Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: ‘Democrats have never taken climate change as seriously as they should’ | Climate crisis
For nine years, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat representing Rhode Island since 2007, gave weekly speeches titled “Time to get upurging the Senate to take action on the climate emergency.
Whitehouse spoke about the devastating effects of global warming on different parts of the United States as well as the world’s oceans. He also warned of the influence of corporate “dark money” undermining American democracy, including by fossil fuel companies resisting action on the climate crisis.
In January 2021, when Joe Biden became president, Whitehouse ended his weekly speech ritual by declaring, “The conditions are finally ripe for a real solution,” with Democrats controlling not just the presidency but both houses of Congress.
In February, Whitehouse reversed himself with his 240th Senate speech on the climate crisis.
The Guardian spoke to Whitehouse in early March, starting with the senator’s decision to bring back “Time to get up”.
“I restarted the series of speeches because I had lost faith in the dynamics of a climate solution. There is a legislative route. There is a regulatory route. There is a legal route. After a year under this administration, we have made no visible progress on any of these fronts. So I got back to it. »
Why has there been no visible progress when there is a Democrat in the White House and Democrats control Congress?
“The Democratic Party has never taken climate change as seriously as it should. It has never put the energy into it that would create a public reaction of support that would then encourage more activity.
More specifically, we are putting all our eggs in the basket of the great reconciliation bill (Build Back Better Law), and the belief that everything was going to work out thanks to that. To the extent that we had to keep the caucus together for this bill, we weren’t going to do anything serious about regulation or litigation, lest it disrupt the process. It was not the best way to proceed. We have to restart. We need to do what we can through legislation, but we also need to really speed up regulation and litigation.
You’ve spoken in the past about the impact of corporate black money, the oil industry’s climate denialism, and the strategies of fossil fuel companies to delay environmental regulations and policies. But it seems that the problem is as much a lack of political will as a resistance of financial and industrial interests to advance the climate agenda.
“The two are linked. We probably would have been successful in getting this bill passed if not for the organized opposition of fossil fuel interests to prevent these things from happening. You have to be prepared to step up your counter pressure on the fuel industry to succeed. I think that’s where we’ve been particularly neglected.
But as powerful as the oil and gas industry’s disinformation machinery is, it has an Achilles’ heel. The more it is exposed, the more it is brought to light, the more the public understands what the industry has done, the more pressure of public opinion and voting can be exerted.
To that end, you sponsored legislation to expose the flow of what you described as black money from the fossil fuel industry and others which, in your words, has seeped deep into the politics, captured the Supreme Court and threatens American democracy. Disclosure The law would require organizations that spend money in federal elections to disclose the sources of their funding. What are the prospects for this legislation?
“The president asked us to have a vote on this in the state of the union, so it is an important point of support for the continuation of the activities. I think he sees the vote as an opportunity to exert significant political leverage because the public hates this corruption of black money.
In the short term, Republicans won’t want to vote for it. Mitch McConnell (the Republican Minority Leader in the US Senate) relies heavily on black money. But because the public hates black money so much, if we’re successful in pushing for this vote (and) letting the American public know what it means, we might find there’s a bit of a meltdown on the side Republican – that they feel that while they hate having to give up their black money, it’s better than being labeled as part of the black money.
A Guardian poll last year showed that if a majority of Americans want to see oil and gas companies held accountable for lying about the climate crisis and contributing to global warming. How do you overcome this?
“We have mostly won the battle of public opinion to the point where strong majorities support much of climate repair and clean energy development. The public is already with us. It is not enough that he is able to overwhelm the financial stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry on the Republican Party.
What do you mean when you say that to your colleagues in the Senate?
“The problem in politics is that there is almost always an event of the day. And like an ill-disciplined football team, we’re all prone to running for the ball, running to the event of the day, not playing position and having a strategy and winning that damn game. And so we’re not operationalizing that feeling as well as we should. There is always tomorrow to operationalize this feeling when now we have to worry about Covid, Ukraine, inflation, crime. The problem is, there’s only so many tomorrows you can put off before it’s too late.
