Senator Coons stays #Up4Climate to urge action on climate change


Mr. President, I’d like to thank my colleague from Oregon, Senator Merkley, who’s done a tremendous job laying out both the scientific case, and the compelling economic case, the cultural case, the global case for why we here in the senate need to wake up, need to listen to the indisputable evidence of what climate change is doing in our home states, to our country, and around the world.

Mr. President, even now as we speak here in this chamber, my own three children – Maggie, Michael and Jack – are asleep at home. And as I reflected on this past summer I was struck by something, an experience that we had that was a simple and telling reminder of the steady changes wrought by climate change in our nation. Last summer we took a family vacation, a trip to glacier national park. For those of you who have had the opportunity to hike in this majestic national park in Montana, it’s the site of many striking and beautiful scenes.

But there was one hike we took in particular that stayed with me. It was a hike to historic Grinnell Glacier, a glacier that’s by many photographs, over decades, documented in its steady receding. In fact, since 1966 it’s lost nearly half its total acreage. And we took a long and winding hike up the trail that takes you to Grinnell glacier. You can’t quite see until you come up over the last rise that most of what is left of Grinnell Glacier in the summer today is a chilly pool of water.

For my daughter Maggie and for my sons Mike and Jack, as I look ahead to the long-term future, I think we all have to ask ourselves a question about how many more changes we’re willing to accept being wrought on creation, on this nation, and on the world by the steady advance of climate change?

Now I know we can’t simply take the examples of things like Grinnell Glacier or what to me seemed a striking change in the cap of Mount Kilimanjaro. I first climbed it in 1984 and I visited it again last year, and it’s a striking change, a visually powerful change. These aren’t scientific. There are lots of other arguments perhaps as to why these two particular glaciers have retreated. But I still remember hearing a presentation at the University of Delaware by Dr. Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University, a glaciologist who presented a very broad and, I thought, very compelling case based on ice cores for the actual advance of climate change over many decades.

In fact, I see that my colleague from Rhode Island has a photographic history of Grinnell Glacier in Montana’s Glacier National Park, so the point I was just making in passing, he’s able to illustrate here. That is as of ten years ago, the glacier has retreated somewhat even further than that. But this striking glacier in 1940 is now almost completely gone in just one generation.

This and so many other glaciers that were monuments in our national parks are today receded or altogether gone. I think we have to ask ourselves fundamentally, what’s our path afford?

We’ve heard from other senators. Tim Kaine spoke about the importance of innovation. Angus King – the Senator from Virginia and the Senator from Maine –spoke about the importance of markets and of making sure that our inventions and innovations in trying to solve these problems are also shared internationally. I think these are great and important insights.

One of the things I wanted to bring to the floor today first was insights from my own home state of Delaware where our Governor Jack Markell, has impaneled a sea level rise advisory committee starting in 2010 that looked hard at how climate change might affect my home state.

At just 60 feet, Delaware has the lowest mean elevation of any state in the country, and already makes it more susceptible to sea level rise than almost any state in the country.

In my state of Delaware we have and will continue to see the impact of climate change on our businesses, our communities, and our local environment. And as the sea level rises, we’re seeing the effects more and more.

Sea level rises essentially for two reasons.

First, as the planet’s ice sheets melt, the much larger sheets than Grinnell Glacier, they add to the amount of water in the ocean. But second, salt water actually expands as it warms as well. So as the planet’s average temperature has steadily risen, so, too, has the level of its salt water seas. The fact that the earth’s oceans are rising each year isn’t new information. It has been rising as long as we have been keeping track.

But what’s really jarring is that that rate of rise is increasing, and increasing significantly. When the data was tracked from 1870 to 1930, sea level was rising at a rate of four inches per 100 years. Over the next 60 years, it rose at a rate of eight inches per hundred years, it more than doubled. And then in just the last 20 years sea level has been rising at a strikingly more rapid rate of 12.5 inches per 100 years.

The water is rising, Mr. President. And in Delaware, it’s rising fast.

The land itself in my state is actually also sinking. There is an actually documented vertical movement of earth’s crust underneath Mid-Atlantic Coast, it’s called subsidence, It’s been happening in Delaware slowly but gradually since the ice age at a pace of just two millimeters of elevation every year. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot but it adds up to another four inches over the century. So you’ve got water rising and the land sinking making climate change and sea level rising specifically for my home state, a very real issue.

A wide array of scientists have studied this and its impact on Delaware and they’ve developed three models for future scenarios. In the conservative model, by the year 2100, sea level in Delaware will have risen about a foot and a half. In another model, the water off Delaware rises a full meter. And in another and the most disconcerting model, one and a half meters or about five feet.

And unfortunately at present this broad group of scientists inside and outside of government are estimating that that is the most likely scenario.

