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Public Statements

Veterans Jobs Corps Act of 2012--Motion to Proceed--Continued

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington DC

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NIH FUNDING

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Madam President, last spring Cathy Hutchison picked up a cup of coffee and took a sip. Now, why have I come to the floor of the Senate to talk about Cathy Hutchison picking up a cup of coffee last spring and taking a sip? Because 15 years earlier, Cathy Hutchison was working in her garden when she suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed.

Cathy did not just lose the ability to use her arms and legs, she also lost the ability to speak. I am sorry to say this condition is not unique to Cathy. It happens regularly enough that there is a medical term for it, locked-in syndrome. That is how Cathy lived for nearly 15 years: alert and mentally sharp but unable to move or speak, a prisoner in her own body.

All of this changed last spring when, for the first time in nearly 15 years, Cathy picked up that cup of coffee and took a sip. Cathy Hutchison is a patient enrolled in a clinical trial at Brown University in Providence, RI. They are testing a neural interface device known as BrainGate.

BrainGate works by placing a small sensor on the brain. The sensor is connected to a computer that interprets the brain's signals to control a specially designed robotic arm. The university researchers asked Cathy to imagine that she was moving her arm in different directions. Then they monitored which neurons fired for those corresponding movements, all in her imagination.

Using this brain wave information, researchers attached a robotic arm to the computer. The computer translated the electrical impulses detected by the sensor in Cathy's brain back into commands to tell the arm what to do.

Cathy communicates through a device that allows her to type using the movement of her eyes, and she typed that she was ``ecstatic'' about the new technology and hopes it can be expanded to one day allow her to walk again.

The BrainGate team is also working to determine if this technology can ultimately be used to help individuals paralyzed by stroke or injury to regain greater independence. BrainGate is an example of what is possible when the best minds in science and engineering come together for the common good.

Researchers from Brown University, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the German Aerospace Center collaborated on this project. Their efforts were supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, as well as funding from the Veterans' Administration, and several private foundations. BrainGate is just one of the most recent in a long list of medical breakthroughs that are made possible by our National Institutes of Health. The NIH is the cornerstone of our commitment to medical research for the benefit of humanity.

Research supported by the NIH has led to medical advances that have saved and improved countless lives while making America the world leader in discovery and innovation. More than 80 Nobel prizes have been awarded for research supported by the National Institutes of Health.

In Rhode Island, Brown University has received NIH grants to support cutting-edge research on a multitude of diseases, including cancer, dementia, and muscular dystrophy. In fact, the scope of projects at Brown that receive NIH support is so diverse that the university describes its NIH-backed research as covering everything from autism to Alzheimer's. Yet there are those in Congress who have suggested cutting the NIH's budget.

Let's be clear about what cutting the NIH's budget means. It means cutting off funding for research that has provided Cathy Hutchison her first taste of physical independence in 15 years. It means telling the millions of Americans suffering from cancer that they have to wait longer for lifesaving research. It means suffocating a vibrant area of innovation and job creation.

Cutting the NIH budget has ripple effects far beyond just one Federal agency. Quite simply, it will hurt job growth. Medical research is one of the fastest growing fields nationwide. In Rhode Island and across the country, cities are undergoing a renaissance sparked by the growth of high-paying careers in medical research.

I have heard friends on the other side of the aisle talk at length about how we need to do more to create jobs. Well, I could not agree more. Now is no time to put jobs at risk by cutting back on the research funding that makes them possible. I know the Appropriations Committee recently reported a bill to the floor that would increase the NIH budget by $100 million for the coming fiscal year. I applaud my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee for their commitment to this vital agency, and I hope we will soon be able to vote on their measure. But there is something looming on the horizon that will render this $100 million increase all but meaningless. I am talking, of course, about sequestration, under which it is estimated that NIH will face not a $100 million increase but a $2.4 billion cut.

I know a lot of my colleagues have discussed the effect that the sequester will have on defense spending, but it is important to remember that 50 cents out of every dollar of cuts that will occur under sequester will come out of nondefense spending, including specifically the NIH.

