From Hitler To Lobsters: Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) Decries 'Oblivious Generation' Ignoring Climate Threat
In an impassioned floor speech on Tuesday, freshman U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine) compared Churchill’s unheeded warnings about the threat of Hitler to America’s inaction on the global threat of climate change pollution. Sen. King also described how carbon dioxide has been rising since the start of the Industrial Revolution, how sea level rise threatens America’s coastal cities, and how Maine’s lobsters are threatened with extinction by global warming.
“I rise today, Madam President, because we are entering a period of consequences,” Sen. King said. “It’s 1936. It’s August of 2001, when we had warnings Al Qaeda determined to strike in the United States.”
Sen. King concluded, “The generation that finally woke up to World War II, and fought it, and preserved this country and the western civilization for us has often been referred to as the Greatest Generation. The reason they were the Greatest Generation is that they were willing to face a problem and make enormous sacrifices in order to deal with it, to protect us and our children and grandchildren and our ability to function in this new world. They were the Greatest Generation. I have to say, Madam President, if somebody was going to characterize us, we’d be characterized as the Oblivious Generation – the generation that saw the data, saw the facts, saw the freight train headed for us and said, ‘That’s okay, it’s business as usual. Don’t bother me, I don’t want to be inconvenienced.’”
Sen. King was governor of Maine from 1995 to 2003.
“Madam President, I rise to join my colleague from Rhode Island and talk about climate change, but I want to start with history that has nothing to do with climate change. The history I want to talk about is Europe, and England particularly, in the 1930s. In the 1930s, there was a looming threat from Germany to the peace of Europe and to the existence of England. That threat was real and there were multiple signs. There was data, but there were very few people who wanted to do anything about it because it would have caused disruption: economic disruption and personal disruption.
“There was one politician in England who understood this threat, understood its dangers, understood that if gone unmet it would engulf his country in a destructive and potentially catastrophic war. Of course, that politician was Winston Churchill. He saw the danger based upon data, the size of the German air force, the building of munitions, the invasion of other smaller countries, the expansion of Germany and their armed forces.
“He was ignored and ridiculed by his own party, by the leadership of his own party, but he kept talking, he kept raising this issue, he kept trying to raise and awaken the people of England. It was a very difficult task. In fact, our own great President John F. Kennedy wrote his thesis as a student about this period in English history, and the title was very provocative and I think forward thinking: ‘While England Slept’.
“And Churchill tried to wake them up. Had he been heeded, Madam President, World War II could have been avoided. There were multiple times when Hitler could have been stopped by the slightest bit of resistance on the part of the European powers. Instead, the war came and five years later 55 million people died.
“Not heeding warnings has consequences. And we can always find reasons for nonaction – Churchill acknowledged this. The British had been through the trauma of World War I less than 20 years before. They couldn’t face the possibility of another devastating war. That’s totally understandable and that’s human nature. To capture the flavor of Churchill’s warning, which I think is very relevant to us here today, here’s what he said in a speech to the parliament on November 12, 1936:
‘The era of procrastination, of half measures of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences. We cannot avoid this period. We are in it now.’
“He understood the resistance to this warning by the people in England. He said, ‘We recognize that no emergency which should induce us to impinge on the normal course of trade.’ We all want to keep doing what we have been doing. And he says, ‘If we go on like this, I do not see what power can prevent us from going on like this. Someday there may be a terrible reckoning.’ That reckoning, Madam President, was World War II. ‘Those who take the responsibilities so entirely upon themselves to ignore the warnings are either of a hearty disposition or they are incapable of foreseeing the possibilities which may arise.’
“He then went on to talk about the responsibility of a parliamentary body, and I’ll conclude my comments on Churchill with this quote. ‘Two things,’ he said, ‘I confess, have staggered me. After long parliament experience in these debates,’ – and this was the debate about whether or not to rearm to face the German threat. – ‘the first has been the dangers that have so swiftly come upon us in a few years,’ and the data I am going to be presenting in a few minutes indeed is staggering to us today. ‘Secondly, I have been staggered by the failure of the House of Commons to react effectively against these dangers. That,’ he said, ‘I never expected. I would never have believed that we should have been allowed to go on getting into this plight month by month, year by year, and that even the government’s own confessions of error would have produced no concentration of parliamentary opinion. I say that unless the House resolves to find out the truth for itself, it will have committed an act of abdication of duty without parallel in its long history.’
