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Public Statements

Flood Insurance and Modernization Act

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, I come to the floor of the Senate today to speak about a number, a number that has a particular significance for us here, and that number is 400. Why is 400 an important number at this point in our history? What is important about 400 is that it is the number of parts per million of carbon dioxide that has been measured this spring in the Arctic.

This is a first. We have never hit 400 before. For 8,000 centuries mankind has inhabited this planet within an atmospheric carbon dioxide range of 190 to 300 parts per million. That is the range, the bandwidth, within which we have lived.

How long is 800,000 years? It is a pretty darn long time. I don't think there are any human remains or artifacts that go back further than 200,000 years. If we go back more than 10,000 years, we are only seeing the very beginnings of agriculture, where people are beginning to scratch the soil and plant things. For longer than our species has effectively inhabited this Earth, we have been in this happy bandwidth that has supported our lives, supported congenial climate for human development.

We are out of that now for the first time in that period--800,000 years--and we are not just a little bit out of it. We didn't go to 302 or to 350. We have now crossed 400, and we are still going. We are still going, and there is no end in sight.

We continue to dump gigatons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere every single year, and we continue to subsidize the people who do the dumping. At least in this building, and probably in the boardrooms of ExxonMobil and a few other places, we studiously ignore the facts that are right before our faces.

Here are just a few stories from the past week or so: A June 4 story in the New York Times reported that ``climate change threatens power output.''

Why would a warming climate change threaten power output? It is because warmer waters, when they are pumped through powerplants, don't provide the same cooling capacity. So if we are going to keep plants from overheating, we have to dial back the power output. For places such as the heavily developed U.S. Northeast, we can be pretty close to our margins from time to time, particularly when air-conditioning loads are high in the summer, and those hot days increase the risk of power cutbacks or conceivably even power outages.

A June 5 story in the U.S. News and World Report described a recently published article in which several European public health experts wrote that climate change could alter patterns of food availability and change disease distribution, all in ways that could harm human health.

If we want an example of how the change in climate changes the way things move around on this Earth, we have to look no further than the pine beetle, which is decimating our traditional western forests because the winters are no longer cold enough to kill off the larvae. As the warmth moves ever northward, so do the larvae, and we can fly over mountains and look down and see the brown wasteland of trees that used to be green pine forests.

NOAA reported that the lower 48 States just experienced the warmest May on record. The national average temperature for this spring--March through May--was 5.2 degrees above the 20th century's long-term average, surpassing the previous warmest spring ever, in 1910, by 2 full degrees.

Some States are warming faster than others, and Rhode Island, unfortunately for us, is at the top of the list. Climate Central, a research organization, crunched averages of the daily high and low temperatures from the National Climatic Data Center's U.S. Historical Climatology Network of weather stations. Their recently published report determined that over the past 100 years, Rhode Island has actually warmed the fastest of any State. This has terrible consequences for us, from shifting our growing season to harming the cold-water fish we catch in our warming Narragansett Bay.

As an aside, when my wife was doing her graduate research out in Narragansett Bay, she was studying the interaction between winter flounder and a shrimp that lives in the bay called Crangon septemspinosa. The reason that was important then was because winter flounder was a huge cash crop for our Rhode Island fishermen. It hasn't been that long since she did her graduate research, and winter flounder has fallen off as a cash crop for our fishermen. Narragansett Bay has warmed. The water temperature is up nearly 4 degrees, which may not seem much to terrestrial beings like us when we jump in the water and it is 64 degrees instead of 60 degrees. Does that really make a difference to us? No. But for the fish for whom that is their entire ecosystem, that has shifted and has demolished the winter flounder fisheries, which are down something like 10 times.

Many people understand that there is a connection between carbon pollution in our atmosphere and these warming temperatures. But it is becoming incontrovertible that these things are happening. The science behind this is rock solid. People say there are questions about the theory. No. No, there are not. There are questions about some of the complicated modeling that people go through. But the theory has been clear since the time of the American Civil War. The scientist, John Tyndall, determined that increasing moisture and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had a blanketing effect that kept heat in, trapped heat on our planet. That has been basic textbook science for a century. It has never been controverted. It is a law, essentially, of science. Yet there are special interests who try to deny that.

Set against those special interests is about as unanimous a coalition from science as has ever been assembled. Virtually every prestigious scientific and academic institution has stated that climate change is happening, and human activities--specifically our reckless release of carbon pollution--are the driving cause of this change.

In 2009, there was a very clear letter, signed by 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, and on and on. Here is what they said in pretty darn hard-hitting words for scientists:

Observations throughout the world make it clear--

``Clear'' is the word they used--

that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.

Not observations throughout the world make it ``likely'' that it is occurring, and not ``potentially'' indicates, and not the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities ``might be'' the primary driver. It is ``clear'' it has demonstrated that they are the primary drivers. They go on:

These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence--

Here is what we might call the sockdolager--

and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science.

In a nutshell, if you are looking at the actual peer-reviewed science and being objective--if you are not putting your thumb on the scale--contrary assertions are inconsistent with that. You are basically making it up.

