Climate Change—(Continued)by Senator Jack Reed
Posted on 2014-03-10
REED. Mr. President, I rise this morning to join my colleagues in
calling for action to address climate change. This is a global
challenge that has far-reaching consequences for our economy, our
public health, and our national security.
I begin by thanking my colleague Senator Schatz, who is with us; Senator Whitehouse, my colleague from Rhode Island; Senator Boxer; and members of the Senate Climate Action Task Force for their leadership and for bringing so many of our colleagues to the floor last evening and through the early hours of this morning to call attention to the critical issue of climate change.
This issue is daunting and difficult. One reason it is so daunting and difficult is that it is a slow-moving crisis. We are often faulted for not responding to critical issues before us, but we are certainly faulted for not responding to those that have evolved over many months and many years--the nature of our political process, the nature of our attention span, and the fact that other issues crowd out these longer term issues. But what we have seen as we look back is a clear path of evidence suggesting that our climate is changing. Our climate is changing in ways that are going to disadvantage us--disadvantage us in terms of our economic productivity, our national security, and it is going to disadvantage us in terms of things that we take for granted.
Senator Blumenthal, Senator Murphy, Senator Whitehouse, and I grew up along the New England coast. I am a little older than my colleagues, but in the 1950s and 1960s those coasts had wide beaches and homes built along those beaches for middle-class workers. All of that has literally eroded over the last several years--particularly these superstorms that have come up our coast. Now we are seeing that places we saw as our summer ideal, beautiful places, have literally been lost. Homes have been upended by storms. Areas that were frequently places for summer relaxation are now gone because of rising seas and because of changing climates around oceans, bays, and our estuaries. This is only one example. I could go on and on. This evidence is so clear-cut, so condemning, and so convincing that we have to take steps now.
Across the globe, these issues are also increasingly important. It is not simply a localized issue. This is an issue which is impacting every person across every part of the globe. We see temperatures increasing, seasons shifting, sea levels rising, extreme water events becoming more frequent, and heat-related illnesses and diseases on the rise.
As I said before, these changes are being felt everywhere--they are being felt in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Hawaii, and all across this country. California has been enduring a crippling drought, and in other parts of the world we have seen unusually large rains. All of these weather patterns suggest that there is a changing dynamic that has consequences. We have to deal with these consequences.
There are some who would argue that we should take no action to mitigate these impacts because there is a cost of addressing these issues, a cost to our economy. In fact, there have been proposals introduced in Congress that would greatly restrict the U.S. EPA, for example. Their position is: See no evil. Hear no evil. Do nothing.
That approach is only going to make this problem worse. That approach is going to make the cost for us but also, more profoundly, for our children and the next generation of Americans, much more severe. We have to act wisely now. We have to move forward wisely now.
I think we have to do so with the notion--which I think is quite obvious and true--that sound environmental protection is not in contradiction to economic growth. In fact, they work together hand in hand. We have to have the long-term combination of sound environmental policy to encourage sustainable, economic growth. A healthy environment is essential for our economy and for our quality of life. Indeed, the strength of the economy depends on the health and resilience of our people, our critical infrastructure, and our natural resources. The cost of inaction, as I have suggested, is substantial, and it will be paid.
We talked today about rising seas, and as we look at most of our major cities, many of them are clustered on the ocean. They started there. They were ports. They were points of entry into the United States. They are the economic engines that drove this country from its founding until today.
But as our seas rise, critical infrastructure is jeopardized. There have been discussions in New York City, for [[Page S1457]] example, of building walls in certain low-lying areas of Manhattan. That whole process is likely a multimillion-dollar process, and it might well have to be taken--certainly, if we do nothing--because the rise of these tides seems inevitable. But if we act now, it might be mitigated or lessened or, through different techniques, avoided. But it takes action now. That is why my colleagues have tried to galvanize us into this session to underscore the need to act and the need to act promptly.
According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, economic losses from weather-related events, including floods, droughts, and storms, have been significant and have been increasing. That is sort of the dynamic we are seeing. Not only are we seeing an increase in these weather incidents, but we are seeing them in a larger scale and it seems to be an accelerating process--more and larger weather incidents creating more damage.
We in Rhode Island and our sister States, Connecticut and Massachusetts, saw significant damage from Sandy, but we did not receive the brunt of the storm. However, that was a factor that could have altered, indeed, hours before the storm hit. We were concerned it would come straight, pouring down on Rhode Island with catastrophic effects.
Fortunately we missed the worst of it, but that was not the fortune of New Jersey and New York. They suffered billions of dollars in damage. They are still trying to restore communities, and they are still trying to restore services. We have had some effects, too, that we are dealing with.
But what we have seen is these storms coming repeatedly. My sort of vague history of hurricanes in Rhode Island--it was the 1938 hurricane that came roaring through. I was not there, but that was a devastating event. Then there was the 1954 hurricane, Hurricane Carol, and that was a devastating event. But there was, it seemed to me at least--and this is anecdotal more than analytical--a decade or more, 15 years, almost 20 years between storms. In the interim the storms were the old- fashioned nor'easters. They would come and go, and there would be a little damage but nothing significant. But that pattern and intensity of storms seem to have increased in their repetitiveness and their nearness of time. What we are seeing is a barrage, really, of economic events--huge environmental events--that have huge economic costs.
