Sheldon Whitehouse: Time to Wake Up: Regional Effects of Climate Change

Dandelion Salad

Updated: Feb. 8, 2013

by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Jan. 25, 2013


Image by James Ennis via Flickr

I am here once again to talk about climate change.  Alarms are ringing, including the voices of the overwhelming majority of scientists, and indeed the voices of the overwhelming majority of Americans. But here in Congress, it is still time for us to wake up.

Climate change is not a problem that will go away; human activity is driving global change.  Climate change is not a problem that can wait; we see its effects all around us.  But climate change is a problem that can be solved.  We can and we must leave a healthy environment and clean energy sources to our children and grandchildren.  The missing piece is Congress. Congress is sleepwalking through history.  It is time to wake up.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has confirmed that 2012 was the hottest year in the contiguous United States on record, ever.  This one wasn’t a close call; it did not come down to the wire; 2012 was a full degree Fahrenheit higher than the previous record year—a full degree Fahrenheit higher than the previous record year. To put that into context, 1 degree may not sound like a lot, but when you average it across an entire year, it is a huge shift.  The previous warmest U.S. year on record, 1998, was 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the coldest year on record, 1917.  If you take the warmest year on record—1998 until now—and you take the coldest year on record—1917—the entire span between them is only 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit.  This is a jump of a full degree in Fahrenheit in just 1 year.  By the way, 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit over 2011 is a seriously big change.

We are just starting to heat up.  The most optimistic estimate for the end of the century is a 2-degrees-Fahrenheit increase.  That is the most optimistic estimate.  More likely scenarios—ones that assume continued current levels of greenhouse gas emissions—project for the continental United States an increase of between 4 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Worldwide, last year was the 36th year in a row with an annual global temperature above the 20th-century average—36 straight years above average.  In fact, the 12 years of this century, of the 21st century, 2000 to 2012, every single one of them is in the top 14 warmest global averages on record.  Mr. President, 12 for 12, they are in the top 14 warmest global average years on record. Since 1970, global average temperatures have increased more than one-quarter of a degree Fahrenheit every decade.

As the vast majority of climate scientists have confirmed, natural climate forces alone simply do not explain this global temperature trend, nor do they explain regional temperature trends.  They do not explain the land surface temperature trends.  They do not explain the ocean surface temperature trends.  Only models that include the greenhouse effect caused by carbon dioxide emissions explain these trends.  When I use the word “explain,” I use it in its scientific sense—i.e., establish a significantly, statistically meaningful correlation between the two.

The United States does a regular national climate assessment.  The assessment is based on scientific, peer-reviewed research and technical reports from top scientists at Federal agencies such as NOAA and NASA, the Departments of Agriculture and Energy, and the U.S. Geological Survey.  Now, bear in mind that NASA scientists have just put a rover on to the surface of the planet Mars.  These aren’t people who get things very badly wrong.

The recent draft assessment paints a clear picture of what is happening in America right now.  It says:

“U.S. average temperature has increased by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895; more than 80 percent of this increase has occurred since 1980.  The most recent decade was the nation’s hottest on record.”

The National Climate Assessment is also required by law to project what is to come.  The draft assessment says:

U.S. temperatures will continue to rise, with the next few decades projected to see another 2 degrees Fahrenheit to 4 degrees Fahrenheit of warming in most areas.  The amount of warming by the end of the century is projected to correspond closely to the cumulative global emissions of greenhouse gases up to that time: roughly … 5 degrees Fahrenheit to 10 degrees Fahrenheit … assuming continued increases in emissions.

I represent the Ocean State, Rhode Island.  I see that the new senior Senator from Hawaii is presiding, and certainly he represents an ocean State too, so let’s talk about oceans.  Atmospheric warming brings sea level rise, and as global sea levels rise, storms, waves, and tides wash ever higher against the coast, putting our coastal infrastructure at greater and greater risk of storm surges, flooding, and erosion.  Five million Americans live within 4 feet of the high-tide line— it is not just us in Rhode Island, it is not just your folks in Hawaii—and it has real human consequences.  Hurricane Sandy, I hope, reminded us of that.

Already, sea level rise is up about 8 inches over the past century.  These changes are very evident to Rhode Islanders. We have been monitoring the ocean for centuries. Just outside Narragansett Bay, the crew of the Brenton Reef Lightship took nearly 22,000 ocean temperature measurements between 1878 and 1942.  We have been at this a while.  Alarmingly, the modern temperature record from points around Narragansett Bay shows that since the 1960s, the annual temperature in Narragansett Bay has increased about 4 degrees Fahrenheit.  This has real-life effect—crushing our winter flounder fishery, for instance.  Long-term data from the tide gauges in Newport, RI, show an increase in average sea level of nearly 10 inches since 1930.  The rate of sea level rise at Newport is accelerating too.  In southern Rhode Island, local erosion rates doubled from 1990 to 2006. Some of our freshwater wetlands near the coast are already transitioning to salt marsh.

