A picture of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Sheldon W.
Democrat RI

About Sen. Sheldon
  • Climate Change

    by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

    Posted on 2015-01-07

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    WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, this is my first ``Time to Wake Up'' speech in the Senate as a Member of the minority. Being in the minority will give me the opportunity, for the first time, to use the tools uniquely available to Members of the Senate minority. On the issue of climate change, which is affecting all of our States but particularly Rhode Island, I intend to use those tools politely and persistently.

    We have just left a period of partisanship and obstruction by the minority unique in the Senate's history. I do not intend to return us to those days. My intent is to enliven the Senate and see to it that it does its duty, that we as Senators do our duty to our fellow Americans. My intent is not to blockade and degrade this great institution with obstruction for the sake of obstruction. My goal, in short, is Senate action, not Senate inaction.

    Pope Francis recently spoke to the world about mankind's care of God's creation. He warned us against what he called negligence and inaction. I hope to be a constant spur in the Senate against negligence and inaction, specifically the negligence and inaction that is our present Senate standard of care for God's Earth.

    I know that powerful forces of negligence and inaction are arrayed against us. I know the Supreme Court's reckless and shameful decision in the Citizens United case has empowered those forces as never before. I know there has resulted an unprecedented campaign by polluting interests of political spending and threats. It is plain to see that the polluters' campaign has, for now at least, silenced meaningful bipartisan debate about carbon pollution. We can line up the Citizens United decision and the silence almost exactly. Coal and oil interests are enjoying massive economic subsidies--massive subsidies--and similar to any special interest, they will fight to protect those special benefits. But it can't last. It can't last. My confidence is strong because our American democracy is ultimately founded in the will of the American people, and the American people understand the need to end our days of negligence and inaction. They want us to run the blockade that polluters have built around Congress.

    Polling shows this. More than 80 percent of Americans say they see climate change happening right around them. Two-thirds say they would pay more for electricity if it would help solve this problem. Among Independents, that is 64 percent.

    Even among young Republicans, voters get it--young voters, anyway. Under the age of 35, most Republican voters, according to polls, think that climate denial is ignorant, out of touch or crazy. Those are the words from the poll. Under 50 years of age, a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents support action against climate change. Among all Republicans of all ages, fully half support restrictions on carbon dioxide, and nearly half think the United States should lead the fight.

    Trusted American institutions get it, too--from the Joint Chiefs of Staff of our military services to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, from all of America's major scientific societies to the experts we trust day in and day out at NOAA and at NASA, and from the leaders of America's corporate community--Walmart and Target, Apple and Google, Ford and GM, Mars and Nestle USA, Alcoa and Starbucks, Coke and Pepsi. From all of them and from many other respected voices comes the message that climate change is a serious threat. I have confidence that Congress will soon have to heed their voices.

    We might mention the recent agreement in Lima where 194 countries all agreed to carbon reductions. Does the Republican Party in the United States of America really want to be aligned with Vladimir Putin, the great international climate denier? My confidence also comes from necessity. This simply must be done. Our human species developed on this earth in a climate window that has always been between 170 and 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--always. For as long as human kind has been here on Earth, carbon concentration has wobbled up and down but always within that range--through our entire history, going back a million and probably more years. We have now rocketed outside that range and broken 400 parts per million, a condition on Earth that is a first, again, in millions of years.

    Our oceans, as a result, are acidifying measurably at a rate unprecedented in the life of our species. One has to go back into distant geologic time to find anything similar. If you go back that far and look at what the geologic record tells us about what life was like on the planet in those primal eras, it presents a daunting prospect.

    The scientific warnings about what this means are now starting to be matched in our experience with unprecedented rain bursts and droughts, wildfires and heat seasons, sea levels and ocean temperatures. In the tropic seas, coral reefs are dying off at startling rates; in the Arctic seas, sea ice is vanishing at levels never recorded until now. Everywhere the oceans shout a warning to those who will listen. Rhode Island, as a coastal State, as the Ocean State, is particularly hard hit. We get the land problems such as the rain bursts heavily associated with climate change, which in 2010 brought unprecedented flooding along our historic rivers. We have the sea level rise. It is expected now to be several feet by the end of the century--by a warming sea that has also disturbed our fisheries and distressed our fishing economy. ``It is not my grandfather's ocean out there,'' as one commercial fisherman told me.

    This only goes one way. There is no theory of how this magically gets better on its own. Every theory--and now most observations--all point to all this getting worse and perhaps very badly worse. The time for negligence and inaction has passed.

    In the Senate we need to begin a conversation about this. We have to begin at the beginning. We have to agree on a baseline of facts, principles, and laws of nature that can then inform our judgments about what to do. I do not think it is asking too much of the new majority in the Senate to begin an honest conversation about carbon dioxide and climate change. I don't think that it is too much to ask the new majority in the Senate that we undertake this conversation in a serious and responsible manner. I do not think that is extreme or unreasonable. We need to begin at the beginning in this conversation, and I will make every effort to see to it that we begin. But even as we begin, we can keep the end in sight. That end is a world where polluters pay the costs of their pollution. That in turn creates a world where market forces work properly in our energy markets. The end is a world where it is America that seizes the economic promise of these new energy technologies, where we are builders--not buyers--of the energy devices of the future. The end is a world that turns back from the brink of a plainly foreseeable risk where the consequences of negligence and inaction could well be dire for us and for the generations that follow us.

    In sum, we in this Senate have a duty before us, and negligence and inaction will not meet what that duty demands. For those of you with a coal economy or an oil economy in your States, I understand and I want to work with you. There are answers to be found. But please, do not pretend that this problem doesn't exist. That is false and unacceptable.

    I must, on behalf of my State and on behalf of our future, insist that we in the Senate meet our duty, even under this new Senate majority--and I will.

    [[Page S40]] I yield the floor, and I thank the Presiding Officer for his patience.


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