Climate Change—(Continued)by Senator Martin Heinrich
Posted on 2014-03-10
HEINRICH. Speaking through the Chair to the Senator from Hawaii,
I am happy to get started and give an opening statement and focus on
the State of New Mexico and some of the climate impacts we have seen in
the last decade, and then perhaps engage in a conversation with my
colleague the Senator from New Jersey.
I think it bears saying that this is a historic evening. This is an incredible [[Page S1424]] first step in recognizing the challenge that lies ahead. I am here tonight as a member of the climate change task force. I join my colleagues in calling for action on tackling what is unquestionably one of our country's greatest challenges but a challenge we are up to meeting.
We are here to illustrate, for starters, that climate change is not theoretical. We are here to discuss how sound science can be used to better understand and manage the very real impacts of climate change that we are seeing and to highlight the moral imperative we have in Congress to implement real solutions.
I thought I would start tonight with something that is just about anywhere in the United States. If you are a gardener, if you are a farmer, if you are a horticulturist, if you have an orchard of fruit trees, you probably know these maps. They are the U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone maps.
When I hear people deny our climate is changing and how much our climate has already changed, I think it is very helpful to look back to the year 1990--the year I graduated from high school--and to look at the USDA plant hardiness zone map for the United States and to compare it to the one that came out in 2006. What you see when you look at this map is literally every single plant hardiness zone. If you are a gardener, you take these to the bank. This tells you whether a certain crop can grow in your zone. If you are in Minnesota, the answer to what is going to thrive in your garden is going to be very different than if you are in Arizona or New Mexico. What you see when you look at these maps is all of these zones have literally moved north.
In the case of my home State of New Mexico, there are zones that existed in the northern part of the State--up around Taos and Chama, and at a high elevation, where the Sangre de Cristo mountains reach up to over 13,000 feet. There are zones that existed in 1990 that exist nowhere in the State today because it has warmed so much. In fact, those zones only exist at the highest elevations in the State of Colorado to our north.
I don't think you can look at this map and say our climate is not getting warmer. It captures year after year of real-world experience of the people who rely on these maps to make sure our food supply and all the plants we use for other purposes as well are safe and productive.
In my home State of New Mexico, one of the other impacts we are seeing we have heard from other Western States tonight, as well as up and down the intermountain West and the Rocky Mountains, has been the impact of forest fire. We are seeing bigger fires and drier summers. We are seeing more severe floods when it does rain and less snowpack in the winter.
In 2012, looking back just 2 years ago, it was our Nation's second most extreme year on record for weather. In New Mexico, it was actually the hottest year we have experienced since we started collecting temperature records. With humidity levels lower and temperatures higher, we are dealing with fire behavior in the Southwest that is markedly more intense than anything we have seen in the past.
When people think of the State of New Mexico, and if they have not been to New Mexico, they often think of it as one of the southwestern arid desert low-elevation States. The reality that I grew up with was the high elevation forests of New Mexico. We literally have millions of acres of mountains and forests. If you just saw a photo, you might say: Well, that looks like Colorado or that looks like Montana. Those are all up and down our mountain ranges from the southern part of the State. We have the Gila. Up in the northern part of the State, we have the Santa Fe National Forest, the Carson National Forest, the Jemez mountains, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
One of the things that has evolved over the years which exists in the high elevation western forests is the ability to deal with forest fire, in particular, our Ponderosa pine forests. We used to have a regime where every 10 years or so we would have a fire in those forests. That fire would not burn the forest down. It would move through the Ponderosa pine. It would burn fine fuels, as we call them, such as the needles that fall from the canopy of the Ponderosa pine forest, the small pieces of woody debris, and the grass that grows in between the Ponderosa pine trees, and it would sort of clean out the understory and it would leave this incredible cathedral of high elevation Ponderosa pine forest with grass in between the trees, but that is changing.
This incredibly sad photo is exhibit A on what happens when the temperature increases just a little bit. We are seeing fire behavior in New Mexico that is like nothing in the historical record and nothing within the context of normal behavior. We are seeing what they call stand-replacing fires. I believe this was a couple of months after the Las Conchas fire a few years ago. If I remember correctly, the Las Conchas fire was in 2011 in the Jemez mountains. It was the single largest fire in our State's history at the time. Since then, we have had a bigger fire, the Whitewater-Baldy fire.
What was particularly concerning about the Las Conchas fire is how it burned--how intensely it burned, how it burned down slope with stand- replacing flames, and how it literally didn't leave behind any of those big fire-protected trees. Those Ponderosa pines are built to survive fire after fire throughout the course of their lives. They may live to be 300 years old. They have such thick bark that typically in the past they survived dozens and dozens of fires in the course of their lifetimes.
