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Public Statements

Climate Change

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, I am back again to remind this body and the American people for what I think is perhaps the 32nd speech on this subject that I have been giving weekly, that it is time, indeed it is well past time, for Congress to wake up to the disastrous effects of global climate change. The famous Mauna Loa Observatory has for the first time ever hit 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. That is an alarming benchmark to have hit.

What is happening? Over on the House side today they are repealing ObamaCare for the 37th time. That is the level of seriousness in Washington right now. In particular, our oceans--the Presiding Officer represents the Bay State, I represent the Ocean State--our oceans face an unprecedented set of challenges that come from climate change as well as from pollution and energy exploration and more.

We just have to look around to see it. We can look up to the far north and see that the Arctic ice is melting. Indeed, last summer sea ice extant in the Arctic Ocean hit a record low.

If we go south to the tropic seas, we will see that live coral coverage on Caribbean reefs is plummeting. It is down to less than 10 percent today. If we go to the top of the food chain, we will see marine mammals so laden with PCBs, flame retardants, mercury, and other bioaccumulative pollutants that many of them are swimming toxic waste--living, swimming toxic waste.

If we go to the very bottom of the food chain, we will see that the population of phytoplankton--some of our smallest ocean inhabitants and the basic building block for the oceanic food chain--has dropped 40 percent during the 20th century.

If we go far away from where we are, we will reach the great Pacific garbage patch, which is growing and swirling about the northern Pacific Ocean.

Close to my home--and near the Presiding Officer's home--is Narragansett Bay, which is 4 degrees warmer in the winter than it was a few decades ago.

Globally, the most threatening challenge, and the force behind many others, is ocean acidification. Our oceans have absorbed more than 550 billion tons of our carbon pollution. Try to wrap your head around a number that big. That is the carbon the ocean has absorbed from the excess we have pumped into the atmosphere.

The result is pretty clear, and it is a matter of basic chemistry. The oceans have become more acidic. Indeed, they have become 30 percent more acidic. By the way, that is a measurement, not a theory.

By the end of this century, the increase could be as much as 160 percent more acidic. That makes life a lot harder for species such as oysters, crabs, lobsters, corals, and even those plankton that comprise the base of the food web.

Ocean temperatures are changing dramatically--also driven by carbon pollution. Sea surface temperatures in 2012, from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Hatteras, were the highest ever recorded in 150 years. By the way, that is another measurement.

Fish stocks are shifting northward with some disappearing from U.S. waters as they move farther offshore. As we know, when the temperature rises, water expands in volume. On top of that, fresh water pours out of Arctic snowpacks and ice sheets that are melting, and as a result sea levels are rising.

Tide gauges in Newport, RI, show an increase in average sea level of 10 inches since 1930. That is a big deal when we in Rhode Island think of how devastating the great hurricane of 1938 was to our shores and what more would now befall us with 10 more inches of sea for such a storm to throw at our shores.

At these tide gauges, measurements show not only the sea level rising but the rate of sea level rise is increasing. This matches reports that since 1990, the sea level has been rising faster than the rate predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

I have said before: We will continue to take advantage of the ocean's bounty, as we should. We will trade, we will fish, and we will sail. We will extract fuel and harness the wind. We will work our oceans. Navies and cruise ships, sailboats and supertankers will plow their surface. We cannot undo this part of our relationship with the sea. What we can change is what we do in return. For the first time we can become not just takers but caretakers of our oceans.

We are beginning to take some baby steps. Last week, the Senate voted 67 to 32 to authorize a national endowment for the oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes, which is a funding stream for research, restoration, and protection of our marine and coastal resources. I hope that before long we can find a way to fund it by working with all of my colleagues. The famous ocean explorer Bob Ballard has described as ``a major problem ..... the disconnect between the importance of oceans and the meager funds we as a nation invest to not only understand their complexity, but become responsible stewards of the bounty they represent.''

This endowment--if we can get it over the remaining legislative hurdles and get it funded--will help us become more responsible stewards of that bounty. It will help us better respond to oilspills, it will help coastal States protect or relocate coastal infrastructure, and it will help our fisheries and marine industries take part in economically important conservation efforts.

