October 4, 2017

Time to Wake Up – Our Oceans

Mr. President, this week on an island nation one tenth the size of Rhode Island, more than 60 countries will gather at the fourth international Our Ocean Conference. Catalyzed by then-Secretary of State John Kerry, the United States hosted the premier international ocean conference in 2014 and 2016. Secretary Kerry’s legacy continues with the Malta Conference now going on, hosted by the European Union, and that will be followed by scheduled conferences in Indonesia in 2018 and Norway in 2019.

Nations come to these conferences to share ocean conservation achievements and to pledge future efforts in sustainable fisheries, marine debris prevention, marine protected areas, maritime security, and climate change. At last count, conference organizers in Malta are anticipating more than 150 separate pledges from governments, NGOs, and the private sector. Since Secretary Kerry started it, the Our Ocean Conference has produced hundreds of commitments, totaling nearly $10 billion and protecting nearly 4 million square miles of ocean.

Though the oceans cover more than 70 percent of our Earth, they are often taken for granted. Oceans drive our weather, cool our planet, provide food and income for billions of people, and absorb much of our carbon dioxide emissions.

So for my 181st “Time to Wake Up” speech, I will return to the topic of what we are doing to our oceans. The oceans provide a hard-to-deny reminder of what is happening, thanks to greenhouse gas emissions, climate change denial, and America’s legislative paralysis.

Physics and chemistry don’t care about fossil fuel industry propaganda. It doesn’t affect them at all. Science measures how our carbon pollution continues to drive unprecedented change in the Earth’s oceans.

The oceans have absorbed about one third of all the excess carbon dioxide emitted by human activity since the Industrial Revolution; that is, around 600 gigatons of carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean. The effect of absorbing all that carbon dioxide is chemical, making ocean water more acidic at the fastest rate in 50 million years. Humankind has been on the planet only about 800,000 or so years, so 50 million goes way back.

This acidification is potentially calamitous for the ocean ecosystem. Off Washington, Oregon, and Northern California, 50 percent of pteropods were measured to have “severe shell damage,” mostly from acidified sea water. If that species collapses, the bottom falls out of the oceanic food chain, with a cascading effect up to us at the top of the food chain.

Ocean acidification is causing real economic concerns on coasts all around the country. It is affecting Florida’s reefs, for instance. Rhode Island’s clammers, lobstermen, and aquaculture growers watch with real alarm the damage acidified seas are doing on America’s northwest coast. Oyster hatcheries there experienced significant losses when new hatches were unable to grow their shells in the acidified seawater. Those hatcheries now need to buffer ocean water to keep the pH at a survivable level for baby clams, oysters, and other shellfish. Well, you can do that for your aquaculture lab, but you can’t do that for the ocean. So it bodes well for the future of these shellfish.

In addition to the CO2 the oceans have absorbed—30 percent of that— they have also absorbed heat. They have absorbed over 90 percent of the excess heat that climate change has trapped in our atmosphere, thanks to the operation of the greenhouse gases we have emitted. The oceans, in doing that, have conferred on us an extraordinary blessing because without their absorbing more than 90 percent of that heat—forget the 2 degrees Centigrade cap that we worry about—we would likely be already more than 36 degrees Centigrade hotter. That isn’t just life changing; that is species-changing variation in our planet.

When oceans absorb all of this heat, which is equivalent to more than a Hiroshima-style nuclear bomb per second going off, the principle of thermal expansion kicks in. As oceans warm, they expand, and as the world warms from the remaining heat, ice melts. So between the two, sea levels rise.

NOAA, in January, updated global sea level rise estimates based on the latest peer-reviewed scientific literature. Ice sheets and glaciers are melting faster than previously expected, raising global sea level rise estimates in this century—under the “we do nothing on climate change” scenario—by around 20 more inches on average.

Apply these findings to the U.S. coast, and the news gets particularly harsh for the northeast Atlantic coast, including my home State of Rhode Island. Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council is now telling us that we need to plan for as much as 9 to 12 vertical feet of sea level rise by the end of this century.

The refusal of the Republican majority to do anything serious about climate change is going to have a big effect on the very map of my State.

This is the present Upper Narragansett Bay, including Providence up here, our capital city, down to Greenwich Bay down here, and Warwick on the west side. Over here, we have Bristol and Warren on the east side of the image, and it still looks actually very much like it did when early explorers first came to Rhode Island in the 1600s. And it looked very much like that for centuries before, when the Narragansetts and the Wampanoags lived here.

But as climate change raises sea levels, all of this is changing rapidly.

