A picture of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Sheldon W.
Democrat RI

About Sen. Sheldon
  • Executive Session

    by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

    Posted on 2013-12-11

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    WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to speak as in morning business for up to 20 minutes.

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

    Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, this is the 52nd consecutive week we are in session that I have come to the floor to ask us to please, for Lord's sake, wake up to the damage carbon pollution is already doing to our atmosphere, oceans, and climate, and to look ahead, to use our God- given sense, and to plan for what is so obviously coming.

    In those weeks, I have spoken about all different aspects of carbon pollution, its effect on sports and our economy; its effect on oceans and coasts; its effect on agriculture and wildfires; its effect on storms and insurance costs. I have spoken about the measurements we can already make of the harm already happening: Sea level rise, which we measure with a yardstick, basically; ocean temperature, which we measure with a thermometer; and ocean acidification--the fastest in 50 million years, according to research published in ``Nature Geoscience''--which we can measure with litmus tests.

    I have, I hope, to anyone listening with their logic turned on, thoroughly rebutted the deniers' phony arguments against solving carbon pollution, whether those arguments purport to be based in science or religion or economics or our competitiveness.

    I have listed the thoughtful and responsible groups--from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, from Walmart to NASA, from Ford and GM to Coke and Pepsi, from America's garden clubs to just last month our major sports leagues--who understand the truth about climate change and are saying so.

    I have done my best to expose the calculated campaign of lies that we are up against and the vast scandalous apparatus of phony organizations and engineered messages that are designed to propagate those lies. I have traced the connections back to, of course, the big carbon polluters and their billionaire owners. I have been obliged to point out that the money of those big polluters and billionaires floods this Chamber, that their lobbyists prowl the outer halls, and that to a sad and disappointing degree this Congress is bought and paid for by that polluter influence.

    One factor we have yet to consider is whether as an institution Congress has just become completely irresponsible. Maybe this Congress just cannot operate as an institution at an intelligent level. Some Congresses are going to be smarter and more responsible than others. That is just the natural order of variation. Some Congress is going to be the sorriest Congress ever. Maybe we are it.

    Some organizations, like NASA, for instance, are very smart. That is why NASA is driving a rover around on the surface of Mars right now. That is a seriously smart organization.

    Some organizations take ordinary people and call them to be their very best, to play at a level above their natural talents, to heed a higher calling than their selfish inclinations. At their best, our military and our churches tend to achieve that.

    [[Page S8652]] Some organizations, however, take even the most talented people and drag them down to the lowest common denominator, and stifle the best and bring out the worst in even those very talented people.

    I ask people watching, which type of organization do you think Congress is right now? Which type do you think we are? As an organization, it is hard to say anything kinder of Congress than that it is now a really irresponsible organization. We could not even keep the U.S. Government running. Standard & Poor's estimated that our tea party shutdown foolishness cost Americans tens of billions of dollars for no gain--none. We cannot sort out the basics of building and maintaining our American infrastructure. Our own American Society of Civil Engineers gives our country a D-plus for infrastructure.

    That is not complicated stuff. Yet we flub it like a football team that fumbles the ball at the snap.

    Get a little more complicated and Congress seems to get even worse.

    Let me show you just one health care chart. This chart I have in the Chamber shows the average life expectancy--in years--in a country compared to the cost per capita of health care in that country. Together, they make a pretty good proxy for how a country's health care system is doing. This group shown here on the chart represents most of the OECD member and partner countries--our industrialized international competitors.

    This, shown here on the chart, is us--way out here, all alone, spending the most by far for results that are mediocre at best. We would save nearly $1 trillion a year if we could just get our per capita cost down to what Norway and Switzerland spend. They are the next two most expensive countries on the planet, and we are $1 trillion a year more laid out per capita. Think of what we could do as a nation, what we could build and invent with $1 trillion a year if we were not wasting it on bad health care. And bad it is. We get worse results in longevity than virtually any modern economy.

    Look who beats us: Japan, Great Britain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Norway. Germany does, Italy does, Greece does, Luxembourg does. They all beat us. Chile and the Czech Republic are the two countries we beat for longevity.

    Look at the size of that problem--those lives lost, those trillions of dollars wasted--and then look at the quality of the health care discussion we are having in Congress, and tell me this is not a completely irresponsible organization.

