"Climate denial does best in the dark": A Democratic senator breaks down the GOP's global-warming clustermuck

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse talks to Salon ahead of his historic 100th Senate speech on climate change

Published May 18, 2015 8:20PM (EDT)

At some point during his eight years in Washington, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse became the country’s most outspoken politician on climate change.

Maybe it was when he co-organized an all-night “#UP4CLIMATE” speech-a-thon. Or maybe it was when he published a BuzzFeed op-ed/listicle with a GIF showing how Rhode Island’s capital, Providence, may be swallowed by rising seas. Or maybe it was when he and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin visited each other’s state to talk coal mines and coastal erosion. But, most likely, it happened during one of Whitehouse’s 99 climate change-related speeches on the Senate floor – one for every week Congress has been in session since April 2012, with just a couple of exceptions.

By now, Whitehouse has approached the subject from almost every conceivable angle. He’s talked about how 2011 was the 36th year in a row with an annual global temperature above the 20th-century average; and how, in Greenland, in 2012, the National Snow and Ice Data Center recorded melting over a larger area than they’d seen in 30 years of satellite observation. He’s described how Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, “has called climate change the biggest long-term security threat in the Pacific.” He’s talked about what mega-corporations like Apple, Walmart, Mars, and Disney are doing to address the issue. He’s called out media outlets for distorting or under-reporting the facts. (“All the major network Sunday TV talk shows, in all of 2013, discussed climate change for a grand total, all combined, of 27 minutes.”) And he’s offered a rebuttal to Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe’s infamous here’s-a-snowball-so-climate-change-is-a-hoax speech, in February.

"[Whitehouse is] in a league of his own," Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, told the Associated Press, in December. “I consider myself vocal, but nobody is more vocal than Sheldon Whitehouse.”

The senator’s climate crusade makes a lot of sense, for both personal and political reasons. His wife, Sandra, has a PhD in Marine Biology and Biological Oceanography, and, according to a 2013 Stanford poll, Rhode Island has the highest percentage of residents who view climate change as a serious threat. But Salon still wanted to hear from the man, himself, as he prepares to give his 100th “Time to Wake Up” speech, on Monday, May 18. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a recent phone call with the junior senator from the Ocean State. 

Why do this? Why give 100 speeches about climate change?

Two reasons. One is an inside reason, and that is [that] the discipline of it has both helped cram a lot of information into my brain and provided a defense against the constant pressures pushing at senators that can often move things off the agenda, without intending to. And the second is that, when we began, there had a been a long, disappointing period after the Senate failed to act on cap-and-trade, and when the White House refused to use the words “climate change,” let alone take climate change action. And I felt that the denial crowd in Congress had as their best, optimal scenario [the fact] that nobody was talking about this issue. Because if you force people to engage on this issue, they have to come up with an answer, and their answers, so far, have been, “This is all a hoax.” And nobody in their right mind believes that, so that’s not a comfortable place for them to be. Or [another response was], “I’m not a scientist. I don’t know what I’m talking about.” That may be good for one answer, but then when people come back a month later and say, “OK, you’re not a scientist, you didn’t know what you were talking about, but you have an obligation to learn. Now, what do you think?” The time on that one runs out.

Climate denial is like a night-blooming flower; it does best in the dark. And I wanted to use these speeches to put a constant light on this issue.

You say, “Nobody in their right mind believes that,” and yet, in the Senate, it appears that a lot of people don’t believe climate change exists. How many people believe this isn't a real thing, among your peers? And do you think these people actually believe that or are they just being paid and lobbied to “believe” that?

I would divide the Republican caucus into three categories. There are a few die-hard deniers, who are determined that they are the witnesses to a great hoax by which a lot of nefarious scientists are lining their pockets with research money in order to enhance socialist control over the economy, or whatever. Fine. That’s category one. The second category is people who don’t want to, and feel no need to, engage on this, who are perfectly happy to go along with the party orthodoxy but haven’t made it a big issue one way or the other. And the third are folks who, for a variety of reasons, either having to do with their own personal history on the issue, or because of their concern about what this means for the state of their party, or because of how climate change is hitting home in undeniable ways in their home state, are feeling real pressure to do something. And that last group, I think, comprises probably 12 to 20 Republican senators. And I describe the predicament they have as the predicament of someone who is locked in a facility with guard towers on the outside, and searchlights, and guns in the towers. And the question, in reaching them, is “How do you organize the jailbreak?”

