He’s hardly a household name, but US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (a Democrat representing Rhode Island) delivered a quite extraordinary 23-minute speech last week on the floor of the Senate – the speech we hoped, back in the heady days of late 2008, to hear the incoming President one day deliver – and deliver on.
That, of course, hasn’t happened, and the world’s inexorable slide towards resource exhaustion and carbon-fuelled climate collapse has barely been dented by the change of incumbent in the White House from an outright climate change denier to a young president who has turned out to be simply a captive of a corporatised, utterly broken and bastardised political system. In hindsight, it was naive on my part, and on the part of millions around the world, to think that any one politician could or would dare to step beyond politics-as-usual and put his career on the line for the overwhelmingly greater good of preventing climate chaos.
Perhaps I didn’t really think Obama would succeed, but I was certain he would at least try. Wrong again. Long after Obama’s presidency is a footnote in history, I suspect future historians (or more likely, palaeontologists), should they happen upon the words of one Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in October 2011, will find many clues to help them unravel a vexing mystery: how did a relatively technologically advanced, science-literate civilisation doggedly fail to act to prevent its own certain, widely flagged collapse and brutal extinction event in the mid-21st century?
“Mr. President, I am here to speak about what is currently an unpopular topic in this town. It has become no longer politically correct in certain circles in Washington to speak about climate change or carbon pollution or how carbon pollution is causing our climate to change.
This is a peculiar condition of Washington. If you go out into, say, our military and intelligence communities, they understand and are planning for the effects of carbon pollution on climate change. They see it as a national security risk. If you go out into our nonpolluting business and financial communities, they see this as a real and important problem. And, of course, it goes without saying our scientific community is all over this concern. But as I said, Washington is a peculiar place, and here it is getting very little traction.
Here in Washington we feel the dark hand of the polluters tapping so many shoulders. And where there is power and money behind that dark hand, therefore, a lot of attention is paid to that little tap on the shoulder. What we overlook is that nature — God’s Earth — is also tapping us all on the shoulder, with messages we ignore at our peril. We ignore the messages of nature of God’s Earthand we ignore the laws of nature of God’s Earth at our very grave peril.
I have little doubt future generations will curse our names if we keep listening to the “siren song of well-paying polluters.” Whitehouse makes this point better than any national politician I’ve heard — by reviewing the science and the politics in a speech few of his fellow politicos have the guts or wisdom or conscience to deliver.
There is a wave of very justifiable economic frustration that has swept through our Capitol. The problem is that some of the special interests — the polluters — have insinuated themselves into that wave, sort of like parasites that creep into the body of a host animal, and from there they are working terrible mischief. They are propagating two big lies. One is that environmental regulations are a burden to the economy and we need to lift those burdens to spur our economic recovery. The second is the jury is still out on climate changes caused by carbon pollution, so we don’t need to worry about it or even take precautions. Both are, frankly, outright false.
Environmental regulation is well established to be good for the economy. It may add costs to you if you are a polluter, but polluters usually exaggerate about that.
For instance, before the 1990 acid rain rules went into effect, Peabody Coal estimated that compliance would cost $3.9 billion. The Edison Electric Institute chimed in and estimated that compliance would cost $4 to $5 billion. Well, in fact, the Energy Information Administration calculated the program actually cost $836 million, about one-sixth of the Edison Electric Institute estimate.
When polluters were required to phase out the chemicals they were emitting that were literally burning a hole through our Earth’s atmosphere, they warned that it would create “severe economic and social disruption” due to “shutdowns of refrigeration equipment in supermarkets, office buildings, hotels, and hospitals.” Well, in fact, the phaseout happened 4 years to 6 years faster than predicted; it cost 30 percent less than predicted; and the American refrigeration industry innovated and created new export markets for its environmentally friendly products.
Anyway, the real point is we are not just in this Chamber to represent the polluters. We are supposed to be here to represent all Americans, and Americans benefit from environmental regulation big time.
Over the lifetime of the Clean Air Act, for instance, for every $1 it costs to add pollution controls, Americans have received about $30 in health and other benefits. By the way, installing those pollution controls created jobs because they went to manufacturers to build the controls and to Americans to install them. But setting that aside, a 30-to-1 benefit ratio to keep our air clean sounds like a mighty wise investment to me.
That 30-to-1 ratio doesn’t even count the intangible benefits — intangible but very real benefits — of clear air and clean water, the benefits of the heart and the soul, the benefits to a grandfather of taking his granddaughter to the fishing hole and still finding fish there or of the city kid being able to go to a beach and have it clean enough to swim there or the benefit to a mom who is spared the burden of worry, of sitting next to her asthmatic baby on the emergency room albuterol inhaler waiting for his infant lungs to clear.