``Devastating'' is the word that keeps being used when people are asked how sequester would affect our National Institutes of Health. That is how NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins described the effect of a nearly 8-percent cut to the agency's budget. Those who are familiar with science know how important it is in ongoing experiments that there be a consistent data set through the period of the research.

When we interrupt research for financial reasons, we can damage the value of research conducted in other years. I agree with my colleagues that we must reduce our long-term deficit, but when we cut funding that creates jobs and leads to lifesaving medical breakthroughs we are pursuing policies that are the epitome of penny-wise but pound-foolish.

I hope we in the Senate can work together to find sensible solutions that reduce the deficit while maintaining our longstanding commitment to medical research and innovation. We owe that much to Cathy and to the millions of Americans whose futures will be brighter thanks to the research and jobs made possible by our American National Institutes of Health. When Cathy Hutchison interacts with the BrainGate program, it is hard not to get the sense that we are looking into the future, a future where people like Cathy will know that disease or injury will not transform their bodies into a prison.

It was Arthur C. Clarke who said ``any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.'' For Cathy, for the BrainGate research team, and indeed for anyone who may one day benefit from this remarkable technology, that sip of coffee last spring taken by Cathy Hutchison was a moment of magic. Let's commit ourselves to providing Cathy, the BrainGate team, and all of those who are relying on us in this body to provide the support they need to keep making magical moments like this possible.

I yield the floor.

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Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Madam President, I am delighted to follow the distinguished Senator from Colorado and commend him for his persistence and his passion on preserving the wind production tax credit. We have, as he will recall from our previous discussions together on the floor, facilities that we hope to have going up offshore of Rhode Island very soon that will provide a local source of energy for us, reduce our reliance on imported oil, and create significant and well-paying jobs at home. So I am glad to be his wingman in this pursuit and thank him for his leadership.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Madam President, yesterday marked the end of what is expected to be one of the top five warmest months on record. The USDA recently declared nearly 1,400 counties in 31 States, including, I am sure, many in Colorado, disaster areas as a result of the ongoing drought. NASA and NOAA declared the last decade the warmest on record. In 2011, we faced 14 weather-related disasters that totaled more than $1 billion in damage each. We already have several more that have occurred in 2012.

I have come to the floor today to discuss the science of climate change. Virtually all respected scientific and academic institutions have agreed that climate change is happening, and that human activities are the driving cause of this change. A letter to Congress from a great number of those institutions in October 2009 stated that:

Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science.

If I were to translate that last phrase into layman's terms, it would basically mean if you are saying anything different, we should be looking for your motives.

This letter was signed by the heads of the following organizations: the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union, American Institute of Biological Sciences, American Meteorological Society, American Society of Agronomy,

American Society of Plant Biologists, American Statistical Association, Association of Ecosystem Research Centers, Botanical Society of America, Crop Science Society of America, and a great many others.

These are highly esteemed scientific organizations, and they don't think the jury is still out on climate change. They recognize that, in reality, the verdict is in, and it is time to act.

Over the weekend, Dr. Richard Muller, professor of physics at the University of California-Berkeley, and also director of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project, and a former MacArthur Foundation Fellow--a so-called genius grant award winner--revealed in a New York Times op-ed how he has become a converted climate skeptic. He cites findings from his research, which ironically was partially funded by the Koch brothers, that the Earth's land temperature has increased by 2 1/2 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 250 years and 1 1/2 degrees over the past 50 years. He states:

Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.

Unfortunately, human emission of greenhouse gases is on the rise. In 2011, the famed Mauna Loa Observatory documented the biggest annual jump yet in carbon dioxide. A monitoring station in the Arctic this year measured carbon dioxide at 400 parts per million for the first time, which is 50 parts per million higher than the maximum concentration at which scientists predict a stable climate. Of course, 400 parts per million is way outside the 170 to 300 parts per million bandwidth that has existed on this planet for the past 8,000 centuries. For 800,000 years, we have been between 170 and 300 parts per million, and now in the bellwether leading-edge Arctic area, we cracked 400 in our climate.