According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, since 1980 the United States has sustained 151 weather- related disasters where overall damages reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total cost of these events tops $1 trillion. In 2012 Superstorm Sandy, the prolonged Midwest drought, and the nine other weather- related disasters led to damages in excess of $110 billion, making 2012 the second costliest year for disasters.
Let's stop and think. These disasters--that is $110 billion or so for Superstorm Sandy and some of the other incidents that took place in 2012--if they were avoided or mitigated, could allow public resources to be used for other things. That is one of the facts we have to face. This is not free to us.
If this prolonged drought in the West produces more forest fires--and there is a rough correlation between those two--we will pay for that. We will have to fight those fires. That is a huge amount of Federal spending before $1 goes to an Indian health care center or $1 goes to a Federal program to support higher education. Before $1 goes anywhere, we have to respond to those fire crises. That is only one example that is coming from the conditions established by a drought.
When we look at the coastal storms that are bearing down on us, we have to fix the infrastructure, we have to fix the shattered roads that line the coastlines, and we have to fix the sewer systems that have been shattered by these storms. It is not avoidable. So these costs keep accumulating.
Then there is another cost; that is, the opportunity cost of not being able to invest more in schools, invest more in other infrastructure, invest more in lowering the cost of energy--all of these things. We have to recognize that. As I said before, my State has been impacted, along with every other State, by these different weather phenomenon. The Sandy storm--mercifully we missed the brunt, but we still sustained significant damages.
Our coastline is increasingly vulnerable. That is the other factor. These storms weaken our coastlines and our barrier beaches. So when the next storm comes, the damage is even more severe, and when the next storm comes, it is worse. This cumulative effect is accelerating so rapidly that these damages are making us more and more vulnerable to storms.
In fact, it goes back to the frequency and the intensity of these storms. There used to be--at least anecdotally--a period of time where literally the coast could recover. There was a decade or so where, instead of severe storms every summer or fall, we had a period of accumulation of beach sand, of the ocean depositing sand, not ripping it away in a storm. That doesn't seem to be happening. We have to recognize that.
We also have to recognize that we have a Federal perspective, but the States are also spending a huge amount of money on responding to the effects of the storm, and that also diverts their efforts from education, from health care, and from all of the things States have to do.
This is not only a national issue. This is not only a regional issue. This is, as everyone has said on this floor, a global issue. Because of the global characteristics, it touches on interests of national security, which my colleague the Presiding Officer from Connecticut spoke about.
Rising waters--and they are rising for a very simple reason: As the water temperature increases, water expands. That is just simple thermodynamics. It is science. Simple thermodynamics is all I remember from West Point. As the water expands, sea levels rise, and that is going to keep happening.
If we mention the temperatures in the waters around New England over the past 20 or 30 years, they have gone up. And the water levels have also gone up. There is no sinister force out there. There is no whirling machine that is driving the water. There is no high-level combination of winds coming together. That might happen; that is the nature of a storm. But water keeps rising because molecules keep getting farther and farther apart as they heat up.
That water rise is significant to us in Rhode Island, but it is catastrophic to other places. Bangladesh is a country that is essentially on the water, and many parts of it are close to being underwater. If the sea waters rise there you have a situation of a relatively poor country that has had problems with its neighbors, and just to seek shelter people will be forced to move in and to put pressure on the boundaries. It could cause tremendous problems. That is just one example.
In Pakistan, we have invested a huge amount of money to work with the government of Pakistan to provide assistance as they battle the Taliban, to provide assistance as we move supplies through there to our forces in Afghanistan. The floods, the seasonal droughts, the chaotic weather they have seen there weakens an already weak government. This is repeated time and time again around the globe.
So this is, again, not just an issue about whether we are going to preserve our beaches, preserve our coasts or save money here in the United States to devote to more meaningful reasons. It could pose a serious national security threat as people are forced together with political issues already and now are under the threat of environmental catastrophe. They are changing borders, migrating, moving in conflict, and creating huge problems, undermining the weak governments that already exist in these areas of the world and providing further pressure on these governments. The result is chaotic situations which are the breeding ground for much of the terror and much of the carnage we see across the globe. This is related and we have to recognize that.
There is another part of this, too, that is often neglected. It is a challenge, yes, and a serious challenge, but also it is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to create jobs to deal with this evolving problem. Frankly, in the American spirit, one of our greatest characteristics is when we have seen a challenge, we also saw opportunity. Other nations just saw a challenge.
[[Page S1458]] They didn't roll up their sleeves and deal with some of the issues as we did, as our predecessors did, as our parents did. Now it is our turn. Will we roll up our sleeves, look at this as a real serious challenge, and not ignore it but deal with it? If we do that, we can create good jobs. We can create jobs that will reward people and contribute to an improved environment. Weatherization, for example, supports thousands of highly skilled workers and additional jobs in related businesses, materials suppliers, vendors, manufacturers, et cetera. This is a very straightforward way to deal with the issue of climate change. When we make homes more weather tight and better insulated, when we don't waste energy, when we don't have to use as much, when we cut down demand and don't have to generate as much and put as much pollution into the atmosphere, and we do these things on a widespread basis, we put a lot of people to work. These are the types of jobs that many people have the skills to do and that are rewarding. They can do them, and we save ourselves energy. We save the pollution, we save the warming that comes from just spewing excess emissions into the environment, and we put people to work.
