Excerpts from Senate Climate Caucus Floor Debate
North wing of the Capitol, containing the Senate Chamber (public domain photo).
Maria Cantwell of Washington State spoke about sea life, on which her state depends heavily. Shellfish, crabs, oysters, scallops, and coral. She displayed a photo of a Washington fisherman dwarfed by an enormous crab. From 2005-2007 80% of oyster larvae in the state died from carbon pollution. Cantwell also mentioned that 10 million scallops died off in British Columbia waters lst week.
Who would think New Hampshire, with its 18 miles of Atlantic shorefront, would fear sea level rise? Jeanne Shaheen explained why. Beaches, fall foliage, and winter sports make up much of the almost $10 billion tourism in the state. But the leaves become dull and brown earlier each year, the ski runs have to make more and more of their snow, the moose population’s down 40% from last year because winter has not been cold enough to kill deer ticks, snd maple sugar production keeps declining. By 2100, Shaheen expects her state to have temperatures like South Carolina’s.
The senators saved the best for last. Florida has the most to lose, the fastest, of all the United States. Bill Nelson showed a map with a frightening area of the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines in red, submerged.
“Look back at the planet from the window of a spacecraft.”—Bill Nelson (Florida)
Nelson spoke of seeing the silt-laden river mouths of Madagascar and a storm in the Indian Ocean from 203 miles up. He presented shocking predictions with reason and calm, though he freaked out his audience. Nelson said 28 million people could be underwater by the end of the century. Recreation, baseball spring training, and the sunsets seen from the country’s southernmost eastern beach would be things of the past, pauperizing a $67 billion tourism industry. Miami, currently linking up with the Netherlands for technial help,
The session ended at about 9:15 EDT, and the Senate resumed its usual scheduled business.
Murphy ended with the thoughts of Italian politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist, historian, and writer Niccolò Machiavelli about the challenges reformers face.
An ode to the beauty of the Capitol at night came from Richard Blumenthal, the senior senator from Connecticut. He was the first to mention destruction of the planet. He spoke of breaking “the culture of indifference and despair. He brought up the billion dollars spent on tornadoes in 2012.
“Lobsters are our modern-day canary in the coal mine.”—Richard Blumaenthal (Connecticut)
Blumenthal noted that the infrastructure of the Northeast is not suited to handle the drainage problems of today. He returned to read more from the Lorax (“Nothing is going to get better… it’s not”) and to speak of the growing fuel cell industry in his state.
Jack Reed, a former West Pointer from Rhode Island, found the climate crisis “daunting and difficult” because it’s slow-moving, in political terms. Not only do costs accumulate, but opportunities are lost with every day we delay on climate change. He concluded with the recognition of opportunity in challenge as an American tradition.
“I haven’t seen the roads this poor in the Northeast in my life.”—Jack Reed (Rhode Island)
Whitehouse and Boxer stepped back into the discussion briefly at this point to thank the senators and all the Senate employees from pages to janitors who worked all night to produce the program.
It was time for Tom Udall of New Mexico to sum up what the group had learned. He expressed nostalgia for the 1960s and 1970s, “the glory days of the Senate,” when bipartisan support for environmental legislation was significant. Udall said that a 1% rise in climate parameters elsewhere equates to 2% in New Mexico.
Udall reiterated his colleague’s comments about the drought and snowpack and brought up zero water levels in Tucumcari (not seen since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s), the Rio Grande river being practically dry, and 50% of the cattle herds being sold off for lack of water and forage. He said by 2050, New Mexico would resemble the Chihuahuan desert 300 miles to the south.
“We know we have the ability to cultivate solutions.”—Tom Udall (New Mexico)
Specifically, he spoke of solar, wind, and advanced biofuels. The state is pioneering algae fuel production.
Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts came on strong and finished strong.
“We are on the cusp of a climate crisis… a point of no return. We are in a moment of great danger and great opportunity. It is up to us.”—Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts)
“Powerful interests have a stranglehold on our economy,” she continued. Five companies made $118 billion in profits, getting over $4 billion in tax breaks over 10 years. She called for serious investment in research and technology, investments in wind and solar, and support for entrepreneurs in renewable energy, and spoke of American tax policy being “rigged” against small businesses and families.
Having asked constituents to write in about their visions of 25 years from now, Warren read some of the 5,000+ letters she had received. “We are up against an army of lobbyists.”