As we can see from this, almost nothing survived large parts of this fire, and that is what we are seeing as temperatures increase. As those temperatures increase, the humidity level in the fuels goes down, and the fuels burn hotter. The fuels are able to jump up into the canopy and literally burn out the entire forest. We can see a few patches of green here. This is one of the most destructive fires in our State's history.
Over the last 4 years alone, as I mentioned, we have seen the two largest fires in our State's history. With elevated temperatures, studies by Los Alamos National Labs predict that three-quarters of our evergreen forest in New Mexico could be gone by 2050. In my lifetime, three-quarters of our high-elevation conifer evergreen forest could be gone.
These are places we rely on for our economy. They hold snow in the winter. They produce an enormous number of jobs. We have approximately 68,000 jobs that are tied to public lands recreation in the State. Many of those are centered around these high-elevation forests where people hunt for elk in the fall. They produce the waters that allow people to raft in the Rio Grande during the summer. They are the places where people cross-country and alpine-ski in the winter. They are under direct threat from a changing climate.
We now know that the extreme weather we are seeing comes at an enormous economic cost. There was a new study produced in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Environment that reveals the trend and how much ignoring this problem has cost the American taxpayer over the course of the last couple of decades. They went back and looked at firefighting in the early 1990s, around 1993. The average cost of fighting fires in our national forests at that time was $350 million a season. That is a lot of money; that is real money; and that is spread over many different States. Fast forward to today, and on average we are spending $2 billion, with a B, a fire season fighting fires.
Yesterday the Washington Post reported that the study's conclusions ``underscore what the agencies responsible for fighting wildfires--the Interior Department, the Agriculture Department's Forest Service--have said for years. Global warming is accelerating climate change in the West, resulting in winters with less precipitation and a drier landscape. The wildfire season that historically started in June and ended in September now starts in May and ends in September.'' I would say that in New Mexico we haven't been lucky enough to have it begin in May and end in September; we have actually had some fires that were completely outside of that window.
I remember a few years ago as I was running for Congress in the fall of 2007, leading up to the 2008 elections, I watched as the Monzano Mountains near my home in Albuquerque burned in November, around Thanksgiving time. We saw extreme fire behavior [[Page S1425]] there--fires once again burning down slope, in November, and fire behaviors even in the middle of the night that we normally wouldn't see except in the middle of the day in the middle of summer.
It has been something that has touched our State dramatically. It happens now with such regularity that we are almost used to it, but it puts lives at risk. It puts property at risk. Many people in this Chamber probably remember all of the brave firefighters who literally lost their lives in Arizona last year fighting these fires. In fact, those firefighters helped on a New Mexico fire before in the very area we saw with the picture I showed of how the Las Conchas fire burned.
One of the related issues is the relationship between the economy of my home of New Mexico and the impact of snowfall and how snowfall has changed as a result of a changing climate.
This is a map of the Four Corners States. This is Albuquerque, NM, here, Santa Fe; this is the Four Corners area where Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico all come together. Historically, our economy relies very much on not just rainfall and precipitation but the value of a strong snowpack. Agriculture in the Southwest does not work as it does in other parts of the country where crops are literally watered by rain. We store our snowpack in reservoirs. We rely on the fact that snow lasts longer and is released slowly from the high elevation forests and mountains. It gets stored in reservoirs and then is used to irrigate hundreds of square miles up and down the Rio Grande Valley throughout the heart of New Mexico, as well as other valleys in the State, such as the Pecos Valley. We have seen dramatic changes in the extent of both snow cover as well as the amount of water that is stored in that snow.
These two images show snow cover in 2010 and in 2014. They illustrate a trend that is becoming all too common with the current drought conditions and with warming winter temperatures. So 2010 was a relatively good year for us. We had snow cover, as my colleagues can see, across much of the northern part of the State. As we move into even higher elevation areas up in Colorado, very intense snows in the San Juans that drain down into the Rio Grande, the San Juan rivers in New Mexico. If we look at the Mogollon Rim, which goes all the way from Gila, NM, up through Arizona on its way toward the Grand Canyon, just a long, high-elevation geologic feature that stores snowpack for both Arizona and New Mexico, we can look over at the 2014 image and what we see is a dramatic reduction in the amount of snow cover. As a result, the runoff we have experienced in this drought has been a fraction of what we used to think of as normal. It is sort of the new normal.
In December of 2012, two researchers affiliated with the University of New Hampshire unveiled a study around snow and winter tourism impacts called ``Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States.'' That report, completed for the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters, an organization founded in 2007 by professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones, concluded that the economies that rely on winter sports tourists have a lot to lose if we fail to take action on climate change.
