Global warming contrarian Senators gave the April 19 hearing, held by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, a wide berth, allowing an all-too-rare uninterrupted meaningful discussion between expert witnesses and elected officials.  Thanks to Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota), the hearing also confronted the need to address climate change as the underlying cause of rising sea levels.

Attendance was sparse on the GOP side, with only Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) putting in an appearance, but Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) were there, in addition to Franken.  CSW was there, too.  We saw general agreement on the need for action to protect domestic infrastructure from the impacts of rising sea levels.

On the hearing webpage, you can access an archived webcast of the hearing, and the written testimony of each witness.

Witnesses included NASA Chief Scientist Dr. Waleed Abdalati; Dr. Ben Strauss, Director of the Program on Sea Level Rise for Climate Central; Dr. Anthony Janetos, Director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Joint Global Change Research Institute; Mr. Adam Freed, Deputy Director for the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, New York, NY; and finally, Dr. Leonard Berry, Director of Florida Atlantic University’s Florida Center for Environmental Studies.

These well-selected witnesses made a dynamic panel of active personalities in the world of climate science and its relationship to policymaking.  Dr. Abdalati just last week issued a response to 49 former NASA administrators, engineers, and astronauts expressing climate ‘skepticism’, encouraging them to join the debate on climate change issues in the scientific literature or in public forums, rather than seeking to restrict discourse.  Dr. Janetos, among his many achievements, was a co-chair of the first National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts (2000), which was essentially suppressed by the Bush Administration.  He is a member of the Development and Advisory Committee for the new National Climate Assessment currently in preparation.  Dr. Strauss of Climate Central also caught our attention: CSW Director Rick Piltz was featured along with Dr. Heidi Cullen, now the chief climatologist at Climate Central, in the 2007 documentary Everything’s Cool.

Ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R- Alaska) was the only GOP member in attendance.  In 2010 she sponsored a resolution to veto EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.  But at the hearing she seemed attuned to the expertise of the witness panel and the potential impacts of a rising ocean.  She emphasized the dangers of rising waters for both coastal populations and Alaska’s energy development infrastructure.

Rising sea levels create what Dr. Strauss termed a “launch pad for coastal storms,” where “sea level rise due to global warming has already doubled the annual risk of extreme coastal flooding across widespread areas of the nation.”  Indeed, according to Dr. Abdalati, NASA has observed a yearly 3.1 mm average increase in sea levels globally – a number that will prove substantial as it accumulates, and likely accelerates, during the coming decades and long after.

Another consequence of rising sea levels is pollution of drinking water. Dr. Berry pointed out that since Florida is composed of mostly porous limestone, seawater could easily penetrate the land, polluting aquifers and compromising Florida’s drinking water – a problem that can be difficult and expensive to address.  According to a recent NRDC highlights report, many states besides Florida face the same risk.

An increase in frequency or intensity of coastal flooding would pose direct threats to communities and infrastructure housed in the floodplains.  “Risk in any particular location depends strongly on local conditions,” Dr. Janetos emphasized.  For example, the presence of barrier islands, which absorb wave energy and limit the mainland’s exposure to storm surge, can help lessen the severity of floods. But he also stressed that “we have already seen the long term reductions in energy service due to storms,” Katrina being the most memorable, but by no means the only example.

“Storm surges on top of sea rise have better than even changes to reach more than four feet above the high tide line by 2030.” Dr. Strauss explained.  Yet nearly 5 million US residents live in 2.6 million homes on land below this level.” In addition, almost 300 energy facilities populate these lands.  These statistics are visualized on the map Dr. Strauss provided:








With this in mind the potential damage to homes, infrastructure, and populations is grave indeed.

Mr. Freed added that most New York in-city power plants are located near the water as a matter of logistics.  These plants need fuel deliveries, water for cooling, steam generation, and discharge.  Unfortunately, this means 10 out of 17 of the plants are in flood zones, a number that is expected to increase.

Dr. Berry similarly commented that many nuclear facilities are in vulnerable areas, since water is necessary for cooling; however, storms have in the past compromised these facilities for short periods of time.  “The NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] should look closely at the implications of sea level rise,” he stressed.

A recent NRDC Switchboard post indicates that state plans to deal with rising seas are inconsistent at best, with some states failing to come up with any plans for adaptation at all. But the federal government is responsible for helping Americans prepare for potential disasters, Senator Murkowski pointed out.  “The existing federal agencies will only respond after disasters have occurred,” she explained, adding that federal dollars should provide resilient, proactive, and envisioning solutions.

The witnesses put forward several achievable goals for federal money to protect people, homes, and infrastructure from the potentially disastrous impacts of rising seas.  Mr. Freed observed that there is need for funding and motivation to ensure that the FEMA flood maps are regularly updated – infrastructure planning is completely dependent on these maps.  “We need to create better tools to analyze vulnerabilities,” Dr. Janetos added, in the face of changing demand, technologies, and the onshore environment.

Though speaking about the impacts of sea level rise as a problem of damages to communities, housing, and infrastructure is, as Dr. Berry termed it, “a productive way forward,” the underlying problem behind sea level rise was not addressed until Sen. Franken exclaimed, “The elephant in the room is climate change!”  Perhaps in an effort to show the Ranking Member that her sympathy with the witness panel could be more sincere, he asked each witness to state whether or not they agreed with the EPA’s endangerment finding.  All five agreed unequivocally.  “Science needs skeptics,” Dr. Abdalati commented.  “But the consensus on climate change is strong.”

“Addressing climate change in the long run requires that we grow clean energy sources,” Franken continued.  “We can keep them going by closing subsidies to oil companies, which made $137 billion in profits in 2011.”  The Senate recently voted on a measure that would have closed $2 million in subsidies to those companies, but it failed along party lines. Still, he emphasized the importance of expanding clean energy globally.

“The success of society in the face of [climate] changes depends on three things,” Dr. Abdalati observed.  “It depends on how big those changes are, how rapidly they come, and our ability to anticipate and prepare for them…alternative energy sources tackle two of those three elements…If the success of society in the face of these changes is not motivation, I’m not sure what is.”

Sen. Franken seemed to agree, suggesting that higher-level climate change policy measures are needed to attack sea level rise with integrity.  “It’s the Senate’s responsibility,” he said, “to tackle these problems head on.”

Earlier post:

Sen. Franken’s colloquy with Sen. Whitehouse on climate change