As a Sunrise Movement supporter, I’ve started to become more active in voicing my concerns to my elected representatives about the need for climate change action. Here in Rhode Island, I’ve been in touch with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s office, prodding him to stand up for the Green New Deal. I also asked him and his staff not to arrest Sunrisers who might ask to speak to him, as the staffers in Kentucky’s Senator Mitch McConnell did. I received a fairly immediate reply from Senator Whitehouse’s office, which included his statement, “I have been fighting for years to create green jobs, advance green technologies, and pass legislation to put a price on carbon emissions.”
Whitehouse told me he speaks weekly on the floor of the Senate about climate change, which are captured in a series of videos titled, “Time to Wake Up.” He invited me to view them. He says he brings the “increasingly beat-up poster” featured below to the Senate floor each week to accompany these climate change talks, which chronicle the steady rise scientists are measuring in global temperatures. He does so, he says, because, year after year, the earth sets new records for heat and nature changes in response to the global warming that’s being measured. He describes how those changes in nature manifest as droughts, wildfires, rainbursts, species moving about or dying out, and oceans rising and acidifying.
We owe it to our constituents to stop ignoring this crisis and instead debate the challenges and opportunities posed by #climatechange.
— Sheldon Whitehouse (@SenWhitehouse) February 26, 2019
Time to Wake Up: A Green New Deal
In his letter to me, Senator Whitehouse said that he welcomes “the notion of a ‘Green New Deal,’ a proposal that aims to tackle climate change and spur economic growth.” He devoted one of his talks on the floor of the Senate to this topic: “Time to Wake Up: A Green New Deal.” In the video of this talk, he began by commenting on his reaction to a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) editorial that morning calling for a vote on the Green New Deal (GND).
He described the WSJ editorial page as “a mouthpiece for the fossil fuel industry’s climate denial. The messages of the fossil fuel industry have been echoed and amplified through the WSJ editorial page.” He outlined that these messages were “simply denying” that climate change is a problem. “They have just been making it up for a very, very long time… The subsidy for fossil fuels has been quantified by the International Monetary Fund at $700 billion per year.” He described, in comparison, “the little tiny tax adjustments for solar and wind, which the fossil fuel industry has always pushed back against, are nothing — there’s a monster in the energy space, and it’s the fossil fuel subsidy.”
Whitehouse reviewed how, earlier in the day, Majority Leader McConnell headed out to the Ohio clock for his typical midday press conference. “Guess what he said? ‘I have great interest in the GND, and we’re going to be voting on it in the Senate.'”
Whitehouse said that part of his mission in the Senate is to be “in the habit of pointing out how the string-pulling takes place.” In the case of climate change, he noted how the fossil fuel industry directs certain legislation, and then it becomes practice in the Congress.
“It’s really classic,” he remarked. “The Citizens United decision powered up the fossil fuel industry’s bullying dominance in Congress — at least over the Republican party. No Senator here today has been on any bill to meaningfully reverse carbon dioxide emissions. It is never a topic; nobody ever wants to talk about it.”
He admonished Senators for ignoring the findings of NASA scientists, who say, “‘Climate change is serious. You better listen.’ And we don’t? That’s behavior that’s hard to explain.” He added that 13 or 14 federal agencies under the Trump administration have confirmed the validity of climate change. “Now the Majority Leader is going to break this streak and bring up this carbon-related bill… a resolution.. with the intention of voting against it.” He argued that “we need to pass a disclosure act. We need to make sure that people know who is behind spending, advertising.”
He asked in closing, “Isn’t it finally time to have a real conversation about this?” — about climate change?
Oceans Warn, It’s Time to Listen
Whitehouse represents Rhode Island, which has a shoreline on Narragansett Bay in the Atlantic Ocean that runs for 400 miles. Commended by the Ocean Champions non-profit as “a strong environmental leader and ocean champion,” he is noted for sponsoring and cosponsoring bills to mitigate climate change by transitioning to clean energy and preparing coastal areas for rising sea levels. His short “Time to Wake Up” video, titled “Oceans Warn, It’s Time to Listen” offers a primer in how the oceans provide direct evidence of climate change.
“Our relentless release of carbon emissions by fossil fuels is loading up the earth’s atmosphere with CO2, which is measurably and steadily warming our planet… Since 1955, the bulk of this warming, indeed 90% of excess heat, has been absorbed by the oceans. This is driving up ocean temperatures at a rate unseen in human history, affecting everything from coral reefs to Rhode Island’s own Narragansett Bay, where nearly 4 degrees increase in winter water surface temperatures has helped crash our winter flounder fishing. The law of thermal expansion means that the seas will also rise as they warm.”
He continued by describing how a Rhode Island tide gauge measures what has become “a steady and accelerating rise in sea level: 10″ already since the 1930s. Sea level rise now brings storm tide flooding into our streets, even with storms that aren’t direct hits… As the oceans are absorbing heat and rising, they are also absorbing excess CO2 from the atmosphere and changing chemically. As CO2 levels go up, ocean pH goes down, and lower pH means higher acidity… Acidification will affect Rhode Island’s quahogers and shellfish industry as it worsens.”
Politics of Climate Change & Dark Money
Whitehouse argues that Congress’ failure on climate change is related to “political dark money.” In the video, “Politics of Climate Change,” he notes how, when he came to the Senate in 2007, he saw lots of bipartisan action on climate change. But, in January, 2010, “heeding the interests of big business, 5 Supreme Court appointees decided in a case called ‘Citizens United,’ that those big business interests could spend unlimited money in politics. The fossil fuel industry sought this, anticipated this, and was quick to react. Virtually instantly, all Republican work on climate change stopped.”
This Citizens United decision, Whitehouse argues, is “at the heart of Congress’ failure to act on climate change. It is a national disgrace.”
“As big fossil fuel companies polluted out atmosphere and oceans, they propped up a battery of deceivingly-named front groups to pollute our public debate about climate change — climate denial, the original fake news… This may seem like a lot of trouble to go to until you understand the stakes” — that $700 billion in subsidies each year that the fossil fuel industry receives. He also noted that there are numerous “corporate good guys” — corporations — that “supported a strong Paris Climate Agreement. But they don’t show up in Congress to lobby for climate action. In Congress, the pressure from the fossil fuel industry has no counter pressure.”
He noted that Senator Mitch McConnell has received “tens of millions of fossil fuel dollars,” which “have been spent to buy his fossil fuel majority.”
As a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee and as co-founder of the Senate Climate Action Task Force, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has also promoted an American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act, which would make polluters pay for their emissions and would return all of the revenue generated to the American people through payroll tax cuts and benefit programs.
“You can be sure I will continue to fight in Congress for serious action” on climate change, he wrote in his letter. His opponents in the last Senate campaign attacked him for his legislative agenda on climate change, arguing that there were more important issues to Rhode Islanders.
Often we in the media look for flaws in public figures’ arguments in order to suggest a better, brighter way. Sheldon Whitehouse is a champion of climate change action. Instead, I think it’s important to focus on how Whitehouse supports progressive and comprehensive energy reforms, including raising standards for fuel economy in cars, appliances, homes, and the workplace. He also supports mandating a dramatic increase in production and use of renewable fuels and removing tax breaks to large oil companies to instead invest in new and efficient energy markets.
This is exactly the approach that we need more politicians to take right now as we attempt to mitigate carbon emissions within a desperate 12-year framework.