Well, unfortunately, polluters rule in certain circles in Washington, and they emit propaganda as well as pollution, and they have been emitting too much of both lately.
Their other big lie the jury is still out on is whether human-made carbon pollution causes dangerous climate change and oceanic change. Virtually all of our most prestigious scientific and academic institutions have stated that climate change is happening and that human activities are the driving cause of this change. Many of us in Congress received a letter from those institutions in October 2009. Let me quote from that letter.
“Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science”.
Let me repeat that last quote.
“Contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science”.
This letter was signed by the heads of the following organizations: the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Society of Agronomy, the American Society of Plant Biologists, the American Statistical Association, the Association of Ecosystem Research Centers, the Botanical Society of America, the Crop Science Society of America, the Ecological Society of America, the Natural Science Collections Alliance, the Organization of Biological Field Stations, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, the Society of Systematic Biologists, the Soil Science Society of America, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
These are highly esteemed scientific organizations. They are the real deal. They don’t think the jury is still out. They recognize that, in fact, the verdict is in, and it is time to act.
More than 97 percent of the climate scientists most actively publishing accept that the verdict is actually in on carbon pollution causing climate and oceanic changes — 97 percent. Think of that.
Imagine if your child were sick and the doctor said she needed treatment, and out of prudence you went and got a second opinion. Then you went around and you actually got 99 second opinions. When you were done, you found that 97 out of 100 expert doctors agreed your child was sick and needed treatment. Imagine further that of the three who disagreed, some took money from the insurance company that would have to pay for your child’s treatment. Imagine further that none of those three could say they were sure your child was OK, just that they weren’t sure what her illness was or that she needed treatment, that there was some doubt.
On those facts, name one decent father or mother who wouldn’t start treatment for their child. No decent parent would turn away from the considered judgment of 97 percent of 100 doctors just because they weren’t all absolutely certain.
How solid is the science behind this? Rock Reverse Phone Lookup solid. The fact that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs heat from the Sun was discovered at the time of the Civil War. This is not new stuff. In 1863 the Irish scientist John Tyndall determined that carbon dioxide and water vapor trapped more heat in the atmosphere as their concentrations increased. A 1955 textbook, “Our Astonishing Atmosphere,” notes that nearly a century ago the scientist, John Tyndall, suggested that a fall in the atmospheric carbon dioxide could allow the Earth to cool, whereas a rise in carbon dioxide would make it warmer.
In the early 1900s, a century ago, it became clear that changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might account for significant increases and decreases in the Earth’s average annual temperatures and that carbon dioxide released from manmade sources, anthropogenic sources — primarily by the burning of coal — would contribute to those atmospheric changes. This is not new stuff. These are well-established scientific principles.
Let me look for a moment at the book I talked about, “Our Astonishing Atmosphere,” published in 1955 — the year I was born, more than half a century ago — for the “Science for Every Man Series.” Let me read:
Although the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remains at a concentration of 0.03 percent all over the world, the amount in the air has not always been the same. There have been periods in the world’s history when the air became charged with more carbon dioxide than it now carries. There have also been periods when the concentration has fallen unusually low. The effects of these changes have been profound. They are believed to have influenced the climate of the earth by controlling the amount of energy that is lost by the earth into space. Nearly a century ago, the scientist John Tyndall suggested that a fall in the atmospheric carbon dioxide could allow the earth to cool whereas a rise in the carbon dioxide would make it warmer. With the help of its carbon dioxide, the atmosphere acts like a greenhouse that traps the heat of the sun. Radiations reaching the atmosphere as sunshine can penetrate to the surface of the earth. Here, they are absorbed, providing the world with warmth. But the earth itself radiating energy outwards in the form of long-wave heat rays. If these could penetrate the air as the sunshine does, they could carry off much of the heat provided by the sun. Carbon dioxide in the air helps to stop the escape of heat radiations. It acts like a blanket to keep the world warm. And the more carbon dioxide the air contains, the more efficiently does it smother the escape of the earth’s heat. Fluctuation in the carbon dioxide of the air has helped to bring about major climate changes experienced by the world in the past.
This is 1955. This is “Our Astonishing Atmosphere,” out of the “Science for Every Man” Series This is not something that was just invented.