Let’s make this real. Here is a projection of these three different scenarios in one area in Delaware, Bower’s Beach. And this shows how now this is a well-established beach community and in the most conservative, we’ve still got something of land and in the middle it’s completely cut off here from the mainland and then in the most likely, sadly, given most current evidence, there’s literally nothing left except a little sand bar out by itself in the Delaware bay.

That gives you one example of why the difference between these three scenarios matters so much. And unfortunately, there is no scenario in which Bower’s Beach is still a viable beachfront community by the end of this century. This beach community of Bower’s Beach is very close to Dover Air Force Base and ends up under water.

Now let’s look at South Wilmington. The city in which I live is Wilmington, Delaware, and South Wilmington is a neighborhood in the largest city in our state. And as the water rises in the Atlantic Ocean it also rises up the Delaware Bay and the Delaware River and the Christina River, which runs right through most of my home county, New Castle County, and rises in the Peterson Wildlife Refuge, too.

The impacts here are potentially devastating. We’re talking about water a foot and a half higher than what Delaware experienced during super storm sandy but not for a brief storm surge… each and every day.

Again, if you take a look at today, the conservative, the middle, and the most likely, most aggressive scenario in which virtually all of south Wilmington is under water by the end of this century. The calculation of whether we’re hit half a meter or a full meter or a meter and half of sea rise comes down the rate of acceleration of climate change globally.

And it leaves for us a central and so far unanswered question, whether we try to slow the rate at which climate change is affecting our planet and maybe, somehow, turn the tide.

This is the part of climate change policy called mitigation.

Priority one in this strategy is cutting the emissions we’re pumping into our atmosphere. And to do it, we can and must diversify our energy sources and reduce our dependence on polluting fossil fuels. Clean energy technology, energy efficiency programs, public transportation and more will help cut down on these omissions but it will require a global effort in order to avoid or minimize local impacts.

The second part of climate change policy is adaptation.

It is based on an acceptance of the reality that our climate is changing and will have real effects on our planet and all of our communities. The truth is that even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today, if we shut down power plants, stopped driving cars stopped using gas-powered farm equipment and trains and ships, all the rest, the amount of greenhouse gases, of CO2 and others already in the a atmosphere would still take many, many years to dissipate.

Changes in the world’s climate are at this point inevitable. It’s already happening and affecting communities and we can expect these impacts to intensify as the rate of climate change continues to accelerate. We can modify our behavior to prevent those effects from being catastrophic. We can and should make better choices now to prevent disaster later.

In Delaware, for example, we’ve had two laws on the books for now 40 years that have helped us adapt.

First was championed by Republican Governor Russ Peterson, a hero of mine, of our governors and others. It is called the Coastal Zone Act and passing it cost him his career in politics. It prohibited future industrial development on a long strip of coastal land allowing the state and federal government to preserve it and reduce the impacts of flooding and coastal erosion, ultimately in the long run, Governor Peterson has been proven a visionary in preserving this vital barrier all along Delaware’s coast.

The second law empowered the State to protect and replenish the state’s beaches, including the beaches on Delaware Bay often overlooked. This has allowed our state to build a berm and dune system that protects infrastructure and protects property from being washed away.

More importantly than these significant landmark laws of 40 years ago, today instead of running away from the science, Delaware’s leaders have embraced it.

The state agency that manages environmental issues for Delaware is known as DNREC, and ably led by Secretary Colin O’Mara, it’s taken the lead on a government wide project to assess the state’s vulnerability to sea level rise and as I’ve mentioned recommend options for adaptation.

Delaware’s sea level rise committee spent 18 months looking at 79 different state-wide resources, roads and bridges, schools, fire stations, railroads, wetlands, people and their homes and businesses and layered all of this onto maps to show how far the water would reach at different models for sea level rise.

If sea level does get to a meter and a half, we’ll lose more than 10 percent of our state. The water claims 20,000 residential properties, significant percentages of wetlands, farms, highways, industrial sites, we would lose 21 miles of our northeast corridor rail lines to flooding, shutting down the vital northeast corridor that transports so many millions every year. The Port of Wilmington would be rendered useless. Nearly all the state’s protected wetlands inundated. Three-quarters of our dams, dikes, and levees flooded out.

In short, this scenario, for our lowest lying state, would be devastating. As Secretary O’Mara said in this report – and I quote – “We’re looking at big risks for human health and safety. It’s not just the Delaware Bay beaches. We also have concerns about communities from New Castle and Wilmington to Delaware City. It’s much more complex than just a few inches of water rising on our beaches.”

He’s right. So, Mr. President, once again, remember, we have two basic approaches to climate change policy: adaptation and mitigation.

And once Delaware compiled its 200-page assessment on sea-level rise, the committee got to work on an adaptation strategy to protect our state. We came up with a slate of more than 60 options and hosted a whole series of public meetings and town halls to discuss them. We’re now working on a broader vulnerability assessment to examine the full range of impacts from climate change beyond sea level rise – changing temperatures, extreme weather, changes in precipitation, impacts that will affect us and all our neighbors. Climate change as all of my colleagues have said earlier this evening, will affect the distribution, abundance and behavior of wildlife, as well as the diversity, structure and function of our ecosystems.

