A picture of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Sheldon W.
Democrat RI

About Sen. Sheldon
  • Executive Session

    by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

    Posted on 2013-02-13

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    WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to speak as in morning business for up to 15 minutes.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Climate Change Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, I am here again to talk about the effects of climate change on the health of our families and our communities. Just as we know that secondhand smoke and too much sun exposure are bad for human health, we know pollution and variations in climate conditions are as well.

    I wish to thank our chairman on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Mrs. Boxer, for the briefing she held today with a number of scientists, including one who spoke specifically about the human health effects we can see from climate change. Climate change is threatening to erode the improvements in air quality we have achieved through the Clean Air Act.

    EPA-enforced emissions reductions have led to a decline in the number and [[Page S691]] severity of bad air days in the United States. These are the days I know the Presiding Officer is familiar with because I am sure they happen in Connecticut as well as in Rhode Island, where the air quality is so poor that it is unhealthy for sensitive individuals: the elderly, infants, people with breathing difficulties to be outdoors. Even healthy people are urged to limit their activities when out-of-doors.

    In Rhode Island, about 12 percent of children and 11 percent of adults suffer from asthma. Both are higher than the national average. Our Rhode Island Public Transit Authority runs free buses on bad ozone days to try to keep car traffic down because these days are so dangerous to the public. Of course, the major air pollutant behind bad air days is ozone, commonly known as smog. Ground-level ozone or smog makes it difficult to breathe, causes coughing, inflames airways, aggravates asthma, emphysema and bronchitis and makes lungs more susceptible to infection.

    That all means asthma attacks, emergency room visits, hospitalizations, which, in turn, result in missed school and work and a burden not only of worry but also a burden on the economy. Smog, of course, forms more quickly during hot and sunny days. So as climate change drives more heat, it increases the number of warm days and the conditions for smog and for bad air days become more common.

    Climate change is also prolonging the allergy season. I am sure there are a number of people listening who suffer from hay fever in the late summer and early fall. Some people suffer from it most acutely. It is most often caused by ragweed pollen. Since 1995, ragweed season has increased across the country. It has increased by 13 days in Madison, WI. It has increased by 20 days in Minneapolis, MN. It has increased by almost 25 days in Fargo, ND. The further north you go, the greater the increase in the ragweed season. So for folks in Fargo, for instance, it is 25 more days of sniffling and sneezing and 25 more days that ragweed pollen might trigger a child's asthma attack.

    Not only does more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere mean warmer weather and therefore longer pollen seasons, it also means a higher pollen count. At 280 parts per million, which was the concentration of atmospheric carbon back in the year 1900, each ragweed plant would produce about 5 grams of pollen.

    At 370 parts per million, which is where we are now--year 2000 levels to be precise--pollen production more than doubles. It doubles again at 72 parts per million, which is the concentration that is now projected for the year 2075. So as we work to improve air quality and to reduce respiratory illnesses and the allergic conditions that trigger respiratory distress, we need to fight the growing trigger, climate change.

    Warming oceans and lakes can also harm our health. Higher water surface temperature is associated with harmful blooms of various species of algae. These blooms are often referred to as ``red tide.'' They deplete oxygen, block sunlight, and they produce toxins. The toxins are very often captured by clams and oysters and other shellfish.

    When they are consumed, it can result in neurotoxic shellfish poisoning, which causes debilitating respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms. A warming climate also is predicted to change the range of disease-spreading parasites, such as ticks and mosquitoes. With longer summers and shorter winters, we will face more exposure to these pests and to the diseases they can carry.

    We in New England and Connecticut and Rhode Island and Massachusetts, of course, are very familiar with lyme disease, which is a tick-borne illness that can have very grave and serious effects.

    Slow and steady warming is also causing sea levels to rise, which threatens coastal infrastructure and human safety as well. In South Kingstown, RI, Matunuck Beach Road is the only means of access to approximately 500 homes. That road also covers the public water main. For years, the sand erosion has eaten away at the beach. Now the road is immediately vulnerable to storms. Indeed it has been overwashed in recent storms. A breach in Matunuck Beach Road cuts off those 500 homes from emergency services. If it were damaging enough, it could cut off their water.