Dead zones in oceans and bays concerned Maryland’s Ben Cardin. He should know—-the greatest bay in the nation, the Chesapeake, is Maryland’s front yard. Cardin told of the Smith Island watermen losing land every day. Seventy percent of Maryland’s population lives in coastal waters. Cardin stressed beach renourishment (a longtime practice in Ocean City that has had mixed if little success), and the constraints of an almost 4-foot sea level rise by 2100. Although he did not mention the tremendous havoc that would be wrought in the bay’s brackish estuaries, where salt water meets fresh, it’s a very real threat, as is increased pollution from chemicals in agricultural runoff.
Great discussions during the wee hours!
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.”—Cory Booker
Cory Booker woke up the house. Only a senator for four months, the former mayor of Newark was dramatic and persuasive. He peppered his lively talk with fact and story. Booker started with incidents from Superstorm Sandy, which displaced 116K people and damaged or destroyed 346K homes in New Jersey. He relayed stories that would ”rip your gut out.” He painted a very real picture of dispossession along the Jersey shore, of those who lack a car to get out of harm’s way and the money for alternative lodgings for a couple of nights, weeks, months, of those with zero disposable income.
Booker invoked the words of Admiral Samuel (“Sam”) J. Locklear III, commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet. When asked what would become the most crippling factor to the US armed forces in future, Locklear bypassed the expected responses of more nuclear weapons in the Middle East, belligerence from North Korea, or cyberwars. He said he feared climate change, a sentiment shared by our military leadership, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Locklear feels that climate change merits national security attention for many reasons.
The series of speeches then turned into a colloquy, mostly involving Booker, Whitehouse, and Schatz. Those who went to bed early probably missed the most exciting moments of the talkathon. (We know HuffPo’s blogger, Kate Sheppard, was awake because she tweeted “There are only two other people left in the press room with me, and one of them is snoring really loud.“)
Whitehouse asked if the US really wanted to back up from climate change opportunities and turn over a $6 trillion clean energy market to the Chinese.
Kissinger, he said, had recently spoken of the results of climate change as “a confluence of resentments.”
Schatz said the US armed forces were pragmatic, already mobilizing against climate change and not waiting for Congress to prepare. He invoked Theodore Roosevelt for his conception of America as “a physical and spiritual space” and his willingness to “tell off big money.” He related the plight of low-lying small island states.
Whitehouse chimed in that Rhode Island had the same problem as the Maldives. So does Alaska. “Houses are falling into the sea.”
Booker noted that sea level rise would add a foot and a half to the ocean along the Jersey shore.
Schatz spoke about Hawaii’s exorbitant fossil fuel costs. The state has a good bipartisan consensus, he said, and parts of its energy grid are 33% powered by renewable energy. Fuel cells and the smart grid came up. He spoke of ALEC and the Koch brothers, but told a story about the Sierra Club joining with the Tea Party to put a lid on conservative pland to enact a tax on solar installations. And he told how Waikiki hotels are saving 40% on electricity by using air conditioning from “ocean-deep, cold water” just off the coast.
Whitehouse interrupted to rattle off organizations tracking response to the talkathon and spoke of hundreds of thousands online, even after midnight. He brought up the Waxman-Markey Bill (American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009), which would have established emissions trading like the EU’s in the United States. And he affirmed his belief that many Republicans in Congress support climate change action.
Schatz spoke of seeking “Republican dance partners.” He related how Hawaii has decoupled utilities from swings in the oil market.
Back to speeches:
Christopher Murphy of Connecticut then took the podium for a long, detailed speech. He related the success of New England’s coalition to reduce and cap carbon emittes by polluting industries. ”A pretty simple calculus,” he called it, and one that redistributes carbon dollars back into renewable energy. Nay-sayers had viewed the move as prelude to a definite electricity spike that would be catastrophic for the economy. It wasn’t.
It was Oregon’s turn next. Jeff Merkley talked about the impacts of climate change on forests and farming in his state. He also went into the story of a pest that has left bare dead trees in miles upon square miles of Rocky Mountain forests: the pine bark beetle. The destructive insect does very well in drought conditions and higher temperatures—so well that it can obliterate entire forests in no time at all.
Senator Christopher Coons of Delaware started off with the chilling fact that his state is the lowest-lying in the United States, about 60 feet above sea level. He told stories of his travels to mountains and glaciers, when he saw first-hand the recession of glaciers and the snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Delaware is a source of pride for him because the state is already moving on adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. Finally, he discussed support for fighting climate change from an seemingly unlikely group—200 evangelical Christian scientists who recognized obligations to their neighbors and those living in poverty.