The Coastal Resources Management Council has developed something called STORMTOOLS, which is an online simulation to model sea level rise and storm surge, so we can see how rising sea levels will affect my State.

This is the same image as that one. I will put one over the other so that you can see the match. Everything that is blue is land and is now submerged on these 9-to-12-foot sea level estimates. It all has changed quite dramatically.

Warwick Neck breaks off and becomes Warwick Neck Island. Much of the town of Barrington here becomes a new salt lake. This is a bedroom community with a lot of wealthy people living in very nice homes, and it all goes under water. Down here, Bristol and Warren become an island, and off of them, Poppasquash Point becomes two islands. This continues all around the State. The map changes, and we become a Rhode Island archipelago.

Look at Newport, Little Compton, Tiverton, Providence, Jamestown, Point Judith. Flooded areas in my State represent billions of dollars in losses to Rhode Islanders.

Of course, around the visibly flooded areas are the less visible areas where legal setbacks, flood zones, velocity zones, and other building restrictions prevent construction. In those areas that are still above water, it is still unbuildable because the property has become uninsurable, unmortgageable, or unsellable. That is a pretty hard hit to expect my State to take without objection.

It is not just Rhode Island; all sorts of changes are happening along America’s coasts. Up in the Gulf of Maine, ocean waters are warming faster than nearly any other place on earth. A study published in Elementa last month found that summer temperatures in the Gulf of Maine last two months longer than in the 1980s. Longer, warmer summers benefit some species, but others get hurt, including what little is left of the iconic cod.

Native villages in Alaska and island communities in Louisiana and Maryland are facing tough decisions about abandoning traditional shorelands and islands and relocating. Around the world, entire nations are planning for relocation as the ocean steadily rises over their island homes.

Layered on top of this sea level rise is the worsening risk of storm surge and flooding from hurricanes and other storms. The Presiding Officer does not need to be told about this. His State has experienced it firsthand. This satellite image is a snapshot of this particularly destructive 2017 hurricane system. From the left to right, we see Hurricane Katia, Hurricane Irma— at category 5 strength—and Hurricane Jose down here. As the recovery efforts continue for our citizens in Puerto Rico, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, and we look at hundreds of billions of dollars in disaster relief emergency spending, here in Washington we might want to think about helping coastal States around the country get serious about predicting what is coming, shoring up our coastlines, fortifying coastal infrastructure, and preparing for what climate change has in store for us.

Climate change is not the only way we are damaging the oceans.

Each year, around 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters our oceans from land. By 2050, we could see as much plastic in the oceans as fish in the oceans by weight, since plastics do not fully degrade in the ocean. They just break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, and those travel the globe on ocean currents. Plastic is now everywhere; on our beaches, in our oceans, ingested and entangling our wildlife. It is even in tapwater, salt, and other foods that we humans consume. Plastic waste has been found on remote islands, in deep-sea sediments, and in sea ice. In an area previously inaccessible to researchers due to that sea ice, the Arctic is apparently releasing frozen plastic back into the oceans. That is how badly we are polluting our oceans. An international research expedition to the North Pole even found chunks of plastic littering that remote region.

Thankfully, there is interest in solving our ocean trash problem in the Senate. At last year’s Our Ocean Conference, over $1 billion was pledged to combat marine debris. Additional commitments are expected this year.

Our Senate Oceans Caucus work parallels work around the world. The Senate Oceans Caucus is a bipartisan group. There are 36 of us. We have made marine debris one of our focus areas. In August, by unanimous consent, we passed the Save Our Seas Act, a bipartisan bill to reauthorize NOAA’s marine debris program and expand its ability to deal with severe marine debris events, where tsunamis or huge storms sweep enormous amounts of plastic garbage into the oceans and then ultimately onto our shores. The bill asks the President to increase U.S. international efforts to reduce marine debris, including improving international waste management practices and improving research on plastics that will actually biodegrade in the ocean. It also directs the U.S. Trade Representative to start considering marine plastic debris—much of which comes from just a few countries—when dealing with them in future trade agreements. We reinforced this piece of the bill recently in the National Defense Authorization Act, which we passed just last month. The Save Our Seas Act garnered support from environmental NGOs, from corporations, from chemical trade groups, but there is still much more work to do.

We have abused and ignored our oceans for far too long. The oceans are warning us in every way they know how, and we can’t afford to ignore those warnings any longer. We must start taking serious action to respond to what we are doing to our oceans. I promise you, anybody who knows anything about oceans hears those alarm bells ringing. It is time for us to wake up.

I yield the floor.