This is a low-cost, effective way to deal with employment and with energy. We have to do more of these things. It is not, as they say, rocket science. This is no fabulous, new, high-tech application that we need to develop. This is giving people and communities the resources and the support to go out there and to put better insulation in buildings, to try to use more alternate energy sources, to put better windows in and better doors to hold the heat. This is just straightforward but very powerful. It can help curb energy consumption. Particularly for low-income people, it can reduce the cost of energy.
One of the problems, again and I see my New England colleagues around that we face in New England is our energy costs are much higher than the rest of the country. One is because we have a poor distribution system; and two, we have a system also where we are paying for some of the pollution in the Midwest that comes out of stacks and is taken at high altitudes and then it descends into New England and the Northeast. So we have to compensate not only for our pollution but also for other areas of the country. So all these factors come together.
My point is we can do a lot collectively across the country. It is not just a challenge, it is a huge opportunity, and that means getting our public policies here in Washington right. That means investing in better energy, investing in better distribution systems, investing in improving those systems that exist.
One of our problems in terms of the natural gas distribution in New England is not only that it is old and inefficient in terms of delivering gas, but it leaks methane, which is not a very good environmental component to release.
So we have these challenges before us, and we want to go ahead and deal with these challenges. We see around the globe increases in precipitation, increases in sea level rise, storm surges becoming greater, and all of these are putting to the test every system we have.
Our road systems--I haven't seen the roads as poor in the Northeast in my life. Highways--I-95, there are potholes everywhere. Why? We have had so many storms over the last 2 years, so much plowing, and so little dollars to do the repairs. The roads now leave you bouncing along on the highway like you are not in the United States of America but in some second or Third World country. That is a consequence-- indirect, but a consequence--of the weather and our inability to marshal the resources to deal with the weather. Not just clearing the snow, but then going in and repaving the roads. We see that everywhere. But we have to do more.
This is a threat to our fisheries. It is a threat to our drinking water. It is a threat to our quality of life. Again, growing up in Rhode Island, we took for granted in the 1950s and 1960s that short ride to a beautiful beach--a big, broad, beautiful beach--swimming in the water and not worrying about the beach being closed because of environmental conditions, toxic conditions in the water. Some of that has changed, and we have to go back and reestablish that quality, that lifestyle. It is not just all about dollars and cents. It is also about the quality of our lives.
As I said before, and let me conclude, this is not just an issue of domestic policy, localized issues. This touches upon our national security. Ironically, we debate budgets of billions and billions of dollars about platforms, about what kinds of systems we will have in the air, on the sea, under the sea; what types and sizes of units we will have on the ground and what their training is like. But ironically, one of the things that is likely to trigger the engagement of our forces is this growing environmental crisis throughout the world.
Someone, I think it was one of the defense ministers in Nigeria, said one of the greatest problems the east faces, with the rise of these bands of radicalized young people, is the fact that because of desiccation of parts of his country, traditional farming, traditional aspects of economic growth and jobs and livelihood have been taken away, and so young people can get a gun and that is their new job. I think we have to be very serious about the national security consequences. So as we are moving forward, I hope we will recognize that these environmental challenges are also national security challenges.
There is one thing that was very revealing to me, and that was a few years ago when the Navy announced the Arctic Ocean would be able to be commercially transited during certain parts of the year. Again, growing up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, if someone had told me the Arctic Ocean was going to be a commercial highway for ships, I would have said that is preposterous. It is frozen. It is always frozen. It will always be frozen. Well, that is not the case. Last year, Arctic sea ice reached an all-time low, and as climate change accelerates, the melting of sea ice will invariably make that a source of navigation.
It will create new opportunities, such as shipping routes, but also new challenges. Who will patrol those seas? Will we have to create not only a Pacific fleet but an Arctic fleet? That costs money. Who owns the rights? Who has access to that area? So we are looking at huge problems that even 10 years ago we thought were fanciful.
That underscores the final point I want to make. We see this climate process, this climate change coming, and it doesn't seem to be affecting us minute by minute, so there is this tendency to be rather cavalier about it. Beyond the people who out-and-out deny it, which I think ignores the facts of science, even people who do tend to recognize it think, yes, well, we have time. But what we are seeing is not just the intensity of these incidents; we are seeing them accelerating, and the consequences of accelerating with such rapidity is that what we thought might be a huge problem 2 or 3 years from now might occur in half that time. So we have to act.
I want to conclude by thanking my colleagues, Senator Boxer, Senator Whitehouse, and Senator Schatz because they have called us to come forward and to recognize this issue--to seize the challenge but also to seize the opportunity. In doing so, they have done remarkable work for the Senate and for this country.
With that, Mr. President, I yield the floor.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Rhode Island.