I think they want out, but, practically, they look at a fossil fuel industry that has made bloodcurdling pledges to come after them if they depart from the denier orthodoxy. And it’s just a pure question of, “Who’s going to help them?” 

What does it say about our democracy that such a situation can exist: So many people within the so-called “most powerful club in the world” baldly, publicly denying scientific consensus? And does that ever make you lose faith in our system?

It used to be pretty bipartisan. You know, Lieberman/Warner [2007’s Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, “the strongest global warming bill ever to make it to the Senate floor,” according to TIME] – and that was Republican [John] Warner, of Virginia. Collins/Cantwell [the Cantwell-Collins Carbon Limits and Energy for America's Renewal Act, of 2009] – Susan Collins, of Maine. McCain campaigned for president on climate change.

What happened is Citizens United, and that disgraceful decision has given the fossil fuel industry such a big club, both in terms of the unlimited and the anonymous nature of the political spending that they can deploy, that it has shut down the Republican Party, effectively, on this issue.  So, I don’t see this, myself, as a larger challenge to the viability or the feasibility of American democracy, but I do see it as a signal of what a wretched thing Citizens United has been for our democracy.

And I’d add one additional point, and that is that it certainly isn’t going to look good for our democracy, around the world, as people in villages and along coastlines and on farms around the world really start to get hit by climate change, and they start to look around for an explanation, they see the biggest country in the world, [in terms of] the one who put the most carbon up into the sky, the one that offers itself as the shining “city on the hill” and the example couldn’t take action even when they knew better, because polluter money had so polluted that democracy that we couldn’t take action on time. So I do think that…there’s going to be a significant reputational harm that we’ll suffer from having been so slow to be responsible about this.

You’re a former U.S. Attorney, a former Rhode Island Attorney General. Is there criminal activity here?

I think there’s a heck of a strong case to be made that there is racketeering activity here. If you take the civil racketeering complaint that was brought by the United States Department of Justice and won under the Bush administration against the tobacco industry, and you look at that civil complaint, and you look at Judge Kessler’s decision in the United States District Court that found that Big Tobacco had engaged in a racketeering enterprise, misleading people about the dangers of tobacco. And then you take a look at some of the descriptions of the climate-denial enterprise, by people like Dr. Brulle, at Drexel University, or Dr. Dunlap, at Oklahoma State University, or more popular books like … "Merchants of Doubt," [and] before that, you had "Deceit and Denial" and you had "Doubt Is Their Product." There’s been a lot of scholarship on what the machinery designed to create false doubt about climate change looks like and how it operates. You put those things side by side with the allegations in the tobacco complaint, and it’s pretty hard not to spot the similarities.

In an ideal scenario, take me through what the Senate -- and perhaps the federal government, in general -- would do to address this issue of climate change. 

My best-case action plan is a significant, economically accurate price on carbon pollution. That enjoys a couple benefits. One, it’s the solution that every Republican who’s addressed this question thinks is the right solution. And there are plenty of Republicans who aren’t in the “jail,” who aren’t at risk of Citizens United, fossil-fuel bombardment: former secretaries of treasury, former EPA administrators, former members of Congress, conservative economists. They all come down in favor of a proper price on carbon. The other good argument for it is that, compared to regulation, it is much more efficient, much more predictable for businesses and it’s a system spur to innovation in ways that a regulatory regime simply couldn’t keep up with.

Are we anywhere near such a law passing?

For me, hope springs eternal. I think that between now and the election in 2016, a lot of my colleagues who face elections in states where denial is not an option, are going to have a come-to-Jesus moment. I don’t think a Republican presidential candidate can survive a general election with carbon denial as his position. So I think once the primary pressure is over, which is where the fossil fuel industry does most of its thuggery, you’ll start to see some new changes. Chris Christie just made the move, a little while ago, when he was looking at the race.