A couple of tweets from this point in the talks: The White House has been tweeting all night “FACT: Every 4 minutes, another American home or business goes solar.” We’re up to a couple hundred retweets now. And Climate Hawks Vote is saying, “Time for night owl reinforcements!” Someone retweets Brian Schatz of Hawaii, one of the conference organizers: “It’s midnight. We’re still going strong. Stay #Up4Climate with us and wake up Congress.”
Brian Schatz spoke next. He compared the costs of several severe storms of the 1980s to 25 individual billion-dollar storms in 2011 and 2012. Schatz also spoke about the efforts of the military to climate-prep its facilities and capabilities and ran off a list of private corporations—all household names—who are moving forward with renewable energy in a wholesale way.
“The only thing we can be certain of is that uncertainty will increase.”—Brian Schatz (Hawaii)
Schatz cited the chilling assessment by professionals that the world’s gross domestic product will decrease by 3.2% because of climate change. He also preempted conservative hand-wringing that the economy would collapse if the US worked on climate change, noting that they predicted the same outcome for the environmental legislation of the 1970s and all turned out well. The water and air have grown a lot cleaner since those laws, in fact.
“People cannot be led into thinking that just because winter exists” then “the planet isn’t warming in totality.”—-Brian Schatz (Hawaii)
Martin Heinrich of New Mexico put forward an electrifying presence, both during his own presentation and the colloquy that followed. Heinrich started off by showing plant hardiness maps and pointing out the deleterious effects of climate change on vegetation: the zones have been demonstrably moving north. Forest fires, he said, have also begun to affect his state strongly.
Heinrich cited the huge Las Conchas blaze of several years ago and its unusually intense, downward-jumping walls of fire. Snowpack losses, he said, threaten the state’s $104 million winter recreation industry. He spoke of the unprecedented low levels at the Elephant Butte reservoir affecting agriculture, and the effects of drought on forage ranchers rely on to feed their livestock. His interests also include weaknesses in the power grid and the permitting process. Finally, Heinrich lamented how science—once our most reliable gauge of what’s going on around us—has become mired in politics. Who to trust?
“We do not have to accept the false choice of the environment versus the economy.”—Tim Kaine (Virginia)
Al Franken (Minnesota) observed pointedly that the currently flourishing natural gas mines enabled by hydraulic fracturing were started with government investment and government research and government grants. He said we’re in an analogous position now, and we need to support renewable energy development now just as we originally developed fracking for the petroleum industry.
“Big Oil is no longer the main enemy of action on climate change—not even Exxon, which until 2008 was a leading funder of the climate denial movement.”—Al Franken (Minnesota)
Franken then asked who is funding the climate denial movement. He answered that it’s hard to tell, because the money is coming from anonymous donors. He cited a recent article on the topic by Goldenberg about a study published last December. It found that conservative organizations spend up to $1 billion a year (untraceable) for more than 90 conservative groups to deny or oppose action on climate change.
Bernie Sanders (Vermont) presented powerful economic arguments about protecting or not protecting against climate change. He also spent some time discussing recent lightspeed progress with solar and wind technologies.
The freshman senator from Virginia, Tim Kaine, paid tribute to the “all of the above” energy strategy. He feels that natural gas, coal, and nuclear are still necessary, but that as the nation moves forward, everything tomorrow will be cleaner than today. We’ll be able to “replace dirty with less dirty.”
“We do not have to accept the false choice of the environment versus the economy.”—Tim Kaine (Virginia)
“Climate denial is leadership denial,” Kaine said. He also believes the coal industry has gone too far in its characterization of environmentalist concern: “What’s hurting coal has been innovation and natural gas.” Suzanne Goldenberg observed that Kaine was first to mention the Keystone XL pipeline, and that he said “it would be a very good thing” if president rejected it. Although his positions on conventional energy overall were softer than those of others, Kaine opposes tar sands development.
Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota) said that since her election, the environmental movement had lost several important points but gained others. Among those are the appointment of Gina McCarthy as administrator of the EPA. She also discussed the 2012 Midwest drought, but Climate Desk tweeted that NOAA had said that climate change “had little impact” on it.
We heard a dramatic reading of Dr. Seuss by Ed Markey of Massachusetts. He quoted the Lorax. Kate Sheppard tweeted “It’s getting to be that time of night, is it? However, most of Markey’s discussion stayed clear and to the point.