“I rise today, Madam President, because we are entering a period of consequences. It’s 1936. It’s August of 2001, when we had warnings Al Qaeda determined to strike in the United States. Here’s the data. This is a chart I actually carry around in my iPhone, but I blew it up for today’s purposes. It’s a chart of the last million years of CO2 in the atmosphere, and this chart, I believe, answers two of the three basic questions about global climate change. The first is, ‘Is something happening?’ And occasionally, you hear people say, ‘Well, climate change happens in cycles and CO2 goes up and down, we’re just in a cycle and it’s no big deal.’
“This is a million years, Madam President, and for the past 999,000-plus, you had cycles. The cycles were between about 180 parts per million in the atmosphere up to about 250. Two hundred eighty, I think, was the highest back 400,000 years ago – but this has been the cycle for before human beings started to actively impinge upon the environment. And then comes the year 1,000. We go along here at the fairly high level. And then around 1860, it starts to go up.
“What happened in 1860? That’s the beginning of the industrial revolution. That’s when we started to burn fossil fuels in large quantities, whether it was coal, later oil, gas. But this is when it happens. So this answers the second question, ‘Do people have anything to do with it?’ Of course they do. It would be the greatest coincidence in the history of the world if this change just happened to begin at the same time as the industrial revolution.
“And then, you see where it’s gone since 1960. This chart actually is a couple of years out of date. At this point, it’s just below 400 parts per million. We passed 400 parts per million this summer. We’re now here. I don’t see how anyone can look at this chart and conclude anything else. A) Something’s happening to CO2 in the atmosphere, B) People are involved in causing it. I just don’t see how you can escape that.
“Now, the last time we had 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, we know from ice cores, was three million years ago. Three million years ago during the Pliocene. I knew someday my sixth grade geology would come to the fore. The Pliocene period. And, Madam President, when we had 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere three million years ago, sea levels were 60-80 feet higher than they are today. Sixty to 80 feet higher. This is data. As the distinguished Senator from Rhode Island said, this isn’t argument, this isn’t theory. This is data. This is facts.
“Now, question three, remember, I said there are three questions about global climate change: One, is CO2 really going up? The answer is yes. Two, do people have anything to do with it? The answer is yes. The third question is, so what? So what if CO2 is going up? Well, here’s an interesting chart of the past – what is it? 400,000, 500,000 years – you have a red line and a black line. The black line is temperature. The red line is CO2. As you can see, it’s an almost exact correlation, so I don’t think anybody could argue looking at this that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has nothing to do with the temperature on the earth. Now, is it causal, is it a correlation? There are lots of things going on here about feedback loops and very complicated climate science, which is one of the most complicated sciences there is – but I don’t think you can look at this chart and say that there isn’t some relationship between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and temperature. This is what has been happening, as CO2 and temperature move essentially in lockstep.
“Okay – well, by the way, I should mention that often when we’re talking about these things, and the Senator from Rhode Island knows what I’m saying here, people tend to think that we’re talking in long periods of time. We’re talking about geologic time – thousands of years. No. Climate change often happens abruptly. That’s a word that ought to strike fear into our hearts, abruptly. Almost overnight – and, in fact, here is the temperature, this is temperature and size of the ice field in Greenland, and you can see it going along, this is going back five, six, 10,000 years. Here the temperature goes along, goes along, starts to drop, and then it drops in a decade. It’s as if someone throws a switch.
“So this isn’t something where we can just say oh, well, we’ll do a few little things now and maybe it will be okay, and 100 years from now or 500 years from now somebody else will worry about it. There could be a catastrophic event within years, certainly within decades, because this, this is something that I learned recently: the University of Maine has a center that talks about climate change, and when I went up to see them last spring, they said, ‘Senator, you have got to understand this, we’re talking about the possibility of abrupt climate change, not just climate change.’ So I think that’s a very important point to realize.
