He’s given 287 Senate speeches about the climate crisis; most of them have been delivered solely in front of C-SPAN cameras in a nearly empty chamber. He’s newly risen to the chair position of the Senate Budget Committee. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is now in charge of the Committee that gives direction and meaning to federal spending and revenue. The platform has endowed him with increased authority to argue that climate pollution presents fiscal jeopardy, and his position is consistent with economists who forecast that the US is approaching a fatal default on its debt.
On his first day in his new position, he zoomed in immediately on the perils of climate change to the federal budget and the global economy. He gave each of his colleagues a 615-page binder detailing the fiscal threats posed by droughts, storms, wildfires, and rising seas.
At his second hearing on March 1, Whitehouse targeted rising sea levels and the climate risk to coastal communities.
By his third hearing, Whitehouse was revealing the economic devastation brought by wildfires.
Senator Whitehouse & The Senate Budget Committee
You might wonder how a person new to the position of chair of the Senate Budget Committee would comport themselves. He was succinct and direct and outlined the economic climate perils before the US. The warnings, he said, include:
- crashes in coastal property values as rising seas and more powerful storms hit the 30-year mortgage horizon;
- insurance collapse from more frequent, intense, and unpredictable wildfires;
- a dangerous interplay between the insurance and mortgage markets hitting real estate markets across the country;
- inflation from decreased agricultural yields;
- massive infrastructure demand; and,
- trouble in municipal bond markets.
“I can make the case for the danger of unchecked climate change blowing the debt through the roof, in the same way that both the mortgage meltdown and the pandemic together added $10 trillion to the deficit,” he described in an interview with the New York Times. “It’s beginning to sink in that we are well short of being on course for our climate goals, which are themselves only a two-thirds shot of being remotely safe. I do think that there is a moment when some of the realistic prospects for debt and deficit reduction can come to the fore and they include carbon pricing, which creates massive revenues.”
His efforts are indicative of the Biden administration’s climate activism and energy legislation:
- Biden’s review of Trump’s environmental policies: 88 overturned, 85 targeted, 59 not targeted;
- Biden’s own environmental executive actions: 61 added, 59 proposed.
When Democrats controlled both chambers last year, Whitehouse was involved in the effort to advance what became the nation’s first major climate law. He spent years trying to make deals with Republicans and lawmakers from fossil fuel states, including Senator Joe Manchin (D-Coal), who at one point seemed recalcitrant but later acquiesced and endorsed to the Inflation Reduction Act late last summer. While Whitehouse attempted unsuccessfully to persuade Republicans to consider a tax or fee on carbon dioxide as part of those negotiations, he did help ensure that the law included a modest fee on some pollution of methane, another climate polluting gas.
What is Whitehouse’s Background?
He’s 67-years-old, having hailed from a long career in public service. He served as Rhode Island’s US Attorney and state attorney general before being elected to the Senate, where he also serves on the Finance Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and the Environment and Public Works Committee.
His grandfather, Edwin Sheldon Whitehouse, served as United States minister to Guatemala and Colombia and was familiar with Franklin Roosevelt.
His father, Charles, was the US ambassador to Laos and Thailand.
An old photo in his Capitol Hill office displays Whitehouse sailing in Newport with Edward M. Kennedy.
The Providence Journal continues to endorse Whitehouse for his fight “in Washington against corporate interests and their influence on the political process, as “Senator Whitehouse has not forgotten the people back home.” His issues list includes promoting quality, affordable health care; economic opportunity and shared prosperity; keeping America safe and honoring those who served; strengthening our justice system and democracy; and, acting on climate change and protecting our environment.
The US Chamber Still Blocks Climate Progress
Many fiscal repercussions of the climate crisis spur on Whitehouse in addition to the Senate Budge Committee. He and ClimateVoice founder Bill Weihl published an op-ed this month in The Hill critiquing the US Chamber of Commerce for siding with Big Oil and actively working to fracture productive and future-facing climate legislation. “Big Oil is still pulling the strings at the Chamber,” the editorial states.
The InfluenceMap’s LobbyMap platform tracks and scores the detailed climate change policy engagement activities of over 350 of the world’s largest companies, along with over 150 key industry associations. Its online summary for the US Chamber of Commerce shows that there has been no material improvement in the US Chamber’s climate change lobbying over the past 5 years, despite an evolution in the group’s high-level PR messaging around climate.
Whitehouse and Weihl condemn the US Chamber of Commerce for sucking up to Big Oil, explaining that there is a long habit of Chamber obstruction that manifests as greenwashing in order to mask internal hostility about effective climate policy.
“Much has changed in Congress over the past decade — but the US Chamber of Commerce is still the number one political obstruction in the path of climate progress,” write Whitehouse and Weihl. “There’s now fresh evidence that the Chamber’s actions reflect a persistent pattern of opposing good climate policies, and that the most powerful trade association in the country is actively working against the interests of many of the companies it’s supposed to represent.”
The InfluenceMap’s Lobby Map report says that the Chamber tried to block the Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest climate bill Congress has ever passed. As the negotiations were coming to an end, the US Chamber linked up with the Arizona Chamber to run ads attempting to flip the expected “yes” votes of Arizona Senators Krysten Sinema and Mark Kelly. The effort failed. Their opposition to clean energy investment offended some of its own member companies like Microsoft, which endorsed the Inflation Reduction Act.
The Whitehouse/Weihl editorial shoots down the Chamber for “pumping out corporate PR to try to create a facade of change while it continues doing the dirty work for its Big Oil members like ExxonMobil and Chevron that count on it to oppose climate action.”
“To accelerate policy progress on climate, we call on American companies to stop funding anti-climate activities by dropping membership in the Chamber and other anti-climate organizations, and by stepping up their own climate policy leadership before it’s too late to lead the planet to safety,” conclude Whitehouse and Weihl.
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