Dear Lamar Smith: Climate change is real

Today, I'll be visiting the Lone Star State to talk about an issue that's vitally important to both Texas and my home state of Rhode Island: climate change.

Our climates are changing, and we are the cause. Clear and simple measurements show the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere up more than 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution began. Burning fossil fuels has pumped out massive quantities of carbon pollution. The link is established between this rise in CO2 emissions and the measurable changes in our climate and oceans. Fifteen of the 16 hottest years ever measured have come since 2001. The past half-decade has been the warmest five-year period ever recorded, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Ice is disappearing so quickly from glaciers and polar caps that measurements can barely keep up.

My Ocean State has a front-row seat for the dramatic changes carbon pollution is driving in our oceans. The sea has absorbed over 90 percent of the excess heat greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere, so it's warming. Thermometers tell us that. The ocean has also absorbed a lot of CO2 directly — 600 gigatons’ worth in the industrial era. The laws of chemistry tell us that CO2 makes seawater more acidic. Simple pH tests show us that it's happening. It's so bad that businesses have seen the shells of clams, oysters and other shellfish they are growing dissolve. And it's getting steadily worse.

This isn't projections or computer models. We see the effects of climate change outside our door. We measure the rising water temperatures off Rhode Island's coast. I hear from fishermen catching strange tropical fish in waters they've known all their lives. The tide gauge in my hometown of Newport, Rhode Island shows sea levels up 10 inches since the 1930s. And I have visited constituents' homes wrecked in storms by an ever-advancing ocean.

Texans are seeing changes too. "We get hit by drought, we get hit by heat. We get hit by storms, we get hit by sea-level rise. And we're starting to see those impacts today," says Katharine Hayhoe, Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech. "Texas is really at the forefront of this problem." On Monday in Austin, I'll meet with Prof. Hayhoe and scientists from Rice University, Texas A&M, and the University of Texas at Austin to learn more about Texan universities' climate research.

But not everyone likes climate science. Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, who's received nearly $685,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, has used his position as chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to become Congress's defender-in-chief of oil and gas giant ExxonMobil. Award-winning journalists have uncovered that Exxon knew early on about the effects of carbon pollution but worked through an elaborate web of front groups to deny these realities.

Lately, every time Exxon is faced with a new investigation over its climate mischief, Chairman Smith springs into action. He's subpoenaed documents from state attorneys general and public-interest groups, and just last month demanded documents from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

That is ridiculous. Rather than harass attorneys general, scientists and private organizations who are doing their jobs, Chairman Smith should do something productive with his committee. He should call a committee hearing where he can hear from his own home-state universities, from experts like Dr. Hayhoe and her colleagues, about how climate change is affecting Texas, what can be done to address it, and how Congress can help.

This really isn't funny any longer. Whether it's unprecedented droughts, or lengthening wildfire seasons, or dying forests, or shrinking glaciers, or warming, rising and acidifying seas along our coastlines, nature is sending us warnings we are fools — or worse — to ignore. It may be better to listen to Texas's scientists. Or maybe he'll just subpoena them.

Sheldon Whitehouse

U.S. Senator, D-Rhode Island