Sheldon Whitehouse


Thank you, Chairwoman Boxer, for convening this hearing, and for your leadership on the issue of global warming.  I’m honored to serve on an Environment and Public Works Committee whose leadership acknowledges that this issue is real, that time is of the essence, and that action is called for. 

 Left unchecked, climate change will affect every community in every nation on earth, altering the world in ways we are only just beginning to understand.  I want to take this opportunity to speak briefly about some of the scientific evidence now available about the projected effects of global warming on my home state of Rhode Island. 

 Alterations in the growing seasons brought on by warmer temperatures around the globe are already evident in Rhode Island.  Many species of flowers and trees are blooming earlier in the spring than the historical average.  This is a photograph of the cherry tree outside my home in Providence, taken on January 7.  This has never happened in the 20 years we’ve owned the house.  It could be just an anecdotal event, but our orchard growers have not seen January blooms of fruit trees in living memory.  The earlier and earlier arrival of the spring bloom is now a documented phenomenon, indicating a trend of warmer temperatures throughout the region.

Shifts in the timing of the seasons also have the potential to disturb biological phenomena, such as migratory cycles of birds. For example, if a bird’s seasonal migration is caused by the length of the days, it could arrive at its destination out of synch with the tree species that provides necessary food but has bloomed early in response to warmer temperatures.


The impact of warmer temperatures on land-based ecosystems is matched by effects on marine life, and our oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams.


The environmental heart of Rhode Island is Narragansett Bay.  Narragansett Bay is Rhode Island’s most distinctive ecological feature, running nearly the entire length of the state and affecting every part of our lives.  It is our greatest natural resource.  As we speak, the Bay is undergoing a significant ecosystem shift as the ocean’s temperature gradually warms.


The Bay’s annual mean winter temperature has increased by about 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 20 years.  This has had a significant impact on fish and shellfish in the Bay.  Cold water species, such as winter flounder, that were once abundant in the bay and had a high commercial value have been replaced by warmer water species, such as scup, that have a lower value.  It amounts to a real ecosystem change.


Warmer temperatures in the summer can also have profound effects. During the summer of 2003 in Greenwich Bay, a sub-basin of Narragansett Bay, warmer temperatures caused stratification in the water column.  This reduction in water mixing led to eutrophication and lower dissolved oxygen levels, causing the fish kill shown in this picture.  In essence, these fish had no oxygen to breathe and suffocated in the water.

This cycle is predicted to get worse – much worse – if nothing is done.  At higher emissions levels, New England’s climate will become more like South Carolina’s.  (Ironically, the first summer visitors to Newport were 19th century merchants from the Carolinas seeking to escape that heat.)  The result will be a dramatic shift in the economy, as well as the ecosystem.  For example, there won’t be any ski resorts or winter tourism in Northern New England.  We may very well lose our famous foliage.

If Greenland’s ice cap melts and causes sea levels to rise by as much as 20 feet worldwide – the nightmare scenario of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” – here’s what happens in the Ocean State.  Downtown Providence is inundated.  Newport’s famous harbor overwhelms Newport’s historic waterfront.  And coastal residential communities like Barrington are submerged.


While these are sobering projections, Madam Chairwoman, there is still plenty of hope.  We can be effective against these threats if we act firmly and swiftly. 


Working with partners like Save the Bay, the State of Rhode Island is already taking steps to address the potential effects of global warming, with encouraging results.  In Rhode Island, environmental groups have quantified the effect of actions already underway, of actions that are pending, and of possible further actions that we could take.  These carbon dioxide emissions curves show how profoundly effective the action we take today can be.  This kind of success requires not only direct government action, but commensurate action by private industry and individuals.  We must determine not only what we will do, but how our choices will influence and stimulate others in their decision-making.


Let me be clear: I believe we cannot solve this problem without immediate and unrelenting federal support.  I am proud to be an original cosponsor of the Sanders-Boxer global warming bill, a measure that I believe will help us take a critical first step in addressing the challenge of global warming.  There is much more to be done, and little time to waste. 


Thank you, again, Chairwoman Boxer, for the opportunity to speak today.


I’d also like to acknowledge the members of Rhode Island’s environmental community for helping us assemble this data, including Save the Bay, Environment Rhode Island, the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, Brown University, the Rhode Island Coastal Institute, Rhode Island Clean Water Action, the Rhode Island Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Rhode Island Conservation Law Foundation.  Most importantly, I want to recognize Dr. Sandra Thornton Whitehouse for her help, her insight, and her expertise.