“Okay. So, what difference does temperature make? Okay. It gets a little warmer. You know, Maine will have a longer tourist season – that will be okay. If it’s warmer, I don’t think anybody will complain if it’s warmer in Maine in February, except maybe the ski industry. What difference does it make? Well, it makes a lot of difference. It makes a lot of difference to species, but it also makes a lot of difference to people. Here is a chart that shows what would happen to many of our coastal communities with a sea-level rise that’s reasonably modest. The dark red out here is a one-meter rise. It goes up to six meters. That’s 18, 20 feet, but remember, the last time we were at 400 parts per million, it was at 60 to 80 feet, so this is conservative. This is a smaller example of what can happen if we let this happen to us.
“Just going down, Boston essentially is gone. A good deal of downtown Boston. Virginia beach, Norfolk, the Outer Banks, gone. Southern Florida, Miami, the eastern coast of Florida, all the way up to this area up into Tampa, gone. And by the way, there is no more freshwater in Florida during this period either because of the intrusion of seawater into the water table. New Orleans, all gone. This is at a 20-meter, in fact it’s not even that. I think this is about a three-meter rise. Going up, Savannah and Charleston, New York City, Long Island, the New Jersey shore, all gone. These are impacts. This isn’t academic. These are impacts of billions of dollars of expenditures to try to fight this off and to hold it at bay.
“Now what about species? Well, in Maine, we talk about lobster. The lobster is an iconic product of Maine. It’s a huge part of our society. It’s part of our culture. It’s also a big part of our economy – well over $1 billion a year in Maine is attributable in one way or another to the lobster, and the lobster population in Maine was pretty steady for an awfully long time. When I was Governor, and that was 10 or 12 years ago, we harvested roughly 50 million pounds of lobster a year. That was the way it had been, between 40 and 50 million. In 2008 it went to 69; 2009 it went to 81 million, 96 million; and last year 123 million pounds. More than twice as much as what was harvested just 10 or 12 years ago.
“So I’m sure you’re saying to yourself, ‘What’s the problem, Senator? The lobsters are doing great.’ Well, they were doing great in Rhode Island and Connecticut until the temperature started to kill them off. It makes a boom, and then there’s a danger. We certainly hope it won’t happen, but there’s a danger of a collapse and that’s what happened to our south. The lobster fishery in southern New England has essentially collapsed. The lobster makes up about 70 percent to 80 percent of our fisheries’ value, and what’s happening in Maine is that as the water gets warmer, the lobsters go north.
“And is the water getting warmer? Here’s Boothbay Harbor, Maine, a wonderful place to visit (I’ve got to get in that little bit of promotion). Here’s the water temperature of Boothbay Harbor over the last hundred years. It’s going up. It’s getting warmer. And there is no indication, in fact, if you follow the curve here, it appears that it’s heading into an accelerating mode, the famous hockey stick.
“Anything above 68 degrees of water temperature is very stressful to lobsters. The University of Maine says while warmer waters off the coast in recent years have probably aided the boom in lobsters, putting us right in the temperature sweet spot, we’re getting closer to the point where the temperature is too stressful, their immune system is compromised and it’s all over – and it’s all over. That’s a frightening phrase: it’s all over.
“In the 1980s, the lobster fishing was concentrated in southern Maine along our coast in what’s called Casco Bay down around Portland, and then it moved up into what’s called the Midcoast, Lincoln County, near where I live. And then it moved, the bulk of the lobster fishing moved up into Penobscot bay. And now the bulk of the lobster fishing is up in what we call Hancock County, the village of Stonington, Maine, or at least that’s where it was last year. In other words, the lobsters are moving north because the temperatures are getting warmer – and that’s what’s happening.
“I have a young man on my staff whose father is a lobster buyer in the Midcoast of Maine, and his father has been buying lobsters since 1975. This past summer he bought 200 crates of lobsters. Ten years ago he was buying 100 – so it’s doubled, but what we’re worried about is that when the lobster line passes, this industry is gone. We saw it collapse in southern New England – Rhode Island. In 1999, lobstering in Long Island Sound collapsed totally without warning in part because of an infection that was brought about by the warmer water temperatures.
