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January 2014 Issue

Combating Climate Change And Carbon Pollution

By Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)
Co-Chair, Senate Oceans Caucus
The human race has always had a special bond with the sea. Throughout our history we have relied on oceans for food, travel, commerce and recreation. Now in the 21st century, we continue to take advantage of the oceans' bounty, as we should. We trade, we fish and we sail. We dispose of waste. We extract fuel and harness the wind. But we need to be smarter about how we do these things, because right now the oceans are taking a beating.

In October 2013, the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) released its latest findings. It found that 'the risks to the ocean and the ecosystems it supports have been significantly underestimated, the extent of marine degradation as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and it is happening at a much faster rate than previously predicted.'

Carbon pollution causes ocean warming and acidification, putting global ocean health at risk. Oceans have absorbed more than 550 billion tons of carbon pollution and as a result have become 30 percent more acidic. The acidity of the oceans is now increasing faster than it has in the last 50 million years.

The rate of decrease in Arctic sea ice, the rate of increase in melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and the rate of sea level rise are all matching the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's worst-case scenarios. Some species are moving toward the colder water of the North and South Poles, at about 10 to 45 miles per decade. Events that are timed for spring and summer, like egg laying or migration, are happening about four days earlier per decade.

Unfortunately, as the IPSO report points out, that's not all. The ocean and its inhabitants must also deal with plastic and chemical pollution, and unsustainable fishing and land use practices. Marine ecosystems and wildlife may be able to weather any one of these challenges, but it is unlikely they can withstand them all.

The report makes clear that 'timelines for action are shrinking.' As I tell my colleagues in the Senate during my weekly speeches on the effects of climate change: It is time to wake up.

Thankfully, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is awake to these threats and taking action. In June, President Obama announced his Climate Action Plan, which included important new carbon pollution standards for future power plants. This will reduce the pollution that has been wreaking havoc on our oceans, atmosphere and health.

Those of us who believe in science and who are awake to the changes happening all around us should rally behind the president and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy to support these proposed standards.

The Administration also released a Marine Planning Handbook in July to guide regions that choose to establish regional planning bodies and develop marine plans. The Northeast Regional Planning Body, for example, is working to improve decision making, promote healthy ocean and coastal ecosystems, and better coordinate between all stakeholders in our ocean economy. In Rhode Island, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management recently held the first competitive lease sale for offshore wind energy. Marine planning efforts undertaken by our state and region will help ensure that the concerns of fishermen, shippers, conservationists and others will be taken into consideration as the projects move forward.

While the Administration and many of our individual states continue to make strides in ocean policy, Congress has long stood in the way of further progress. But, this year brought several victories that are worth noting. First, the Senate once again passed my legislation to establish a National Endowment for the Oceans. The bill, which would support research, restoration and conservation of coastal and ocean ecosystems, passed in the Senate as part of the Water Resources Development Act of 2013. More than a dozen Republicans joined Democrats to pass this bill, and I'm hopeful that we can keep it moving through the House to become law. If approved and funded, the endowment would once and for all provide a steady, reliable source of funding for the work that must be done to protect our great bodies of water.

The bipartisan Senate Oceans Caucus also continues to work together on important issues. This year, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) became our newest co-chair, joining me and Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). We have 21 members, on both sides of the aisle, committed to educating our peers and working together to solve issues facing our oceans and coastal communities. We have identified three specific areas to address: pirate fishing, marine debris, and ocean and coastal monitoring. The caucus will continue working in bipartisan fashion to raise awareness on these issues and advance solutions.

Some outcomes of climate change cannot be avoided. Some are already happening. But if we act now, we can avoid many of the worst predictions for sea level rise, ocean acidification, storms and other devastating disruptions. That's why Congress should support the president's goal to reduce U.S. emissions to 17 percent below our 2005 output by the end of this decade and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

It's time to be honest about the changes happening in our oceans and what is causing those changes. It's time to stop ignoring what climate change and carbon pollution are doing to our oceans and coastal communities. It's up to us to heed the overwhelming scientific consensus and forge more bipartisan victories for our planet.

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