Senator Sheldon Whitehouse laid out a three-step battle plan to get Congress to address climate control at a Climate Leaders Summit hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Friday.
Whitehouse was the keynote speaker at the event hosted by Johnson & Wales University (JWU) at its Harborside Campus in Providence. In addition to the EPA, the six New England states, the Consensus Building Institute, JWU, and the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission hosted the summit. It was attended by regional leaders in the environmental, business, federal, state and local government sectors, and was invitation only.
Introducing Whitehouse, Janet Coit, director of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM), applauded the senator for being a leader in the climate change debate in Congress. Not only does he push climate-related legislation such as a carbon fee, but also he speaks about the topic on the Senate floor every chance he gets, preparing to make his 50th speech on the topic this week.
“Honestly, no one was talking about it much before he started to do that. When he started to go down there with his facts and his charts, people started to take notice. And other senators started to join him,” said Coit. “He has created a standard and changed the conversation about climate change in Washington, D.C.”
Whitehouse began by sharing his thoughts on the impact of climate change on the New England Region, and how the effects are undeniable.
He cited increased changes in rainfall, storms, daytime high temperatures, and water temperatures.
“We are the Ocean State and climate change is hitting us in ways that it does not take a computer model to see,” he said.
He said the sea level has risen 10 inches and the temperature of Narragansett Bay is three to four degrees higher, which may not seem like much but is actually a full eco-system shift. Whitehouse also added computer models are not needed to show these changes; high school science labs could determine them with thermometers and rulers.
“These observed changes are not the product of complicated models or projections; they’re determined by measurement, plain and simple measurement,” he said, going on to call out opponents to climate change, the “climate deniers.”
“It’s one thing for my opponents in the Senate and in the House to be the party that is against science. It is an even farther mark to be the party that is against measurement,” he said.
Whitehouse called the inaction in Congress regarding climate change irresponsible, and it is not just the leaders in the field who believe so.
“Eighty-two percent of Americans believe we should start preparing now for rising sea levels and severe storms brought on by climate change,” said Whitehouse. “And if you drill down to young voters, if you look at the voters who are the cohort that is going to come up and take this country in the coming decades, clearly they see through the phony climate denial message.”
Whitehouse said three-quarters of independent young voters support action on climate change, and 52 percent of self-identified Republican young voters under the age of 35 have described climate deniers as “ignorant,” “out of touch” or “crazy.”
“If you’re the party that is banking on climate denial as your strategy in response to carbon pollution, and your own young voters think that that strategy is ignorant, out of touch, or crazy, in a majority, you’ve got to rethink your thesis,” he said.
As rising sea levels, flooding, erosion and more powerful storms take a toll on New England’s infrastructure and almost every region of the country facing extreme weather, Whitehouse called for the rest of Congress to wake up and take action. The local and state decision makers need better information to make more informed decisions about their infrastructure needs since a report for the Government Accountability Office revealed that historical climate patterns can no longer be used to make infrastructure plans.
“Risks that we ignore don’t go away just because we’re ignoring them,” he said.
Instead, Whitehouse revealed his three-part case on how to win the climate change war in Congress.
The first step is to make the polluters “stare down the barrel of the regulatory gun.” Whitehouse stressed the importance of a carbon fee to polluters and believes President Barack Obama’s plan of action for climate change is an important first step. Through the plan, the EPA will set carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants, and fuel economy standards for heavy-duty trucks, buses and vans.
“We’ve got to make the big carbon polluters pay a fee to the American people and cover the cost of dumping their waste into our atmosphere and oceans,” said Whitehouse.
He believes when faced with paying 100 percent of the compliance cost to meet new regulations or a carbon fee to spread across the economy and provide financial help during a transition, the polluters’ calculations will change.
“And to be blunt, when the polluters’ calculus changes, the Republican Party’s calculus will change along with them,” added Whitehouse.
His second step is to change the political climate in Congress by making the polluters’ “political allies fearful of a well-funded super pack dedicated to their demise.”
Finally, Whitehouse’s third step is the “gathering of the armies.”
“Remember that 82 percent of Americans that think we need to do something about this? Remember that most young Republican voters think climate deniers are ignorant, out of touch or crazy? There’s armies out there; we haven’t used them,” said Whitehouse, naming the green energy industry, young people, faith groups, celebrities, outdoor, hunting, fishing and conservation groups, and major American retailers as just some of the allies who could be brought together for this common goal.
“When you take that array of America’s economic and political and community actors, and put them together and actually have a plan, that’s a battle you win,” said Whitehouse. “And I think it’s a battle we can win soon.”
Whitehouse believes Congress is close to waking up when it comes to climate change, adding that there are a handful of young Republicans poised to become leaders in the party. He named Florida Senator Marco Rubio as likely to show bi-partisan support. He also said the fact that the majority of the public has the opinion to take action on climate change will speak volumes.
“Things change quickly when the public has moved,” said Whitehouse, seeing parallels with the success seen in the same-sex marriage movement.
Whitehouse ended his speech by vowing to help the leaders with their efforts regarding climate change, but he needs their help, too. He encouraged them to join and be active participants in the armies pushing for climate change and to be especially vocal, talking to friends, family, neighbors and, of course, their Congressional delegation.
“Tell them it’s time to wake up and we can get this done,” said Whitehouse.