“So much of that CO2 is red, white, and blue.”—-Ed Markey (Massachusetts)
Winters in New England are four degrees warmer than they were in 1965, he said, giving his state the climate profile of Pennsylvania. He said that a third of the Massachusetts population faces major challenges from sea level rise and storm surges. And he went through a frightening list of well-known Massachusetts landmarks that face problems or obliteration from climate change.
Angus King of Maine, a climate change skeptic until five years ago, started by likening the threat we face now from climate change to the challenge Hitler’s regime put to Europe in the 1930s—and Europe did nothing, resulting in a global war with atrocities never encountered before. He went on to discuss severe climate effects in his state, and Goldenberg characterized his discussion of lobsters moving north from Casco Bay and cannibalizing each other as “scary” and suggested she wouldn’t sleep that night.
“By 2100 Maine could be only state in New England that still has a skiing industry.”–Angus King (Maine)
“There is no emergency room for the planet”—Senate Climate Action Task Force
As we noted earlier, Democratic and Independent Senators from the Climate Action Task Force are speaking all night on the Senate floor about climate change. C-Span is streaming live video here. At least two well-known environment journalists—Suzanne Goldenberg of the Guardian and Kate Sheppard of the Huffington Post—are blogging the meeting live on the web. Senior administration officials and the White House are also blogging, and there’s a twitter stream at #Up4Climate. We’ve used all these and other sources for this report.
Kate Sheppard pointed out the reasons other Democratic senators are not participating: “The most politically vulnerable among them will not speak: Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and John Walsh of Montana…. ‘I will not be [speaking],’ Landrieu, chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee, said before votes Monday. ‘I will not be, but I think what they’re doing is helpful.’”
The climate change discussion in the Senate actually started before its scheduled time with comments from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is not attending the overnight event. In an earlier Senate session today, McConnell (R-Ky.) put the discussion squarely into politics by characterizing Democrats as “anti-coal liberals.”
In a too-familiar style of argument, McConnell focused on a small group being hurt by the majority party, rather than considering the good of all: “There is a depression in Appalachia, an absolute depression. Families are losing work because of government attacks on the coal industry. Communities are hurting. And tonight you’re going to hear 30 hours of excuses from a group of people who think that’s okay.”
The website of the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy, says that McConnell has taken at least $400 thousand from oil, gas, and mining interests since he started in the Senate.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) began the official session. He summarized recent extreme weather events across the country, dissed back at the Republicans, and touted his state’s environmental actions. He also cited Republican President George H.W. Bush, who promised 25 years ago to use the “White House effect” to combat the “greenhouse effect.”
“Climate change deniers still exist there’s lots of them. They exist in this country. They exist in the Senate.”—Harry Reid (Nevada)
Senior Democrats, including Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.)—and early and Angus King (I, Maine), released a few staccato bursts. Boxer compared US and China pollution and remedial measures, saying the US should not wait for China to act. (In fact, the Chinese are alarmed and moving swiftly—as a monolithic government can—to redress the environmental problems raised by their very fast development.)
“I rise tonight in puzzlement as to how this issue became a partisan issue. It’s a scientific issue.”—Angus King (Maine)
[added Tuesday] Notable among the shorter speeches were those of Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), Mark Udall (Colorado), Dick Durbin (Illinois; assistant majority leader), Chuck Schumer (New York), and Patty Murray (senior senator from Washington State).
We don’t have to wait for evidence of climate change. It’s all around us: rising seas, disappearing coastlines, longer droughts.—Kirsten Gillibrand (New York)
Kirsten Gillibrand cut straight to the chase: “Climate change is real & we must act.” She said it was time for the US to invest in a clean energy future with wind, solar, bio-fuels, and other energy sources that don’t contribute to climate change. Mark Udall, in a dead-heat race with Congressman Cory Gardner (R-Yuma) to retain his Colorado Senate seat, said little. Climate change isn’t even on the list of priority issues on his website. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who has a longtime record on energy/environment issues, was forceful. From another of his speeches:
“One of the most significant environmental crises we face is climate change. We are already witnessing some effects of a changing climate—melting glaciers, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, chronic floods and droughts, and accelerated erosion. Scientists predict that these events will occur more frequently in the future with negative repercussions for our economy and national security, in addition to our environment.”
Chuck Schumer, the senior Senator from New York state, related some of the impacts of Hurricane Sandy in his low-lying, densely populated jewel of the East Coast, New York City. His depictions were often graphic.