A 2012 report by the IPCC concludes that climate change increases the risk of heavy precipitation. Rhode Islanders are no stranger to heavy precipitation. In 2010, we saw flooding that exceeded anything we have seen since the 1870s, when Rhode Island first started keeping records. At the height of the rains, streets in many Rhode Island cities and towns looked more like rivers than roads. Local emergency workers sailed down Providence Street, a main road in West Warwick, by boat and jet skis--down a main road on boats and jet skis--in order to assist residents trapped by the floodwaters. Of course, we cannot link that exact storm to climate change, but we know that climate change is increasing the risk of extreme weather events like this one. It is loading the dice for more and worse storms.

As a New Englander, I was concerned by a report released this week by Environment America, titled ``When It Rains, It Pours.'' The report found that in New England ``intense rainstorms and snowstorms [are] happening 85 percent more often than in 1948. The frequency of intense rain or snowstorms nearly doubled in Vermont and Rhode Island, and more than doubled in New Hampshire.'' Not only are these inundations happening more often, but the largest events are actually dumping more precipitation--around 10 percent more on average--across the country. For States such as mine, these storms are dangerous, expensive, and cause lasting damage.

We are moving down a troublesome and unknown path. The best we can do now is to prepare for dramatic environmental shifts. We must look to science and scientists and use the best available data to protect and prepare both our natural and built environments, which sustain us and our economy. Ensuring the integrity of our infrastructure in the face of a rapidly changing climate is essential. I want to focus for a minute on that infrastructure. Coastal States face a particularly unique set of challenges, so the infrastructure challenge for Rhode Island is worse than many places. We face what I call a triple whammy, as we must adapt not only to extreme temperatures and unusual weather but also to sea level rise.

As average global temperatures rise, less water will be stored in snowpack and on the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland. We also know that at higher temperatures water expands to greater volume, so that leads to a sea level rise, which is predicted to range from 20 to 39 inches by 2100, with recent studies showing that the numbers could be even higher due to greater than expected melting of glaciers and ice sheets. This is not a theory. We are into the realm of measurement.

Long-term data from tide gauges in the historic sailing capital of Newport, RI, show an increase in average sea level of nearly 10 inches since 1930. At these same tide gauges, measurements show that the rate of sea level rise has increased in the past two decades compared to the rate over the last century. This is consistent with reports that since 1990 sea level has been rising faster than the rate predicted by models used to generate IPCC estimates.

Sea level rise is one thing, and the increase in storm surges that will accompany it is even worse and promises to bring devastation to our doorsteps. Critical infrastructure in at-risk coastal areas--roads, powerplants, wastewater treatment plants--will need to be reinforced or relocated. Additionally, our estuaries, marshes, and the barrier islands that act as natural filtration systems and buffers against storms will be inundated, with little time or space to retreat and move inland as they have in the past. The oncoming weather is coming on too fast.

One consequence of rising sea levels is that local erosion rates in Rhode Island have doubled from 1990 to 2006, and some freshwater wetlands near the coast are transitioning to salt marsh. Increased sea level and erosion puts critical public infrastructure at risk. In one example, we have a small but vibrant coastal community, Matunuck, where beaches have eroded 20 feet over the past 12 years. The town has to face difficult decisions as the only road connecting about 1600 residents and several restaurants and businesses is protected now by less than a dozen feet of sand from the ocean.

This road, which provides access for emergency vehicles and lies on top of a water main, must be protected. But what are the costs of protecting this piece of road for areas nearby or farther down the shore? Often when you protect one area of beach from erosion by hardening or altering the shoreline, you do so to the sacrifice of other areas. It takes science and data to sort out how to do that right.

These are not easy decisions for communities. To best protect infrastructure and the communities and families who live in these at-risk areas, we have to, as a nation, plan ahead. We have to use the best and most reliable science, and we have to be able to prioritize adaptation efforts.

In North Carolina, the State legislature considered a measure that would have severely restricted the ability of their Coastal Resources Commission to employ scientific estimates of future sea level rise. That is the ultimate case of the ostrich burying its head in the sand--in this case, the beach sand. This type of thinking will cost money and lives in the future.