    That brings us to climate change. Yes, it is complicated, when you are trying to predict and model something as complex as what our climate is going to do in the years ahead. But it is also simple, when you look at the stuff that everyone agrees on, the stuff that you can measure, the stuff that you would have to be a nut or a crank or an eccentric to dispute.

    Nobody responsible--nobody responsible--disputes the principle that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere raises the temperature of the Earth, and that it does so through the so-called greenhouse effect. A scientist named John Tyndall figured that out at the time of the American Civil War. I brought his musty old paper in here several speeches ago. Its old leather binding was flaking and peeling. When that report was first published, Abraham Lincoln had just been elected President. In all the years since then, this principle of science has always been confirmed and validated. It is not some questionable theory. The greenhouse effect is real. It would not just be wrong, it would be irresponsible to deny that.

    Nobody responsible disputes that for over a century our modern economy has run on fossil fuels and that burning those fossil fuels has released gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Global Carbon Project estimates that mankind has pumped about 2,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since 1870. That is a pretty solid estimate, and I have never even heard anyone dispute it.

    So we know those two things: adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere traps more heat; and we have released an estimated 2,000 gigatons-- 2,000 billion tons--of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

    Let's go on from there. It is a known principle of science that a significant portion of that multigigaton carbon load is absorbed by the oceans, and that the chemical reaction when that absorption happens into the oceans makes the oceans more acidic. No responsible person disputes either proposition. It is not some theory. It is something that you can actually do and measure in a lab. Again, it would not just be wrong, it would be really irresponsible to deny that.

    We also know that the oceans do more than absorb carbon. They absorb heat. Indeed, they have absorbed most of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases--over 90 percent of the heat between 1971 and 2010, according to the recent IPCC report. What happens when the oceans absorb heat? They expand. Thermal expansion is a basic physical property of liquids. It can also be shown in a very simple lab. It is not a theory. Again, it would be not just wrong but irresponsible to deny that too.

    It would not just be wrong, it would be irresponsible to deny what those simple measurements and clear principles tell us. But we do. We do. We deny it. Congress will not wake up and address this problem. Like those monkeys: See no carbon, hear no carbon, speak no carbon.

    Because we are so irresponsible, because we deny this reality, we are failing to take precautions and, as a result, many people will suffer.

    For those of us who love this country and are proud of it, and are proud of our government, and want this country and its government to be a beacon of hope and promise and rectitude, it hurts a little extra for the Congress to be such a failure. It hurts a little extra that we in our generation have driven Congress--the hub of our noble American experiment in democracy, the beating heart of this great Republic--down to that low level.

    It is a harsh judgment that this body is an irresponsible failure. But on climate this Congress got it the old-fashioned way; it earned it.

    I will close with a final observation. Compare the irresponsibility of this ``see no carbon, hear no carbon, speak no carbon'' Congress with the recent exhortation from Pope Francis. Here is what the Pope said. I will quote him at some length.

    There are other weak and defenceless beings who are frequently at the mercy of economic interests or indiscriminate exploitation. I am speaking of creation as a whole. We human beings are not only the beneficiaries but also the stewards of other creatures. Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement. Let us not leave in our wake a swath of destruction and death which will affect our own lives and those of future generations.

    The Pope continued: Here I would make my own the touching and prophetic lament voiced some years ago by the bishops of the Philippines: And he quotes them: ``An incredible variety of insects lived in the forest and were busy with all kinds of tasks. . . . Birds flew through the air, their bright plumes and varying calls adding color and song to the green of the forests. . . . God intended this land for us, his special creatures, but not so that we might destroy it and turn it into a wasteland. . . . After a single night's rain, look at the chocolate brown rivers in your locality and remember that they are carrying the life blood of the land into the sea. . . . How can fish swim in sewers like the . . . rivers which we have polluted? Who has turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of color and life?'' Small yet strong in the love of God, like Saint Francis of Assisi, all of us, as Christians, are called to watch over and protect the fragile world in which we live, and all its peoples.

    What is our answer to the Pope, to this great Christian leader? In Congress, it is the monkey answer: Hear no carbon, see no carbon, speak no carbon.

    We still have time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

    We can actually do it in painless ways. We can even do it in advantageous ways, in ways that will boost our economy, but we have to do it. We have to wake up. We simply have to wake up.

    I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Wisconsin.

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