So that is a pretty powerful statement. The argument that the jury is still out on climate change is a false and bogus argument. The jury is not out. In fact, the verdict is in. The effects are obvious. They surround us every day, and we need to take action.

I have been on the Senate floor with Senator Franken before, and we have talked about this. He makes a wonderful point, which is that 97 percent of the climate scientists agree that this is happening, it is happening because of our carbon pollution, and we need to do something urgent about it.

Three percent question it. That is 97-to-3 odds. We are asked to avoid taking any action, not to worry about it because there is doubt and debate. Translate that to real, ordinary human life, not this peculiar political world we are in here.

Let's say someone has a child, and the child appears to be sick. They go in to see the doctor, and he says: Yes, your child is sick, and she is going to need treatment.

They say: Yes, but treatment is expensive, and it might be unpleasant. I will tell you what, I am going to get a second opinion.

So then they go to another doctor, and he says the same thing--that their child is sick and will need treatment. They say: Well, two opinions are kind of a lot, but let's just be sure and get a third opinion. That doctor says the same thing too.

What would we think of the parents who did that 100 times, who were told by 97 out of 100 doctors that the child was sick and needed treatment, and they said: You know what, there is doubt about this. I am not sure, so I am not going to give my child the treatment they need.

It is a preposterous example, isn't it? It is an absolutely ridiculous point of view for the parent to hold. Yet that is exactly the point of view we are being asked to hold to deny and delay the steps we have to take to protect us, our children, and our country from the damage that is being done, frankly, by ourselves--the polluting interests that we don't take adequate steps to put on the right track toward a successful and clean energy future.

The last thing I will say is on that exact point. The more we depend on fossil fuels, the more we depend on a diminishing resource that pollutes our country. It is a diminishing force that goes up under the laws of supply and demand, and in practice, and right now, forces us to engage with foreign oil-producing countries that do not have our best interests at heart. We send our dollars--hundreds of millions of them--into their treasuries so that money can filter out into organizations that actually wish to do us harm. That is not a great state of affairs.

The alternative is a clean energy future where American homes are more efficient. We have replaced windows and added insulation and improved boilers. We have created innumerable jobs through all that work, and we have paid for it with reduced energy costs.

It pays for itself. Sometimes it pays for itself in 1 year, sometimes in 2 years, sometimes in 5 years, but it pays for itself and it creates work.

We are in a battle right now for clean energy technologies. It is an international competition. It is us against China, us against India, us against the European Union. Every single one of the other countries gets it, and they are trying to push resources onto their clean energy industries so they can lap us in this race, so they can get so far ahead of us that we become the world's biggest global consumer of clean energy, not its biggest manufacturer.

We invented the solar cell. Fifteen years ago, we made 40 percent of all the solar cells in the world. I think we are down to 7 percent now. The top 10 wind turbine companies in the world include one American company--one. And by knocking down the production tax credits, by eliminating the 1603 Program, by subsidizing Big Oil like crazy, people in this building are doing their very best not to help us in the race against foreign competition but to put weights in the pockets of American companies, to tie their shoelaces together, to interfere with their ability to compete. They do not see it yet as international competition. They are so tied to the fossil fuel industry that they only see it as competition between fossil fuels and clean energy, and in that battle they want to be with the fossil fuel energy. They do not see the future. They do not see how important these technologies are going to be in batteries, in wind, in clean energy, and in all these areas where we can not only command our energy future by building and creating the power we use and unhinge ourselves from these foreign dictatorships that run off oil economies, but we can improve the future and the safety of our planet by dialing down the pollution.

My State pays a particular price. We are downwind of the midwestern polluters--the big utility companies, the big manufacturing companies, the ones that have built thousand-foot-high smokestacks for the specific purpose of shoving as much of their pollution as high in the atmosphere as they can so that it doesn't rain down on their States--not on Missouri, Ohio, or Pennsylvania--but that it rains down on Rhode Island, on Massachusetts, on Vermont, and on other States.

I was here earlier this morning talking about the mercury rule. We have ponds and lakes and reservoirs in Rhode Island where it is unsafe to eat the fish you catch because of mercury poisoning. It is unsafe everywhere in Rhode Island to eat the fish you catch if you are a child or an expectant mother. Nobody can safely eat the fish you catch in these ponds because there is so much mercury in them. How did the mercury get there? How did the mercury get there? From pollution out of the smokestacks dumped down on our State. And there is nothing we can do to prevent it other than to support the EPA in these mercury-limit rules.

There is a real cost to continuing down this fossil fuel path. My home State pays it all the time. And when it comes time to reap the whirlwind of storm activity, of sea level rise, coastal States such as Rhode Island will pay a particularly high price.

I am going to continue to come to the Senate floor. This is not a popular topic. The Presiding Officer, Senator Sanders of Vermont, is eloquent, articulate, and a constant ally on these subjects. There are a handful of us who are regulars on this subject, but I think a great many of my colleagues and virtually everybody on the other side of the aisle would just as soon wash their hands of it, forget about it, pretend it is not happening, and continue to sleepwalk toward disaster. So I will keep doing this. It is important to my State. I believe it is important for our country.

I appreciate the attention of the Presiding Officer and those who have the attention of the floor.

I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.


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