Climate warrior ramps it up

Greg Nash

It’s personal, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said. The impact of climate change on homes in the Rhode Island Democrat’s state gives his fight increasing urgency.

“When I see little summer cottages washed into the sea when a winter storm comes, that makes it a bit personal,” Whitehouse said in a recent interview with The Hill. “And when we can’t take action on something of this magnitude, that is a disgraceful moment in our history.”

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While Whitehouse has been on the forefront of policy efforts in the Senate since taking office in 2007, this time it’s different, he said, adding that the year ahead offers new possibilities.

Whitehouse partnered with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to announce a new climate change caucus at the beginning of the year as an attempt to change the strategy in Congress on climate change outreach.

The group is planning more events and interaction with companies like Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, General Motors and Ford that are looking to take a stand on climate policy.

And this year, Whitehouse says, there is a “whole array of changes” in the battle.

“For one thing, the president is backing it again, and the extreme weather is happening relentlessly around the country and world,” he said. “There has been a significant rebound in public opinion.”

And while ObamaCare and jobs might be the go-to issues on the campaign trail this year for Republicans, that doesn’t worry Whitehouse.

He knows Democrats need to keep their majority in the Senate to have a possible chance at passing climate legislation, and he thinks 2014 will be a breakout year for climate as a campaign issue.

“It doesn’t have to be the top issue on people’s minds to make a difference, and as the public increasingly sees the relentless science and relentless effects of climate change, they are increasingly going to hold people to account for not believing,” Whitehouse said. “I don’t think that’s where the Republican Party wants to be.”

While Whitehouse sees 2014 as a pivotal year for his party as they seek to corner climate deniers in Congress and on the campaign trail, 2016 is also on his mind. He has said that if Republicans nominate a candidate for president who denies climate change, they will be “finished.”

“I just don’t see how by 2016, with the continued evidence of what carbon pollution is doing to the atmosphere and oceans around us, with a great deal of it undeniable, and with public opinion, it’s just not a place where a presidential candidate can be,” Whitehouse said, adding that it would be implausible for the GOP to go into the presidential campaign with a candidate who is at the “beck and call of polluters.”

Some Republicans take a different point of view. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is perhaps the most vocal climate-change skeptic in the Senate. Inhofe, who calls climate change a “hoax,” said earlier this year he found “fewer and fewer members of the United State Senate that are sympathetic to this whole cause.”

Whitehouse believes Inhofe and lawmakers with similar views are out of touch with science and the American people, and he aims to take actions that emphasize their weak position.

Among his short-term goals, Whitehouse and roughly 20 other Democrats plan to stay overnight on the Senate floor on March 10 to bring attention to the impacts of climate change.

He also vows to begin a push for a fee on the country’s largest carbon emitters, noting he is open to having every dollar of it go back to the public, which he says his Republican colleagues would prefer.

“I think its very doable, and I think the point of view will shift dramatically when the existing power plant rules move forward,” Whitehouse said, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to limit carbon emissions from new power plants and the coming proposal to limit existing plants.

“I think the Republican position will shift very quickly,” he said.

Whitehouse is looking to the regulations the EPA has yet to finalize to sway heavy polluters on the issue.

“Once their carbon pollution becomes a problem, then they may very well say a carbon fee is a better solution,” he added.

But the EPA standards for existing and new power plants face an uphill battle, as congressional Republicans have promised to fight the regulations to the end, They say President Obama is attempting to dish out regulations based on unsound science that hurt the economy and eliminate energy jobs.

The shift in public perception on climate, however, signals a different kind of war strategy for Whitehouse.

His personal challenge, he said, is to “accelerate” action so the nation inflicts “less damage along the way.”

 

“Ultimately, this is about what facts are and what science is and where people of America are,” Whitehouse said. “Sooner or later, good sense and common decency are going to prevail.”

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