    Our water quality is also threatened. Many of Rhode Island's wastewater treatment plants are in low-lying areas and flood zones near the coast. It is the story in many other States. In California, for example, the rising sea level has put 29 wastewater treatment plants, responsible for 530 million gallons of sewage processing every day, at increased risk for flooding.

    As we know, climate change loads the dice for more extreme weather: heat waves, droughts, storms, all serious threats to human health and safety. Climate change has led to an increase in the likelihood of severe heat waves. Extreme heat causes heat exhaustion. It can cause heat stroke. The need for air-conditioning in heat waves also strains the power infrastructure, which can cause electrical brownouts and blackouts. This hinders emergency services and exacerbates wildfires and drought. These are the kinds of conditions--from extreme heat--that led to literally tens of thousands of deaths in the record-setting Russian heat wave of 2010.

    Heavy rainfall can cause physical damage, flooding erosion, and sewage overflow. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 118,000 sanitary sewer overflows occur annually from storms overwashing through combined sewer systems, overloading those systems, and being released directly into the open, releasing up to actually 860 billion gallons of untreated sewage and wastewater. In 2010, heavy rainfall and flooding caused millions of dollars in damage in spilled raw sewage in Warwick, RI, my home State. The flood led to the temporary shutdown of the local wastewater treatment facility. These overflows, like the one in Warwick, can result in beach closures, shellfish bed closures, contamination of drinking water supplies, and other environmental and public health problems.

    Extreme rainfall, meaning both way too little and way too much rainfall, promotes waterborne outbreaks of disease. In the northeast United States, heavy rainfall has increased by 74 percent since my childhood in the 1950s.

    As we have seen with Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene, and Hurricane Katrina, storms can very quickly affect millions of people and require tens of billions of dollars to clean up. The threat gets worse as sea- level rise allows storm surges to reach farther inland and create more damage than just a few decades ago. Much of the east coast was fearful of flooding during Superstorm Sandy last year, including, of course, southern Rhode Island. Because of erosion and sea-level rise, the storm surges on our shores can reach homes that were originally built hundreds of feet from the coastline.

    I had the experience of standing with a man who had a childhood home that had been through at least three generations of his family. He was now actually older than me, and that childhood home--which had stood well back from the beach--was canting toward the sea and tumbling into the ocean. The ocean had claimed his home of multiple generations as its victim.

    This map shows by ZIP code where the 800,000 people displaced by Hurricane Katrina sought refuge after that terrible storm. Hundreds of thousands of people were strewn across every corner of the country. Hundreds of thousands of lives were disrupted as a result.

    Thankfully, not everybody is sleepwalking through these alarming realities. In 2010, Rhode Island created our Climate Change Commission, which has identified risks to key infrastructure and is analyzing data from events such as Hurricane Sandy and the 2010 flood. Other States have formed similar commissions.

    I brought last night to our President's State of the Union Address Grover Fugate, who is executive director of our Coastal Resources Management Council, which has to look at and address every day and plan for the effects of our rising sea level, increased storm activity, and the risk that that portends to the shores of our ocean State.

    For the past 3 years, Rhode Island has also been part of a regional greenhouse gas initiative nicknamed ReGGie, along with our neighbors in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, [[Page S692]] New York, and Vermont. Our region caps carbon emissions and sells permits to emit greenhouses gases to powerplants. This has created economic incentives for both the States and our utilities to invest in energy efficiency and in renewable energy development. And consumers have reaped the benefit of lower prices. In 2012, regional emissions were 45 percent below the annual cap, so just last week the State announced an agreement to cap future emissions at the 2012 rate.

    I am proud of the work done in my State, and I know the Presiding Officer's home State of Connecticut is working equally hard on this issue. We are working to both slow climate change and to prepare for what are now its inevitable effects. But sadly, when it comes to this particular threat to our national security and our prosperity, Congress is asleep. It is time for us to wake up. The health and safety of Americans and of people all over the world is at risk. We must awaken to what is happening in the world around us and to the fact that the carbon pollution we are emitting is causing it. This is our responsibility. This is our generation's responsibility. It is, indeed, our duty. It is time for us to wake up.

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

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

    The assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.

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