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Whitehouse Statement on Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. President, as the Senate reconvenes this week here in Washington, many States are still working to clean up the wreckage left behind by Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, and the States are already making new preparations to protect against future extreme weather events.

Hurricane Sandy will be remembered both for the large area it affected and for the devastation wrought by its fierce winds and massive storm surge--more than 100 lives lost, 8.5 million homes and businesses without power, $20 billion in property damage, and possibly another $30 billion in lost business. Hurricane Sandy was no doubt an extreme weather event and she is likely to be the second costliest Atlantic storm in U.S. history at more than $50 billion.

Sandy slammed into the east coast, causing destruction from the Mid-Atlantic up through New England. The States of New Jersey and New York were hit especially hard, and our thoughts and prayers and our promise of prompt and meaningful support go out to all of those affected across the region.

In my home State of Rhode Island, moderate to major flooding occurred along the entire southern coastline, with some areas experiencing severe erosion and destruction.

Houses were swept off their foundations in our southern coast communities such as Matunuck, shown in this photo I have in the Chamber. As shown in this picture, here is our former colleague in the Senate, now Governor Chafee, inspecting the interior of a house with its front having been washed off. And you can see the neighboring cottage that is in the ocean. Other small cottages have been actually destroyed by the ocean in that location.

Beaches and dunes were driven down by the waves and wind, and thick sand and stone deposits covered up roads, as was the case on Atlantic Avenue in Misqaumicut, which was just being dug out here in this photograph.

Nearly 30 percent of Rhode Island's residents were directly affected by this storm. President Obama granted Governor Chafee's request for a Federal disaster declaration in four of our State's five counties. More than 130,000 Rhode Islanders lost power and 8 cities and towns were forced to implement evacuations. The whole State will be affected by the as of yet unknown millions in damage and lost business.

But Rhode Island is resilient. Some businesses hit hard by Sandy and the subsequent nor'easter have already reopened. Others are working hard to reopen soon. Here in this picture we can see Atlantic Avenue from the sky. And the owners of Paddy's Beach Restaurant, shown here, as well as their neighbors all along the beach, are determined to reopen for the summer tourist season.

I remember walking through this little notch here with the owners of Paddy's, and looking at this scene of devastation around them, and the owners saying: That is not so bad. We can rebuild. We will be back on our feet in no time. They already had friends and volunteers on site with hammers and shovels and saws, cleaning up and getting things put right.

The Ocean State of Rhode Island has a special relationship with the seas, and that special relationship requires that we accept challenges presented by extreme ocean weather, and it is part of our day-to-day life on the coast to be part of that proud and rewarding tradition.

But many of us recognize that this tradition, as President Obama reminded us on election night, is--to quote the President--"threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."

It is difficult to say whether extreme weather such as Hurricane Sandy was specifically caused by climate change. But we do know that a warming planet increases both the severity and the likelihood of these storms; that it, to use one analogy, loads the dice for extreme weather.

The atmosphere and oceans are getting warmer. We know that. As oceans get warmer, storm systems such as Sandy gather more moisture and energy from them and grow stronger. John T. Fasullo and Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO, estimate that when Hurricane Sandy struck, ocean temperatures along the east coast were nearly 5 degrees above normal, in part attributed to global warming.

Warmer oceans expand. We know that too. This expansion, along with melting glaciers and snowpack, has resulted in a measurable and continuing rise of sea levels along our coasts. And, of course, as sea levels rise, tides and waves and storms and storm surges reach farther inland.

Sandy caused a whopping storm surge. That is the column of water that is formed by the winds and the pressure system of a major storm. That surge peaked at about 5 1/2 feet in Newport, RI, less than the 9 1/2 feet in the Battery in Lower Manhattan but still significant.

At the Newport tide gauge, mean sea level is up 10 inches. Mean sea level is up 10 inches from our devastating famous Hurricane of 1938, and these extra inches of sea level increased Sandy's storm surge by at least that amount. Experts predict that the sea level rise will continue up to 3 to 5 feet more in Rhode Island by the end of the century.

If we do not recognize the need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and to prepare our infrastructure for climate change, future superstorms will be even more damaging than Hurricane Sandy. Hurricane Sandy was, in some respects, a preview of coming attractions. By 2100, the ocean will sit higher, be warmer, and feed more moisture and heat into storms. In addition, the oceans will be far more acidic, but that is for another speech.

Tomorrow, the Committee on Environment and Public Works, which the Presiding Officer serves on with such distinction, will hold a legislative hearing on the Water Resources Development Act. I appreciate very much Chairman Boxer's response to storms such as Sandy and the foresight she had to include a postdisaster program in the draft that will help States such as mine recover from extreme events such as Hurricane Sandy.

Also included is the Northeast coastal restoration program aimed at building the natural and manmade barriers and buffers that helped protect our lives, our infrastructure, and our natural resources from great storms such as Sandy.

When average temperatures rise, we can also expect daily temperature records to be broken. When the average sea level rises, we can also expect an increase in peak coastal flooding. In fact, we have seen thousands of daily temperature records broken and costly coastal flooding and the pain and damage caused by these extreme events has inevitably turned the Nation's attention to climate change.

That is why a growing chorus of voices is convinced and concerned about climate change. A University of Texas poll asked respondents in March and then again in July of this year if they thought global climate change was occurring. It is interesting. The percentage of Democrats convinced of global climate change went from 83 percent in March up to 87 percent amid the high heat and drought of the summer of 2012.

Among Independents, the percentage rose from 60 percent in March to 72 percent in July as news of the unusual weather spread around the country. Even among Republicans, the number of believers who acknowledged that climate change was prevalent went from 45 percent to 53 percent. The party whose hallmark in Congress is denial of climate change, that put forward the view that climate change is a hoax, now actually has a majority of voters who recognize this reality. So this Chamber is getting further and further apart from the reality of the public, even from the reality of the Republican public.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg of New York wrote:

"Our climate is changing ..... And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be--given the devastation it is wreaking--should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action."

The only place where denial still prevails is in Congress where polluter money has such influence. But polluter money cannot change the facts. A study recently published in Science shows that greenhouse gases captured in air bubbles stretching back 650,000 years show that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now 27 percent higher than its highest recorded level at any other point in that time.

This year, an Arctic monitor has registered atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at 400 parts per million for the first time; the first time ever that a carbon dioxide sensor has hit this ominous milestone. For tens of thousands of years, for 800,000 years actually, 8,000 centuries, we have been in a range of 170 to 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Now we are starting to see measures of 400. We are in unprecedented and uncharted territory.

We know we will need to adapt our coastal infrastructure to keep communities safe and prosperous in this changing climate. We will be relocating roads and bridges. We will be bolstering utilities and protecting water and wastewater infrastructure. We will be revising our flood maps and our emergency planning.

The Senate needs to do its part to ready us for adaptation in the face of a changing climate. We can address these issues in legislation such as WRDA and Defense reauthorization, even in the budget debate. But the overwhelming majority of scientists is convinced that our climate is changing, and all the evidence shows they are right.

Indeed, the evidence shows it appears to be their worst-case scenarios that are the correct ones. We must be willing to take the necessary actions to prepare both for the new normal climate change is bringing and for the new extremes climate change portends.

I yield the floor.

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