Oceans warm and expand.  Snow, glaciers, and icecaps melt into the sea.  And the sea level is projected to rise between 1 and 4 feet by the end of this century.

Deniers should look to the assessments of our defense and intelligence agencies.  Diego Garcia, a small island south of India, is the home to a logistics hub for U.S. and British forces in the Middle East and to Air Force Satellite Control Network equipment.  The average elevation of Diego Garcia is approximately 4 feet.  This installation is threatened by inundation from slow, steady, sea level rise, set aside storms.  Norfolk naval air station and naval base on the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay is the Navy’s largest supply center and home to the U.S. Atlantic fleet.  Eglin Air Force Base on Florida’s gulf coast is the largest Air Force base in the world.  Both bases are threatened by rising seas.

The oceans are rising because they are getting warmer.  Water expands as it warms.  Warmer seas also threaten multibillion-dollar maritime industries here in our country, industries such as fishing, tourism, and energy.  When water is too warm, it stresses fish, coral, and other sea life.  As I said, the winter flounder catch in Rhode Island has been crushed by warming water.  When water is too warm, it can’t be used for cooling power plants.  That is what caused last summer’s shutdown of Unit 2 at the Millstone power plant in Connecticut.  The temperature of the water in Long Island Sound climbed to over 75 degrees Fahrenheit—too warm to cool a nuclear reactor.  Carbon dioxide, of course, doesn’t just warm the atmosphere and warm the oceans, carbon dioxide also gets absorbed into the oceans, and the oceans become more acidic.  Carbon pollution by humans has caused a nearly 30 percent increase in the acidity of the ocean, and this ocean acidification is certainly caused by human activity.

As the draft National Climate Assessment explains, ocean acidification harms species such as oysters, coral, and even the plankton—like the humble pteropod I have spoken about before on this floor—that comprise the base of the ocean food chain, a food chain to which humankind is inextricably linked.

For my Ocean State, carbon pollution presents a triple whammy from the sea: higher seas, warming seas, and more acidic seas.  But the draft National Climate Assessment shows that you don’t have to be an ocean state to be at risk.

In the far North, Alaska is threatened by the loss of permafrost.  Most of the permafrost in Alaska is tens of thousands of years old.  It is a natural wonder whose loss threatens structures, such as buildings and roads, as well as plants and wildlife that over many centuries have adapted to that frozen tundra environment.

In the Midwest, the draft assessment warns of “the occurrence of extreme events such as heat waves, droughts, and floods.  In the long term, combined stresses associated with climate change are expected to decrease agricultural productivity, especially without significant advances in genetic and agronomic technology.”

The dangers of carbon pollution are bearing down on us all.  In the face of the clear warning of this national assessment, there are some who counsel surrender.  The oil industry-backed Institute for Energy Research says this: “If the worst-case scenarios are correct, then even very strong action by the Federal, State, and local governments in the United States will do very little to alter the global climate.”  The polluters deny the ability of the United States to lead.  Well, they are wrong.  They are wrong.  They are very wrong.  With our vast economy, with our ingenuity, and with the trust the rest of the world has put on our experiment in democracy, we can lead.  We can lead the world toward a cleaner future.  To do any less would be, as President Obama said in his inaugural address, “to betray our children and future generations.”  I will not countenance that betrayal, and neither will most Americans.

A recent poll conducted by Yale University and George Mason University found that a large majority of Americans—77 percent—say climate change should be a priority for President Obama and for all of us here in Congress.  Yet, for the last 2 years, opponents and skeptics, polluters and lobbyists, special interests and their paid-for front organizations have blocked Congress from acting to reduce carbon pollution and reduce the threat of climate change.

Today, a very distinguished Member of the House of Representatives, who has worked on environmental issues for 38 years in this building, Representative Henry Waxman, and I announced the formation of a bicameral House and Senate climate change task force to fight back.  We welcome all Members of Congress, regardless of political party, who recognize the urgency of what is happening to our world all around us and who feel a duty to our descendants.  We intend to focus sufficient attention on what is happening in the world around us to at last—at long last—reduce the carbon pollution that is causing it.

It is time to wake up.  Carbon pollution from fossil fuels is threatening our future.  Unless we take serious action to scale back the pollution, the consequences may well be dire.  Congress is sleepwalking through history.  It is time to hear the alarms, roll up our sleeves, and do what needs to be done.  It is time to wake up.

SenatorWhitehouse-Jan 30, 2013

In his weekly “Time to Wake Up” speech about climate change, Senator Whitehouse spoke about the effects of climate change for different regions of the U.S.



Time to Wake Up: Worldwide Effects of Climate Change

SenatorWhitehouse-Feb 8, 2013

In this speech on the Senate floor, Senator Whitehouse spoke about the effects of climate change for different parts of the world, and the urgent need for the United States to show leadership in addressing the issue.


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