“Now, I use lobster as just an indication. You can substitute your own issue, local issue, whether it’s lobsters in Maine or flooding in Colorado, the impacts are real.
“So what do we do? I hate raising problems and not talking about what to do – and by the way, I have to say I’m really puzzled why this has become a partisan issue. I don’t understand it. Maybe it’s because Al Gore invented it. I don’t know. But I don’t understand why this became a partisan issue, because it’s a scientific issue. It’s a data issue, and the data is overwhelming.
“Okay, so what do we do? And by the way, I should mention when I was a young man working in and around the legislature in Maine, the leaders of the environmental movement in Maine who passed the major legislation to protect our environment were all Republicans. Not all, but most of them were Republicans, and they were great names in Maine history.
“Well okay, what do we do? The first thing we have to do is admit there’s a problem. If you don’t admit there’s a problem, you, by definition, can’t address it. So that’s number one. I think the data is just becoming overwhelming. The second thing you have to do is gather all the facts and information that you can. Gather all the information – and it’s been my experience in working on public policy most of my adult life that if you have shared information, if the people working on the problem have the same facts, generally the conclusion, the policy, is fairly clear. It may be controversial, it may be difficult, but usually it becomes pretty self-evident if everybody shares the same sense of the information. Once we can agree on the facts, the solutions become clear.
“So, what are some things we can do in the near term? Well we have to talk about mitigating the impacts. We have to talk about the fact that fisheries are made up of both fishermen and fish, and as climate change alters these coastal economies, we’ve got to work to preserve both. We’ve got to work with groups like a nonprofit in Maine called the Island Institute that’s working to preserve Maine’s working waterfronts. And we also have to make sure that our federal fisheries law takes cognizance of what’s going on here and manage ecosystems, not just single species. We’ve got to take cognizance of the fact that the fish are in fact moving.
“In the long term, it seems to me it’s pretty simple. The big picture answer is we’ve got to stop burning so much stuff – and that’s what’s putting carbon in the atmosphere, whether it’s in our automobiles, our homes, our factories, our power plants, it’s burning fossil fuel that’s putting CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s why the efficiency bill that we’re on this week is an important bill, because it cuts back on the use of energy altogether and saves us in terms of putting CO2 into the atmosphere. The President has proposed a carbon agenda that I think is an important first step.
“But this is really hard. Dealing with this is a hard issue, just as dealing with the prospect of World War II was a hard issue in England in 1936. It’s hard because it’s going to require changes that are going to be, perhaps, expensive, and significant modifications because our whole society is based on burning stuff. That’s what makes our cars and trucks go. That’s what makes our transportation system work. That’s what keeps us warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and creates the electricity for all the products that we use. It’s hard because of the internal impacts.
“It’s also hard because it’s an international problem – and the Senator from Rhode Island talked about this being, you know, that Maine and Rhode Island can’t fix it. “And he said the federal government has to step in. I would take it one step further. This has to be an international solution. We cannot take steps which would compromise our economy at the same time that China and India are becoming major polluters, and air doesn’t respect international boundaries. CO2 is the same whether it’s coming up from China, India, Europe or the United States, so I believe this is a case where we absolutely have to have international cooperation. We have to do something. We have to do something.
“The generation that finally woke up to World War II, and fought it, and preserved this country and the western civilization for us has often been referred to as the Greatest Generation. The reason they were the Greatest Generation is that they were willing to face a problem and make enormous sacrifices in order to deal with it, to protect us and our children and grandchildren and our ability to function in this new world. They were the Greatest Generation.
“I have to say, Madam President, if somebody was going to characterize us, we’d be characterized as the Oblivious Generation – the generation that saw the data, saw the facts, saw the freight train headed for us and said, ‘That’s okay, it’s business as usual. Don’t bother me, I don’t want to be inconvenienced.’
“To go back to Churchill, ‘The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we’re entering a period of consequences. We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now.’
“Thank you, Madam President.”