Climate Crusader Makes Stop in N.C.

BEAUFORT – Sheldon Whitehouse came to North Carolina this week gathering more facts for his one-man crusade to persuade his colleagues in the U.S. Senate to finally awaken to the dangers of climate change.

He stood on the stern of the Susan Hudson, the Duke Marine Lab’s research ship, as it slowly steamed past the Beaufort waterfront on Taylor Creek. Surrounding him was a gaggle of local scientists, who took turns telling Whitehouse about their work on climate change and the coastal environment.  Wetlands and oyster reefs could disappear, he was told. Groundwater could be contaminated, and the population of krill in the Artic could be so reduced that humpback whales will be in more trouble than they are now.

Whitehouse listened earnestly, nodded at appropriate times and asked a few probing questions. His staff took copious notes. One suspects that much of what he heard Monday will end up in a few of his weekly Senate lectures.

For this Rhode Island Democrat is something of an oddity in America today – the rare politician who cares about climate change, understands the dangers it poses and isn’t afraid to publicly say so. Every week that the 113th Congress has been session – that’s 63 stretched over two years — Whitehouse has taken to the Senate floor for another installment of his “Time to Wake Up” speeches on climate change.

Scientists crowd the stern of the Susan Hudson for a chance to talk with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, right center in red jacket. Photo: Sam Bland

Armed with graphs, charts and photos, he has talked about rising temperatures, about inundation and droughts, about wildfires, about disruptions to the farming and fishing industries, about threats to national security, about acidic oceans, about displaced coastal communities, about the moral imperative of preserving God’s creation.

Whitehouse does it, he says, “hoping that someday spark will hit tinder. “

In every speech, Whitehouse acknowledges the manufactured propaganda churned out by, what he calls, the “climate denial network” that has stymied any real political action. “But the facts speak for themselves,” he told his colleagues on Feb. 12. “The denial position has shown itself to be nonsense; a sham.  Yet, in Congress, we sleepwalk on.  Every day, more and more Americans realize the truth, and they increasingly want this Congress to wake up.  They know that climate change is real.”

Don’t count the N.C. Republicans vying for a seat in that Congress as being among the group of newly aware Americans. In televised debates this week, the four leading GOP contenders for Democrat Kay Hagan’s Senate seat laughed derisively when asked by moderators if climate change was real. They all, of course, responded with emphatic “Nos.” But, then, one of the candidates also said that evolution was a fantasy.

If elected in November, the new Republican senator from North Carolina would be in good company. Sixty-five percent of current Senate Republicans also deny climate change. Over 56 percent of Republicans in the House deny the basic tenets of climate science. What this means is that they have made public statements indicating that they question or reject that climate change is real, is happening now and is caused by human consumption of fossil fuels.

The numbers on the other side of the aisle are a little better. In fairness, though, it should be pointed out that Hagan hasn’t exactly been a proponent for action. She has been criticized for her support of the Keystone XL pipeline, which figures prominently in the climate-change political debate. Though not a denier, Hagan is more of an Obama-style centrist, opting for the President’s “all-of-the-above” approach to energy issues.

Alex Mandela, top, talks to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse about climate change’s potential effects on groundwater. Patrick Kenney, the superintendent of Cape Lookout National Seashore, tells him what might happen at the park. Photos: Sam Bland

So that leaves a few lone wolves, like Sheldon Whitehouse in the Senate and Harry Waxman in the House, barking their warnings.

To collect more ammunition, Whitehouse decided to hit the road during Congress’ Easter recess to learn about the research being done on climate change’s effects and to see what communities are doing to adapt, explained Seth Larson, the senator’s communication’s director. After a day in North Carolina, Whitehouse planned to make stops in South Carolina and Georgia before ending in Miami, Florida.

“His big hope is to get legislation to limit carbon pollution,” Larson said. “He’s hopeful that with the right pressure there will be a window to make that happen.”

Maybe in 2015, Larson said.

Until then, Whitehouse listens to people like Alex Mandela, a hydrologist at East Carolina University. Mandela used his few minutes on the back of the boat to tell the senator what would happen if the sea behaved as many climate scientist expect and rises three feet by the end of the century.  Low-lying land will be flooded, yes, but even those on high ground will have a tough time of it, Mandela said.  Most people along the N.C. coast get their water from wells, but a rising ocean will contaminate those wells with salt water, Mandela said.

Flushing the toilet may also be a problem for those on septic tanks, he said, because a rising water table will flood drain fields.

“If the water table rises and compromises septic system, then water quality will be threatened,” Mandela noted.

Chris Taylor, a fisheries biologist at the NOAA lab on Pivers Island near Beaufort, told Whitehouse about the fish sampling that lab scientists have done at nearby Beaufort Inlet for decades. “We’re seeing a lot more tropical fish coming in, like lionfish and species you see in Florida,” he said. “We know these populations will shift, but it’s these long-term data sets that are telling us that.”

Antonio Rodriguez of UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City described his work of monitoring oyster reefs to see if they will grow fast enough to keep up with a three-foot rise in sea level in 100 years, while Mike Burchell of N.C. State University told of his research on whether wetlands will do the same. Answer to both: Yes, depending on the location and circumstances.

But it was Mike Orbach, the former director of the Duke Marine Lab, who offered the sobering message. “We can’t mitigate a way out of this,” he told Whitehouse as the Susan Hudson made the turn in the creek and headed back to the lab. “The time frames are too long and the scales too great. Even if we all started driving Priuses tomorrow, the sea will rise a meter. We will have to adapt to it.”

Back at the dock, Whitehouse thanked the scientists for joining him on the boat ride. He promised that he will continue pushing for action. “It’s the least I can do,” he said.

About the Author

Frank Tursi

The author of three books and a 30-year newspaper veteran, Frank Tursi is the founding editor of "Coastal Review Online." He retired in 2016. Before joining the federation in 2002, Frank was the senior environmental reporter in North Carolina. His writing has won numerous state and national awards. An avid fisherman and model boat builder, he lives in Swansboro with his wife, Doris, where Frank is a town commissioner.