn State which found that the expected loss of Antarctic ice “nearly doubles” prior estimates of sea level rise.

I am from an ocean State. I am from Rhode Island, the Ocean State. This is consequential. How consequential? Here is what one of the authors of the study said: “You’re remapping the way the planet looks from space with those numbers, not just subtle changes about which neighborhoods are going to be susceptible to storm surge,” but remapping the way the planet looks from space.

Of course, CO2 levels continue to exceed 400 parts per million against a human history where they were always between 170 and 300 until the industrial era drove it up.

So that is not great news, but here is what is sickening about it.

We don’t seem to care here. It has all been in the news. Senators read the news. It is not like we are being deprived of information. We just as an institution do not care.

That is a defect. That makes us a defective institution, not to be able to receive and process information like this. This is institutional failure, and we don’t even care about that because one might say: You know, I don’t really care myself about all of this damage, but as a Member of this body, I get that the U.S. Senate ought to care institutionally. It is like secondary caring. I will do my duty. Even if I personally don’t care about oceans or reefs or coasts or storms, I am in. I am in, even though it is not my thing, because I know it is important. But we don’t even do that. So we really don’t care.

Why? Why would we be so blind? We are not all terrible people. Some of us actually spend time outdoors and profess to care about nature. So why does the Senate, as a body collectively, not give a hoot?

It is a deadly combination of politics and money. That is what investigation and history will show, and the investigations are underway. The history will not be pretty. We are surrounded by money. Senators exist in a world of money the way fish exist in a world of water. We are so accustomed to it, we barely even notice it.

Hundreds of millions of dollars every year in lobbying money surround us.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign money every election have to be raised.

Hundreds of millions in PAC money pours in and exerts its influence.

And we don’t even know how much dark money there is flowing around through loopholes the size of the Holland Tunnel. Just one–one–dark money group is spending $750 million in the 2016 elections.

It is a disgrace, but it has an effect.

The interests that spend hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying us want things. The interests who give hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign money want things. The PACs and the super PACs pointing $750 million in political artillery at us, they want things. Some want ideological things, but most want money. More exactly, they want things we can do that can be turned into money: licenses, tax breaks, trade advantages, regulations, relief from regulations. You name it, they want it because they can turn it into money.

All of that has a desensitizing effect on our values here. If something can’t be monetized, we get trained not to care about it. Values that aren’t monetized in the marketplace start to seem weird. Who cares about a reef? What is that weird Senator doing talking about a reef? What a silly thing to talk about in our serious world.

Now, someone’s favorable fat cat tax rate, that is important. Jerking around a perfectly qualified Supreme Court nominee, that is definitely important, but the greatest crisis facing the natural world as we know it? Meh.

And we go along. We go along with that warped value system. It is a lie. It is a moral lie so big it envelopes us, and we acclimate to it. All that money around us slowly anesthetizes our moral and natural senses, and that is how this place becomes Mammon Hall.

It is actually even worse than that. It is not just that if you can’t cash it in, it doesn’t matter around here. It is that big, greedy special interests come here to plunder, and we let them. We let them, and we even help them because we become dependent on their money.

Well, I have a proposition. Years ago, one of the Koch brothers, America’s biggest polluters, ran for Vice President as a Libertarian Party candidate. When he ran, he learned something. He learned the perverse math of third parties in a two-party system. The perverse math of third parties in a two-party system is that you only hurt the ones you love. You hurt the party you are closest to by your third party taking votes away from the party closest to your politics.

Well, the Kochs may be a lot of things, but they aren’t stupid, and I think they learned. They learned that a creepy far-right third party that could be put in tow to big polluters was not the right method to achieve their purposes. There was a smarter method. Invade the Republican Party, that Grand Old Party of Theodore Roosevelt, capture it, turn it into the far-right party of their dreams. That was the smart play. Money and secrecy could make it happen, and they are pretty close to having done it.

The Republican Party in Congress is as dependent on fossil fuel and polluter money now as a deep sea diver is on his air hose. Cut the airhose or pinch the flow, and we have a diver in real distress. When you control a deep sea diver’s airhose, he becomes a pretty obedient diver. It is a form of the Golden Rule: He who wields the gold makes the rules.

The political press, by the way, does little to help. It is a game to them. Who will say something appalling we can chatter about on the talk shows? Who is up? Who is down? Who said what about whom? It is akin to a soccer team of 7-year-olds. Most everybody runs to the ball or whatever the shiny object of the moment is, and in the midst of them are outfits that masquerade as the political press, but they are really polluter PR fronts in disguise. They, too, are in tow to the fossil fuel industry. Money and secrecy have their way.

So here we are in the Senate, in the face of this news that came to us over the recess, ineffective, defective, idly paying no attention to what is really important as we chase political trifles around, making a mockery of our great American democratic experiment.

Well, folks, people are going to notice. This climate mess we have created is only going in one direction. When everybody has noticed, when it is way past denying, elected officials who refused to even look at the problem are going to look pretty foolish, and they are going to have to explain.

“Well, you see, I thought there was this big hoax.”


“Yes, I thought NASA’s scientists and NOAA’s scientists were all in on it, along with the U.S. Navy and every National Lab we fund.”

Hum. That is a big hoax.

“Oh, did I forget to mention my home State university must have been in on the hoax too? They were all studying climate change effects actually happening in my home State, but I knew better.”


“And every major legitimate American scientific society and most of my home State corporate leaders–I figured they were all wrong.”

Oh, OK, and where did you get that idea?

“Oh, from a bunch of guys with financial ties to the polluters.”

Come on–seriously? Didn’t you think that was a pretty obvious conflict of interest?

“Wow, is that something I should have thought of? But listen. Now I want you to reelect me because I am such a good, prudent, and responsible decision maker.”

Folks, good luck with that. If you think the Republican Party is in trouble now, wait until the day of reckoning comes on climate change. Explain the money. Explain the money. You don’t think people are going to figure out how it works? Explain the talk show science you believe instead of the peer-reviewed stuff. Explain the quality of your due diligence into the science. Good luck with that.

Explain why you thought NASA, which is driving a rover around on the surface of Mars that they flew there and safely landed–that is probably the greatest scientific and mechanical achievement of our time. They did that, but you say they were part of a hoax on climate change.


By the way, I think people here actually owe NASA an apology for saying such nonsense about them, but that is for another day.

I yield the floor.