The event of the day right now is Ukraine which has generated a lot of talk about US energy independence and the need to pump more oil, and rising gas prices which is still a political issue. It’s a big challenge for you, isn’t it?
“It’s a big challenge because the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation operation is very fast and adaptive, jumping in those moments. They have experience. Whenever there’s a crisis, they have a ready-made answer: drill more oil.
The only way to fix this problem is to get off the merry-go-round and switch to clean, renewable fuels. Then the Saudis and the Russians and the cartels no longer control the prices, no longer have the resources to be disbelievers in the world community. The sooner we can move away from fossil fuels and into renewables, the safer the planet will be, not only environmentally, but also from a national security perspective.
How do you think President Biden is doing on his commitments to tackle the climate crisis?
“He brought a lot of passion to it. He brought in a lot of really good people. John Kerry has done a fabulous job of trying to make (COP26 in) Glasgow as strong as it could be, and create a separate path for the Chinese through all their objections to American policy to work with us on the weather.
The legislative part has been, so far, a calamity that we have not passed serious legislation. A lot depends on our ability to get something in the next few months using this reconciliation measure. But it’s very up for grabs at this point, very uncertain. They took a break from both litigation and regulation to create a calm environment in which they had hoped a big bill would pass. As a result, we lost a year of business in both regulatory and litigation.
Who do you blame for the failure to pass the law?
“Every senator who stopped us from getting 50 votes and moving forward.”
Topping the list is Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of coal-mining West Virginia. Do you see Manchin’s positions as related in any way to what you described earlier about the nefarious forces at work?
“(Manchin) reflects the views of his state, which is a heavily fossil fueled state, as it is entitled to, as one would expect. The fossil fuel industry’s current stance is false support for serious climate legislation and powerful covert countermeasures to ensure this never happens. But if they felt they were under a lot more pressure, they might act a little more aggressively to find an acceptable path.
And therefore ease the pressure on Senator Manchin?
“And so even coming to see it and saying, ‘We’d like that, it’s our safest path as well as the safest path on the planet. Be our advocate for these measures.”
The midterm elections in November could be a big deal for Democrats, with polls showing Republicans could well take back the House and control of the Senate at stake. Are we coming to the end of the opportunity for President Biden? to keep its climate promises?
“It potentially comes to that end. Because when the reconciliation measure expires on September 30, the door to an all-Democrat climate bill in the Senate closes. At this point, our only course is to find enough Republican support to overcome the Senate’s 60-vote closing rule, which probably means a dozen Republicans. When you consider how far the Republican Party has become simply the political arm of the fossil fuel industry, then the likelihood of being able to produce those dozen Republicans isn’t very great.
Having struggled to get 50 Senate Democrats to agree, the Biden administration has a decision to make on how to proceed. Are you leaving all your eggs in the basket of legislation? Or are you moving forward with an infringement strategy against the fossil fuel climate denial operation, with a regulatory strategy to deal with it within the agencies you control? What about the litigation strategy to bring the power of law to bear on arguably fraudulent industry conduct? »
For ordinary Americans who see the climate as the most important issue, especially a younger generation of Americans who say, ‘WWhat the hell are our political leaders doing?– what can they do to change the situation?
“Keep raising hell. And understand that the flip side of the climate change coin is the black money problem. Solve the black money problem and the climate change obstruction starts to go away because Exxon Mobil can’t get away with a dirty policy in plain sight If they run an ad saying climate change is a big hoax we are Exxon Mobil and we endorse that message it’s a comeback colossal flame. If they pass it through a front group with a name like Americans for Peace and Puppies and Prosperity, it doesn’t go back to them. So transparency is very crippling for the fossil fuel industry. His motive becomes apparent, his method becomes apparent, his personal interest becomes apparent.