In Rhode Island, we are taking a different approach.

We have to if we want to protect public health and safety. Rhode Island has 19 ``high hazard'' dams that have been deemed ``unsafe'' by our Department of Environmental Management. We have 6,000 onsite waste water treatment systems located near the coast, several landfills that may be susceptible to coastal erosion and evacuation routes that could be underwater as sea levels rise.

In 2008, our Coastal Resources Management Council adopted a climate change and sea level rise policy to protect public and private property, infrastructure, and economically valuable coastal ecosystems. The policy states the following:

The Council will integrate climate change and sea-level rise scenarios into its operations to prepare Rhode Island for these new, evolving conditions and make our coastal areas more resilient.

It is the Council's policy to accommodate a base rate of expected 3-5 foot rise in sea level by the year 2100 in the siting, design, and implementation of public and private coastal activities and to insure proactive stewardship of coastal ecosystems under these changing conditions. It should be noted that the 3-5 foot rate of sea-level rise assumption embedded in this policy is relatively narrow and low. The Council recognizes that the lower the sea level rise estimate used, the greater the risk that policies and efforts to adapt sea-level rise and climate change will prove to be inadequate.

This policy is already helping the State make smart decisions. For example, when a new pump station was needed at a sewage treatment plant, CRMC looked at sea-level rise models before determining where it should go, avoiding future relocation costs or malfunction in the face of flash flooding and sea level rise.

In 2010, our general assembly created the Rhode Island Climate Change Commission to study the projected impacts of climate change on the State, develop strategies to adapt to those impacts, and determine mechanisms to incorporate climate adaptation into existing state and municipal programs. A draft progress report from the Commission lists many ways the state is planning to adapt to climate change, including: Creating a ``Structural Concept and Contingency Plan to Inundation of the Ferry Terminals and Island Roadway Systems''; creating the ``Central Landfill Disaster Preparedness Plan''; national grid, our electricity and natural gas utility, undertaking a ``Statewide Substation Flooding Assessment''; the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, and the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency conducting a ``Hurricane and Flooding Evacuation Study''; and the list goes on and on.

In the town of North Kingston, RI, they have taken the best elevation data available, and modeled 1, 3, and 5 feet of sea-level rise, as well as 1 foot of sea-level rise plus 3 feet of storm surge. By overlaying these inundation models on top of maps identifying critical infrastructure such as roads, emergency routes, railroads, water treatment plans, and estuaries, the town will be able to prioritize transportation, conservation, and relocation projects. They are also able to quantify the costs of sea-level rise. In one small area of the town, 1 foot of sea-level rise would put two buildings, valued at $1.3 million, underwater. Five feet of sea-level rise, however, jeopardizes 116 buildings valued at $91 million.

Similarly, by modeling how sea-level rise will impact estuaries, towns can preserve areas that will stay wetlands or undeveloped areas that will become wetlands in the future, as opposed to areas that will be lost. Estuaries act as nurseries for our hugely valuable fisheries, and protect our homes, buildings and communities from storm surge. There is already limited funding to protect these important ecosystems and this kind of planning promotes efficiency in spending.

Let me close by saying that it is now well past time for us as a country to start making policy that helps us adapt to the emerging scientific reality that our actions indeed do affect our environment. For those of us who are ocean States, the state of our oceans and coastlines is particularly significant, and I urge my colleagues to support our National Endowment for the Oceans, which got all the way into the conference committee on the highway bill before it was taken out in an unfortunate, unwise, and, frankly, unfair maneuver.

We are at a place now where nature could not be giving us clearer warnings. Whatever higher power there is--and we each have our own beliefs on that--that higher power that gave us our advanced human capacity for perception, for calculation, for analysis, for deduction, and for foresight has laid out before us more than enough information for us to make the right decisions. Only a wild and reckless greed or a fatal hubris could blind us to the distress signals coming from our oceans, our atmosphere, and our world. Fortunately, these human capacities still provide us everything we need to act responsibly but only if we will.

I thank the Presiding Officer, and I yield the floor.

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