Liberal senator to activists: Make climate change like immigration, gay rights

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Tuesday that advocates of tougher steps to confront climate change must convince Republicans that they will face political peril if they block action.

“I think it is our task to make sure that climate lines up right behind immigration and gay rights,” Whitehouse said, so Republicans realize that blocking action means “they are going to run off the cliff like lemmings.”

Whitehouse spoke in Washington, D.C.  at “Good Jobs, Green Jobs,” which is a joint conference of environmentalists and labor unions.

He said that Republican lawmakers are coming to understand that on gay rights and immigration, they’re increasingly on the wrong side of demographics and generational trends.

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Asked by reporters if he is sensing a shift among GOP lawmakers on climate change, Whitehouse replied, “not yet.”

“I think there is a shift at the state level,” he said, noting participation of some GOP governors in climate initiatives and that governors also “see the value of green energy in their states.”

“I think there is a latent movement within the Republican power structure,” Whiethouse said.

“The real question is, if you are concerned about the future of the Republican Party, do you want to have the image of that party, as this generation grows up, to be that they were the party that stopped and opposed action on what likely will be the most important issue in these kids’ lives, and did so on the basis of a lot of propaganda and lies from the polluting industry. That is a narrative that can’t be good for the party,” Whitehouse said.

Major climate bills, such as cap-and-trade or carbon tax proposals, currently have little political traction on Capitol Hill. Many Republicans are broadly skeptical of the threat from climate change and say the proposals put forward by Democrats would hurt the economy.

Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) this year formed a bicameral task force on climate change aimed at increasing political support for climate measures.

He said several factors could lessen opposition to climate legislation among fossil fuel industries that he said weild enormous clout on Capitol Hill.

Whitehouse said that strong executive actions — he wants to see federal carbon standards for existing power plants, for instance — can change the calculus of polluting industries in favor of legislation.

Legislation is seen as a way of providing industries with more flexibility and options, such as emissions permit trading, than regulations on their own.

Whitehouse said it's going to be important for advocates to show GOP lawmakers instances of voices within their states in favor of action on climate.

He also said extreme weather events are increasing public engagement.