The Presiding Officer probably heard some of the recent stories around the Sochi Olympics--stories I couldn't have imagined as a child--of literally covering up huge amounts of snow to insulate it from the elements so it didn't melt, so it could be used in some of those sports. The report states that December 2011 through February 2012 was the fourth warmest winter on record since 1896 and the third lowest snow cover extent since 1966 when satellites began giving us images just like these.
When it doesn't snow in the Intermountain West, communities that rely on winter sports tourists take an enormous economic hit. Fewer people lodge in their hotels, fewer people shop in their stores, and fewer people eat in their restaurants. If we were to ask the businesses in places such as Taos, NM, or Ruidoso in the south central part of the State, Red River and others spread across the high-elevation portions of my State, they will tell us when there is no snow; they see an enormous reduction in the amount of business activity, in the gross receipts in those small towns, and it ripples through the entire economy.
That report points out that ski resorts in the northern part of New Mexico are the primary drivers of New Mexico's $182 million ski industry. Winter tourism in New Mexico provides more than 3,100 jobs. We are a State of only 2 million people, but 3,100 jobs has a $104 million impact on our economy. In low snowfall years, New Mexico lost out on an estimated $48 million in ski resort revenue and had nearly 600 fewer jobs compared to higher snowfall years. Winter sports tourists are an extremely important part of my State's economy, and I am very concerned that if we continue to do nothing about climate change, we will lose those tourist dollars.
Climate change is very real and it is impacting our bottom line in the State of New Mexico. Climate change is also leaving a devastating imprint on our agricultural industry in the State of New Mexico. These images are striking to me, and these are satellite images from NASA.
This is the largest reservoir in the State of New Mexico. It is called Elephant Butte Reservoir. It is in the central part of the State. If a person is used to growing up in a State such as New Mexico and a person knows there are certain crops that are just iconically connected to the State, including green chili being at the top of the list, red chili--they are actually the same plant, but we will save that for another day--pistachios, pecans, all of these things are tied to irrigation and the ability to irrigate hundreds of square miles of agricultural land along the Rio Grande throughout the State.
In 1994, in the midnineties, Elephant Butte Reservoir was functioning as it had since the early 1900s, storing all of that snowpack we talked about a few minutes ago, making sure it was released to serve agriculture, to extend the irrigation season, to make sure those crops were realized. Then we began to get into this long-term, persistent drought. My colleagues have probably heard the stories about California and its drought and its impact on agriculture. New Mexico has experienced just as intense a reduction in snowpack, in predictability of summer precipitation. We get a lot of our moisture in the summer monsoon, the wettest time of the year outside of the winter. So we get some in the wintertime in snowpack typically and then in the summertime we have the summer thunderstorms, and the predictability of that has all changed now. But as we can see, so has the quantity.
Elephant Butte Reservoir is about 2 million acre feet in capacity. An acre foot of water is literally taking an acre of land and covering it in water 1 foot deep. It is about 325,000 gallons, if my memory serves me well. This is about 2 million acre feet. People can do the math. But it is literally the largest single body of reservoir water for agriculture and other uses in the State of New Mexico.
Fast forward to 2013. These were both taken in the same month, the month of July, which is kind of the height of the irrigation season. Three percent is what was left in Elephant Butte Reservoir. It literally doesn't even look like the same place. The northern extent of the reservoir has been dry land for much of the year in this photo. This has enormous ramifications for agriculture in our State and for other industries that use and rely on that water.
Farmers and ranchers are often first to see the effects of extreme weather. A 2012 study found that by 2020, New Mexico agriculture and ranching will lose $73 million annually due to climate change. We can layer that on to the $48 million we talked about a little while ago from impacts to the winter ski season. We start to see the very real cost of not doing anything about climate change.
The agricultural sector is incredibly vulnerable due to the sustained threat to the water supply, to soil and vegetation from sustained drought. Livestock levels in many areas of New Mexico were one-fifth of normal levels last year due to the scarce forage. So year after year of drought--not just 1 year but over and over again--is what leads to this incredible inability to even manage water. We don't have the water in the reservoir to be able to deal with the fact that we are not getting enough [[Page S1426]] precipitation. We have over the years sort of used our savings account, and now we are down to a very small amount of water that has to be stretched as far as we can in summer irrigation season. We have seen a number of parts of the Rio Grande run dry in the summer as a result.
Things are only going to get worse if we don't act and begin to address some of these conditions. If we have any hope of reversing the effects of climate change--and we truly must--it is critical we embrace this challenge now and that we lead the world in innovation, in efficiency, and in clean energy.
As our colleagues Senators Portman and Shaheen know, there is no cleaner source of energy than the ones we don't use in the first place. Energy efficiency and conservation should be the centerpiece of any strategy to address climate change. The easiest way we can reduce the amount of carbon pollution, methane pollution, and other greenhouse gases that make it into the atmosphere is to not use those in the first place.