I think this is gonna break open, and once it breaks open and Republicans get over denying the existence of the problem, or denying the man-made cause of the problem, denying the significance of the problem – they then have to go to [the question], “Well, then. What is your answer?” And the only answer that Republicans support out there is a [carbon] fee. And if it’s revenue neutral, and it’s not raising taxes, then, let me put it this way, if it’s done the right way, even Arthur Laffer, of the famous Laffer Curve, would support it.

When you tweeted about this upcoming 100th speech, one of the first responses you got called it “a milestone of wasted time.” What do you say to that?

Our fishermen in Rhode Island are already seeing changes in the ocean. As one said to me, “Sheldon, it’s getting weird out there.” The people who have had houses on the shore for generations are seeing them fall into the sea, as the sea rises and erodes what had been the land and the beach between them and the ocean. And more and more of that is going to happen. It’s going to be farmers and foresters and it’s going to be all over the place. It happens everywhere. And the time will come when people will say, “What the heck were you guys doing in the Senate? We pay you to look ahead and to try to protect us from coming risks. I’ve got my own job and I’m taking care of my own family. I pay you to look ahead.” And it’s the judgment of that time period that worries me more than the judgment of Fox News-fed skeptics today.

Do you feel you’ve ever given other issues – say, education, or defense, or the economy – shorter shrift because of time focusing on this issue?

No, no. It probably takes me an hour or two to either write the speech, if I do that myself, or to edit the research that I’ve asked for. Each week, I usually do that on the weekends; I do it on the plane between here and home. It doesn’t affect really any of my other work.

What did you take away from that state-swap with the Senator Manchin from West Virginia?

Well, what I would like to have is a process where senators on various sides of this issue are honest about its various elements and work together the way we should, as legislators, to craft a sensible compromise. A piece of that, from my part, is to recognize that, in certain areas, particularly in coal-producing areas, this may create some real economic difficulties for certain people. And a fair resolution of the issue would try to find a way to help them in that transition. And so going to West Virginia, hearing from those communities and understanding the importance of the coal economy to far fewer West Virginians than before, but still a significant number, is an important part of showing my willingness to listen to their side of the concerns. And Joe Manchin coming up to go out on our waters and trawl up fish from the bottom, hear from the scientists and the fisherman [about] what they see changing in the oceans and what that means for their livelihoods, and to tour the seafront where houses have fallen into the ocean and talk to their owners about what this means to them – [that] reflects his willingness to understand our concerns.

What angers me is people who will only look at their own concerns, and only see this as a problem for the coal community, and will simply, blindly, obtusely, and stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that for fisherman, and for farmers, and for foresters and for people of all sorts of livelihoods all around the country, this is an economic problem emerging, and potentially a far worse one than for their coal miners.

Will you ever stop giving these weekly speeches?

I don’t have a present plan to stop. But I could easily foresee that when we get to the point that sensible, fact-based, and sincere negotiations are taking place, there will be less need to come to the floor and try to spotlight this too-often-overlooked issue. When we’re really engaged on it, when there’s the prospect of significant legislation – that’s really the goal, not just to give speeches into eternity.

Is it true that Senator Inhofe snowball-throwing Senator Inhofe actually voted for a resolution acknowledging that climate change is real?


How did that happen?

He did a little rhetorical jujitsu and led his caucus to abandon the trench that “Climate change is a hoax.” And he led them all to fall back to the next trench, which is, “Climate change is happening, but we don’t have anything to do with it.” It was basically an organized strategic retreat from an unsustainable position.

Doesn’t that undermine a book he wrote proclaiming climate change a hoax?

Yup. But I think it proves that continued pressure on this issue will cause them to continually have to abandon trenches that are unsustainable. And the next one is going to be, “We have nothing to do with it.”

By Philip Eil

Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter at @phileil

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Climate Change Climate Denial Global Warming Gop Sheldon Whitehouse The Republican Party