Let’s look at the facts that we actually observe in our changing planet. Over the last 800,000 years — 8,000 centuries — until very recently the atmosphere has stayed within a bandwidth of between 170 parts per million and 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide. That is not theory, that is measurement. Scientists measure historic carbon dioxide concentrations by, for example, locating trapped bubbles in the ice of ancient glaciers. So we know, over time — and over long periods of time — what the range has been.
What else do we know? We know since the industrial revolution, we — humankind — have been burning carbon-rich fuels in measurable and ever-increasing amounts. We know we release up to 7 to 8 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year. A gigaton, by the way, is 1 billion metric tons. So if you are going to release 7 to 8 billion metric tons a year into the atmosphere, predictably that increases carbon concentration in our atmosphere. “Put more in and find more there” is not a complex scientific theory. It is not a difficult proposition. And 7 to 8 billion metric tons a year into the atmosphere is a very big thing in the historical sweep.
So we now measure carbon concentrations climbing in the Earth’s atmosphere. Again, this is a measurement, not a theory. The present concentration exceeds 390 parts per million.
So 800,000 years and a bandwidth of 170 to 300 parts per million, and now we are over 390.
This increase has a trajectory. Plotting trajectories is nothing new either. It is something scientists, businesspeople, and our military service people do every day. The trajectory for our carbon pollution predicts that 688 parts per million will be in the atmosphere in the year 2095 and 1,097 parts per million in the year 2195. These are carbon concentrations not outside of the bounds of 800,000 years but outside of the bounds of millions of years. As Tyndall determined at the time of the Civil War, increasing carbon concentrations will absorb more of the Sun’s heat and raise global temperatures.
Let me end by reviewing the scale of the peril that we are facing if we fail to act. Over the last 800,000 years, as I said, it has been 170 to 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Since the start of the industrial revolution, that concentration is now up to 390 parts per million. If we continue on the trajectory that we find ourselves, our grandchildren will see carbon concentrations in the atmosphere top 700 parts per million by the end of the century, twice the bandwidth top that we have lived in for 8,000 centuries.
To put that in perspective, mankind has engaged in agriculture for about 10,000 years. It is not clear we had yet mastered fire 800,000 years ago. The entire development of human civilization has taken place in that 800,000 years, and within that 170 to 300 parts per million bandwidth. If we go back, we are back into geologic time.
In April of this year, a group of scientific experts came together at the University of Oxford to discuss the current state of our oceans. The workshop report stated:
Human actions have resulted in warming and acidification of the oceans and are now causing increasing hypoxia. Acidification is obvious — the ocean is becoming more acid; hypoxia means low oxygen levels.
Studies of the Earth’s past indicate that these are the three symptoms associated with each of the previous five mass extinctions on Earth.
We experienced two mass ocean extinctions 55 and 251 million years ago. The rates of carbon entering the atmosphere in the lead-up to these extinctions are estimated to have been 2.2 and 1 to 2 gigatons of carbon per year respectively, over several thousand years. As the group of Oxford scientists noted:
Both these estimates are dwarfed in comparison to today’s emissions. As I said earlier, those are 7 to 8 gigatons per year. The workshop participants concluded with this quote:
“Unless action is taken now, the consequences of our activities are at a high risk of causing, through the combined effects of climate change, overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss, the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean”.
The laws of physics and the laws of chemistry and the laws of science, these are laws of nature. These are laws of God’s Earth. We can repeal some laws around here but we can’t repeal those. Senators are used to our opinions mattering a lot around here, but these laws are not affected by our opinions. These laws do not care who peddles influence, how many lobbyists you have or how big your corporate bankroll is. Those considerations, so important in this town, do not matter at all to the laws of nature.
As regards these laws of nature, because we can neither repeal nor influence them, we bear a duty, a duty of stewardship to see and respond to the facts that are before our faces according to nature’s laws. We bear a duty to shun the siren song of well-paying polluters. We bear a duty to make the right decisions for our children and grandchildren and for our God-given Earth.
Right now I must come before the Chamber and remind this body that we are failing in that duty. The men and women in this Chamber are indeed catastrophically failing in that duty. We are earning the scorn and condemnation of history — not this week, perhaps, and not next week. The spin doctors can see to that. But ultimately and assuredly, the harsh judgment that it is history’s power to inflict on wrong will fall upon us. The Supreme Being who gave us this Earth and its abundance created a world not just of abundance but of consequence and that Supreme Being gave us reason to allow us to plan for and foresee the various consequences that those laws of nature impose.
There is no wizard’s hat and wand with which to wish this away. These laws of nature are known; the Earth’s message to us is clear; our failure is blameworthy; its consequences are profound; and the costs will be very, very high”.