We’re already seeing changes in natural patterns. As Senator Markey of Massachusetts commented earlier this evening, many commercial and recreational fish stocks along our East Coast have moved northwards by 20 to 200 miles over the past 40 years as ocean temperatures have increased. Scientists expect migratory species to be strongly affected by climate change. Since animal migration is closely connected to climate, species use habitats and resources during their migrations, these changes are impacting our own multibillion-dollar – both bird watching and water-fowl hunting industries, an important economic driver for us and critical parts of our heritage.

According to the draft National Climate Assessment released in 2013, our farmers are expected initially to adapt relatively well to the changing climate over the next 25 years. But later, as temperature increases and precipitation extremes get more intense, crop yields and production of poultry and livestock are expected to decline. More extreme weather events, droughts, heavy downpours will further reduce yields, damage soil, stress irrigation water supplies, and increase production costs.

All in all, this is a fairly grim long-term outlook in the absence of decisive action.

Mr. President, I’m proud of my state. Delaware was the first state to thoroughly assess the vulnerability of specific resources in as comprehensive a way as they have. And we are determined to confront these changes to our planet head-on and to protect our communities and the way of life that we have built.

Let me, if I could, briefly review that there are so many things we can and should do here in congress in a bipartisan way to lay the groundwork for the actions we have to take. We can improve our energy efficiency. We could take up and pass the bipartisan bill recently reintroduced by Senators Shaheen and Portman to increase the use of energy efficient technologies across all sectors in our society. This new version of the bill has 12 sponsors, six Democrats and six Republicans, and it includes 10 commonsense amendments that would save consumers electricity and money. A small but meaningful start on a journey towards changing our direction on climate change.

Or we could level the playing field and help new clean energy technologies get off the ground by giving them the same tax advantages currently utilized by fossil fuel projects. The bipartisan Master Limited Partnership Parity act, which I’m proud to cosponsor with my colleagues, Senators Moran and Stabenow, Murkowski, Landrieu and Collins, democrats and republicans working together, would level the playing field for renewables and give them and other new technologies a fighting chance in our energy market.

There are so many other steps we could do in combination if we would but get past this endless, pointless debate that has long been resolved in the halls of science and move forward in a way that better serves our country and our world.

The bottom line is that our climate is changing. We know that. With this knowledge comes the responsibility to reduce our emissions, to mitigate the impacts, and prepare for and take action to deal with the coming changes.

Mr. President, as I reflect on our own responsibilities as senators, I am in part moved to respond to the challenge of climate change not just because it is an environmental issue or an economic issue or a regional issue or a global issue, but it is also for me and for many others a faith issue.

It is a question of how we carry out our responsibility to be good stewards of God’s creation, to be those senators we are called to be, each from our own traditions, who stand up and do what is right, not just for the short term, not just for the concerns of the day but for the long term.

And I want to, as I move towards my close, just share with a few of those in the chamber and watching that one of the things that’s been most encouraging to me as I’ve reflected on the change in the climate change movement over recent years, that it has begun to draw support from all across the theological spectrum.

There was just last year, July of 2013, a letter sent to Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Reid and all members of the congress by 200 self-identified Christian Evangelical scientists from both religious and secular universities all across the United States. A powerful and incisive letter that says – and I quote –”As Evangelical scientists and academics, we understand climate change is real and action urgently needed. All of God’s creation is groaning under the weight of our uncontrolled use of fossil fuels, bringing on a warming planet, melting ice, and rising seas.”

It goes on, and I urge any watching to consider reading it. It’s posted online. It goes on and quotes Christian scripture at length in making the case that we have an obligation if we are concerned about our neighbors and about the least of these in this world to take on the challenge of making sure that we are good stewards.

Those of the Roman Catholic faith may be inspired by Pope Francis who has taken the name of the Patron Saint of animals and the environment, and recently issued a call for all people to be protectors of creation.

Last I might read from a letter that was issued by the President of the National Association of Evangelicals, a group that is not commonly known for their close alignment with my Party, Leith Anderson wrote in a letter in 2011 – quote – “While others debate the science and politics of climate change, my thoughts go to the poor, who are neither scientists nor politicians. They will never study carbon dioxide in the air or acidification of the oceans but they will suffer, from dry wells in the Sahel of Africa and floods along the coasts of Bangladesh. Their crops will fail while our supermarkets remain full. They will suffer while we study and debate.”

This couldn’t be more true.

And, Mr. President, I urge all of us in this chamber to reflect on whatever tradition sustains us and brings us here, that we have an obligation to those who sleep soundly in our homes now, to those from our home states around the country to stand up and take action, to look clearly at the challenge that lies in front of us and to act in the best traditions.