I sincerely appreciate the support shown for this amendment by colleagues from every region of the country and both sides of the aisle. Protecting the oceans upon which our communities and our economy depend is neither a Democratic nor a Republican objective, and there ought to be a great deal of agreement on the need to meet these challenges.

We also see that agreement in the bipartisan Senate Oceans Caucus, which works to increase awareness of and find common ground on issues facing the oceans and coasts.

My fellow cochair Senator Murkowski, honorary cochair Senator Mark Begich, Senator

Mark Wicker, and all of our partners are working to stop illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. We are working to clean up marine debris and collect baseline scientific data so we can make policy-informed decisions. This is important work. It demonstrates the good both parties can accomplish when we come together. I look forward to getting it done, but it is not enough. Until we address what is causing our oceans to change so drastically, until we protect our planet from carbon pollution unprecedented in human history, we are doing little more than putting Band-Aids on a gaping and growing wound.

I want to push back on the idea that so many of us seem to have accepted, that we cannot do anything serious on carbon pollution. In fact, we can. The tools to do it lie right around us, if only we would pick them up and go to work.

Very simply, here is my case: Pricing carbon is necessary. Make big carbon polluters pay a fee to the American people to cover the cost of dumping their waste into our atmosphere and oceans--a cost they now push off on to the rest of us--and return that fee to the American people.

At present, however, political conditions in Congress do not allow us to price carbon. It is necessary. Political conditions do not allow us to do it, so we must change those political conditions.

Changing the political conditions will require three actions: No. 1, there has to be a regulatory threat to the polluters. No. 2, there must be a political threat to the deniers here in the Senate and in Congress. No. 3, those of us who wish to limit carbon pollution must gather the armies that are on our side.

Let me go through those steps. First, as long as the polluters and their allies control Congress, legislative action is unlikely. That means we have to rely on the executive branch for regulatory action--very strong regulatory action that will change the equation for the polluters. That is the test. Will it change the equation for the polluters?

The status quo is a win for the polluters. They pollute for free. Change that balance, and it will not take them long to come to Congress. Why? Because regulatory action puts costs directly on the polluters but creates no revenues for them. A carbon pollution fee, now that creates revenues. A portion of that could offset their costs of transitioning to a green economy.

If that is the choice they have--regulation with no revenues or a fee they can get revenues from--it becomes in their interest to strike a deal in Congress. This regulatory step in the executive branch will, however, require an awakening at the White House.

Second, to create a meaningful political threat, the advocates out there for our climate and our oceans will need to employ all of the sophisticated political tools the polluters use--all the political artillery of the post-Citizens United world.

There is an expression that you should not bring a knife to a gunfight. Right now climate advocates bring not even a knife but a feather to this gunfight. It is no wonder we lose. When deniers in Congress see real artillery coming on the political field against them, some will rethink.

Third, and last, is gathering the armies. There is astonishingly wide support for action on climate. Obviously environmental groups support this, as well as the green energy and investment industry, our national security officials, property casualty insurers and reinsurers, young people--such as the growing college movement for coal divestment--faith groups, many utilities, celebrities, hunting, fishing, outdoor, conservation groups, retailers, such as Apple, Coca-Cola and Nike, labor groups, mayors, local officials, and the public. The public is with us, and the polls show that.

The problem: Most of this support is latent and unorganized. None of these groups feel they can carry this battle on their own; yet if they choose to unite, create an allied command, assemble these various divisions and join in on a strategy that deploys them all effectively into action, that latent strength becomes potent strength, and that is a game changer.

When the polluting industry is looking down the barrel of a regulatory gun, when their political allies are fearful of a strongly backed political operation--backed also by the American people--when mobilized and motivated forces from a wide swath of the economy and multiple sectors are all active, the political landscape then shifts dramatically and a price on carbon is achievable.

I propose to the American people, to those who believe it is time to wake up and take action, to fend off devastating changes to our oceans and our climate: Let us be not faint of heart. Let us have the strength of our convictions and get to work and get this done. We can do it. The tools to do it already lie all around us. This can all take place quite rapidly. Let's get it done.

I yield the floor.


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