Patty Murray, senior Senator from Washington, was succinct and powerful about the concerns of her constituents from Sequim to Spokane to Walla Walla. Excerts form Murray’s talk:
“Climate change is real. We have all seen the overwhelming scientific evidence that it is occurring, and that it is caused by human activity. But it’s not just science—we see the impacts all around us. We see a rise in asthma attacks among children as warmer temperatures increase the pollution that triggers such attacks…. Rising sea levels threaten Seattle and ports throughout my state critical to our economy…. Our rural communities [face] longer-lasting and more severe droughts that wither crops and turn our forests into kindling for wildfires. In our local fishing communities… ocean acidification hinders shellfish development and threatens an industry that contributes millions per year to Washington’s economy.”
Murray then spent a little time discussing the enormous costs of climate change, “devastating to the families and communities that suffer from drought, superstorm, or wildfire.”
“Mr. President, this isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s also a budget issue.”—Patty Murray (Washington)
“It’s not just about rising temperatures, it’s about rising costs,” she pointed out. “As chair of the Budget Committee, I can tell you that this issue is a burden to American taxpayers. Federal disaster recovery spending alone has increased year after year, as the number and size of weather-related disasters rises.”
“Most frustrating of all is that we know what can be done to fix this problem. We know the solutions to reduce pollution and emissions that cause climate change create good-paying jobs, jobs that put money back in families’ pockets through low-cost energy sources and increased efficiencies in homes. These solutions make our nation more energy independent, and our businesses more globally competitive. And they give us cleaner air and water, and protect the health of our children and grandchildren.”—Patty Murray (Washington)
Though she touted achievements in her home state of Washington, she regretted the US having ceded our clean energy leadership to countries like China and Germany because too many Americans (the few) have stood in the way of making necessary investments. “When we passed the Bipartisan Budget Act this past December, we proved that Democrats and Republicans can put ideology aside and work together to make progress on our nation’s challenges. Climate change is no less a challenge than any of the other issues we face, and we have a moral obligation to address it.” The benefits: good paying jobs at home in fields like pollution management, energy efficiency, and renewable energy goods, and a healthier planet [to pass] on to our children. Murray’s conclusion:
“I’m hopeful that Republicans and Democrats can find common ground and come together to move us forward. I commend each and every one of my colleagues for being here tonight to call attention to this pressing issue.”—Patty Murray (Washington)
[resume Monday night blog] The hero of climate change denial—Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.)—-the only Repoblican there—cast a pall on the proceedings. He’s the one who started the line of thinking that that if it was cold enough to snow, global warming must be a hoax.
“With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phoney science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it.”—Jim Inhofe
Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif) came on next to summarize climate change signs in the Golden State. The picture was “pretty terrifying,” Goldenberg reported. “By Feinstein’s tally, Californians could lose 450,000 homes, 30 coastal power plants, 22 wastewater treatment plants, 3,500 miles of roadway, 140 schools, and 55 hospitals to sea-level rise by 2100.”
“We can not stop climate change from happening.”—Dianne Feinstein
NEXT: Al Franken (Minnesota), Bernie Sanders (Vermont), Tim Kaine (Virginia), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), Ed Markey (Massachusetts)
Most of the Democrats in the U.S. Senate and two independents will spend Monday night and early Tuesday speaking on the Senate floor in an all-night talkathon. Its purpose is to move fellow senators to act on climate change. The group intends to interrupt the usual pattern of the Senate and focus in large numbers on the topic, which President Obama recognized in every section of the federal budget released last week.
“Climate change is real, it is caused by humans, and it is solvable,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “Congress must act. On Monday night we’re going to show the growing number of Senators who are committed to working together to confront climate change.”
The following senators have committed to participating in the Senate climate caucus live so far: Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Patty Murray, (D-Wash.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Angus King (I-Maine), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Said Kate Sheppard of the Huffington Post in a February article:
“This will be the first major initiative of a new Climate Action Task Force that [Sen. Sheldon] Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) announced last month. It is also an extension of Whitehouse’s personal push on climate change. He has been making floor speeches on the issue every week that the Senate has been in session since April 2012…. Whitehouse also said that the members of the Climate Action Task Force are planning a rally at the Capitol in May, during which they will ask the public to deliver alarm clocks to lawmakers ‘to tell everyone that Congress needs to wake up on climate change.’”
For more information on global climate change, see the slide show Connect The Dots On Climate Change.
Whitehouse said he expected the Senate climate caucus live to be “very, very boisterous” and summarized his thoughts about congressional perception of climate change:
“It’s not really about real denial for most [of the Congress]. There may be a couple of nuts who actually believe that [climate denial] stuff. But for most of them, they’re scared of polluter money.”