Conservation pays enormous dividends. I remember when my wife and I bought our first home, we decided we wanted to make it as sustainable as we could, but it was a retrofit, so where do we start. Well, we have had solar on the roof of that home in Albuquerque for many years now, but that is not where we started. That wasn't the first place we put our investment. It wouldn't have made sense. The first thing we did is we insulated a home that had been built without insulation. We replaced windows that were leaking warm air to the outside all through the wintertime, not keeping cool air inside during the summertime. Efficiency is absolutely critical if we are going to begin to address our overall energy usage in this country and to reduce the amount of carbon pollution in particular we are putting into the atmosphere.
Getting the most out of each unit of energy, kilowatt, Btu should be a concern at every level of our government. The U.S. Federal Government is the largest energy consumer in our country, and the Federal Government has an obligation to lead by example when it comes to energy performance.
We heard a lot about the transportation sector and the advances we have made due to the fuel economy standards. But buildings are also an enormous part of our carbon and our pollution footprint in this country. They account for about 40 percent of our energy use, and they offer the greatest opportunities for savings. Investing in energy efficiency in those buildings isn't just good for our environment and for reducing air pollution; it is literally one of the fastest and most cost-effective ways to grow our economy.
We have seen business energy efficiency take off in recent years and produce high-quality jobs all across this country. Energy efficiency is a large, low-cost, underutilized U.S. energy resource. Increasing our energy efficiency in the residential sector, commercial sector, industrial and governmental sectors offers Americans savings on their energy bills, opportunities for more jobs, improves our Nation's competitiveness, and it stretches every tax dollar further.
To help the Nation transition to cleaner and renewable sources of energy, I am also supporting efforts to streamline permitting for renewable energy projects on our public lands, while protecting access to those public lands for families and sportsmen to enjoy.
Another key to further development of renewable energy is to alleviate the bottlenecks in our electric power grid. Much of our power grid was developed decades ago, some of it nearly 100 years ago, and I am working in New Mexico to help tap our renewable resources by adding new transmission capacity and smart grids to an aging infrastructure.
We need to find better ways to make sure new transmission projects are well planned to protect the environment but can also move forward in a reasonable timeframe. Whether for our national security, our energy independence or our Nation's ability to compete in the global economy, our efforts and our solutions should be rooted in fact and driven by the best available science.
As we heard earlier tonight from our friend and colleague from Oklahoma, not everyone agrees. There are some who deny that climate change exists. There are some who are simply paralyzed by how big the problem is--the fear of the economic or political costs along the way. But one of the things that has bothered me the most, as we have had this debate, is too often we see scientific integrity undermined. We see scientific research politicized in an effort to advance ideological or purely political agendas or to protect certain industries and interests. Too often we see that some in Washington believe they are not just entitled to their own opinions but believe they are somehow entitled to their own facts. Frankly, none of us are entitled to our own facts.
No area of innovation in science will be more important than our Nation's ability to tackle climate change and lead the world in clean energy technology. We saw a lot of information earlier in the evening about the incredible growth we have seen in renewable sources of energy in recent years, particularly in wind and solar. The cost of solar has come down precipitously in recent times. It reminds me that in 1961 President John F. Kennedy made a bold claim that an American would walk on the Moon by the end of the decade. To many people that seemed absolutely ludicrous.
This is a similar challenge we face. Eight years after President Kennedy made that claim, Neil Armstrong did just that. It did not even take a decade. We need that kind of effort to be able to address the incredible challenge we have with a warming globe. We need to think big, we need to execute, and we need to innovate, as the Presiding Officer said.
Innovation is going to be so important as we deal with this issue. Frankly, in the United States we have met issue after issue that people said could not be solved or was too big or would cost us too much. We turned those around and into opportunities to grow new jobs and grow new industry.
As we look at this particular challenge, the real question is, is the economic activity that is going to be associated with solving these challenges--are we going to get the benefit of those technologies? Are we going to get the jobs from manufacturing, installing, developing those things or are we going to cede that leadership to other countries around the world? Even the sleeping giant in China, with all of their policies over the years that have led to the incredible, dangerous pollution levels we see--where students actually put masks on statues in China to make a political point that there is no clean air to be had--even China is realizing they have to invest in this innovation, that they have a national interest in it.
We have the most innovative folks in the world. We have our National Laboratories. We have scientists and entrepreneurs who can come up with solutions that will take us further than we have seen with the incredible growth in wind and solar in the last few years. We need to make the commitment and move from just having a debate about these issues to employing the policy changes that will drive that innovation.