Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

In mid-March, 30 US Senators pulled an all-nighter on the Senate floor as one after another got up to speak about the clear and present danger of global climate change. The 15-hour talkathon was not, unfortunately, pegged to any pending legislation to reduce the US’ greenhouse gas emissions. Right now there’s nophoto of a man in front of a capitol building such thing. Instead, the all-night session was billed as a kind of teach-in, an opportunity to reframe (as the PR pros would say) the politics around climate change.

Of those involved, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island was probably the most practiced with his climate change talking points. Last year Whitehouse launched a “Time to Wake Up” campaign in which he took to the Senate floor once a week to talk about global warming. There are, of course, other climate champions in the upper chamber: Senators Barbara Boxer and Edward Markey, plus Bernie Sanders, the feisty Vermont Independent who has worked closely with to push for ambitious climate policies. But Whitehouse has distinguished himself among his peers with his persistence and his quiet, behind-the-scenes leadership. He was, for example, the main organizers of the climate change all-nighter.

In the absence of any Congressional law-making on emissions, what’s the point of such an exercise? I caught up with Senator Whitehouse on the eve of the climate speech marathon to ask him that question and others. As he told me, attention from Congress, even if it’s only rhetorical, can nourish citizens’ hopes that this country will eventually take action to address climate change.

Last year you launched what you called the “Time to Wake Up Campaign,” in which you gave a speech a week about global warming. What were you hoping to accomplish with those floor speeches?

I wanted to wake up the conversation. I wanted to reassure environmentalists out there that their concerns have not been forgotten or forsaken. And I wanted to start building some momentum toward a real solution and spread some optimism about the possibility of a good carbon solution.

In the course of your floor speeches, you addressed a range of issues, from climate change’s impact on sports, to its impact on fishing, human health, and economic costs. In that quiver of messages, which do you think is going to shake the political establishment out of its lethargy on the issue?

I think the one that has the potential to be most potent is the message that spotlights the denial machinery and focuses on how so many of those organizations are paid for by polluters, and how much of the denial message is fraudulent. I think that’s potent because most Americans – when they hear what they think is a dispute or a debate about climate change – presume that people on both sides are legitimate. When it sinks in that one side of the debate has been cooked up out of whole cloth by the polluters and spread out through a very elaborate apparatus for the purposes of fooling them, that becomes very potent. Americans don’t like to be fooled, and when they find out that they have been, their irritation about that is profound and can be forceful.

In a speech in December, you said “Republicans outside of Congress support action on climate change.” What will it take to break the fever of Republicans in Congress who don’t even acknowledge there’s a problem, much less have any interest in taking action on greenhouse gases?

I think it takes a combination of factors, but those factors are all ones that are within our power to make happen. They include the changing economics of carbon polluting, once the existing power plants rule begins to emerge. They include the changing demographics, as more and more Americans realize that this is serious and expect their country to do something about it.

There’s polling that shows that young Republican voters – self-identified Republican voters under the age of 35 – when asked to describe climate [change] denial describe it as “ignorant, out of touch, or crazy.” And that’s young Republicans speaking, so I think we can have some optimism. And the third piece I would say that’s changing is that the one-sided politics post-Citizens United, when the Koch brothers came out so hard and fast, is changing as other groups like the League of Conservation Voters and individuals like Tom Steyer begin to fight back.

Last year we spoke backstage at the Forward on Climate Rally and you told me then that President Obama “owns the keys to the kingdom on climate, and I hope he uses them to unlock executive and regulatory powers.” Thirteen months later, how would you rate the White House’s action on climate change?

I think they get an A on their administrative effort, which is a very significant improvement from not too long ago. And I give them an Incomplete on their effort to move the political needle on this. I think that [new White House senior advisor] John Podesta is still sorting out how they want to approach the public side of this, so that’s why I give them an Incomplete rather than a very bad grade. And I’m hopeful that what they come up with is another A, but at the moment it is too early to tell.

We have so much support on climate in the corporate world and in the nonprofit world – and that includes some of the great organizations in America, everything from Coke and Pepsi, to UPS and FedEx to Ford and GM to Apple and Google and Nike and Walmart. And then on the nonprofit side you’ve got the major sports leagues and the US Conference of Mayors and the garden clubs – and all of them are committed to doing something about climate change. But I think a lot of people that are in this fight are dismayed that no one has organized all of them into a unified force. And I think that’s a huge gap in the administration’s effort at this point. It’s one that I believe they intend to close, but I can’t give them a good grade on it until I actually see that they’re going to do that.

If you were a betting man, what do you think the odds are that President Obama will reject the Keystone XL pipeline?

It’s hard to say right now. I hope that he does reject the pipeline because I think it would be deeply disheartening to environmental voters if the pipeline were approved. I also think that there are tricks and holes in the State Department’s environmental impact report. So I think if they went with that report it would be unfortunate, because I would hope they have the wits and resources to see through the holes and gaps and tricks in the report. It would be discouraging for people who see this as the great issue of our time, or have to live with the consequences of our decision today, that the president wouldn’t take this as an opportunity to really make a turning point decision.

Optimism and passion on this – like any other issue – needs to be nourished with some hope. And if your hopes are dashed over and over again, then it’s easy to be discouraged. And I think an approval of the Keystone pipeline would be the proverbial discouraging word.

One last question. President Obama has been very bullish on natural gas as a somewhat cleaner alternative to coal. Yet most of the environmental community is very worried about fracking’s impact on clean water, and its heavy industrial footprint in rural communities. Where do you think gas fits in the picture?

I think it’s been an economic and environmental blessing to have gas as a bridge away from coal and as an alternative to tar sands, but we haven’t been attentive enough either to the water quality concerns, or to the methane-leak greenhouse gas concerns, or to the bullying that has taken place in so many communities where this industry comes in with a very, as you say, heavy footprint.

I think overall it’s a blessing. But like many blessings it comes with responsibilities, and I don’t think we’ve met our responsibilities to make sure that fracking is not harming our water supplies and making sure that the leakage of methane isn’t offsetting all of the carbon benefits. I also think that the mistreatment of some of these people – things like forcing people to sign nondisclosure agreements about the health harms that their family has experienced and all that kind of stuff – those are all very rough tactics.

Can I make one last point? I think if I have an overarching message it’s that people should be optimistic and confident about the prospects of getting something serious done on carbon pollution. We simply have to determine to do it.

Jason Mark is editor of Earth Island Journal. This interview has been edited for clarity.

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