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The Senate’s top climate advocate explains why Congress is doing nothing about global warming

“Trajectory points on the horizon aren’t part of our battle”: Sheldon Whitehouse on Democrats’ climate strategy.

Senate Holds Hearing On Russian Interference In U.S. Election Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Combating climate change couldn’t be further from the Senate’s legislative agenda, but one Democratic senator claims a deal to enact a carbon tax may be closer than many realize.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), widely seen as the Senate’s most active advocate on climate change, says he is in routine communication with “six to 10” Senate Republicans who, he says, privately support his carbon tax bill but are unwilling to publicly back it. Only one Senate Republican, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, is willing to publicly support that idea.

In an interview with Vox, Whitehouse talked excitedly about the former Republican officeholders and George W. Bush officials who have formally voiced their support as well.

“If you want to have a valid Republican Party 10 years from now, you can’t have a generation of people that grows up seeing the Republican Party as climate deniers,” Whitehouse said in an interview, explaining his confidence that Republicans will move to address an issue their party’s president has called a “Chinese hoax.”

The issue is getting new attention as several severe hurricanes have made landfall in the US, causing expensive and lasting damage in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. After the hurricane in Florida, one Republican mayor said: “If this isn't climate change, I don't know what is.”

To be sure, Republicans still hold power over which bills even come to the floor with their bare majority, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell certainly doesn’t seem interested in bringing Whitehouse’s bill to a vote anytime soon. (“I don’t think CO2 is a pollutant,” Texas Rep. Joe Barton told me when I asked about the possibility of climate legislation. “You’re creating CO2 asking me these questions.”)

So many on the left are also skeptical that Senate Republicans are genuinely interested in addressing climate change beyond assuring their Democratic counterparts behind closed doors that their hearts are really in the right place. Former Vox reporter Brad Plumer argued, at length, that a conservative carbon tax is a “dream” that “refuses to die,” and said that the media should be skeptical that the GOP would act on climate change until their elected officials openly embrace it.

But Whitehouse thinks that interpretation is too pessimistic for his Republican colleagues. The question isn’t purely academic, because its answer structures how progressives may choose to try to build a movement for climate action.

“There’s not, like, some idea on the horizon that we’re far from but want to try to guide toward. We have an immediate virtual yes from the Republicans about this,” he said.

Others are skeptical that anyone in the GOP is interested in moving on the issue. Whitehouse and I spoke in his office in the Hart Senate Office Building in September. A transcript of our conversation follows.

Sen. Whitehouse: Don’t confuse the single-payer campaign with climate politics

Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing On Foreign Agents Registration Act Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Jeff Stein

I want to talk to you about the politics of climate change within the Democratic Party.

On health care, within the past few months, activists helped successfully push House Democrats to embrace [a] “Medicare-for-all” single-payer [plan] in greater numbers than ever before. And in the Senate, [Sen. Bernie] Sanders [I-VT] came out with a single-payer plan that served as a kind of litmus test for 2020 presidential candidates.

Sheldon Whitehouse

I don’t think any of that’s true. That’s certainly not what members think or how Bernie himself views it, so I don’t want to be adopting too much of your premise.

Jeff Stein

But certainly more Democrats than previously signed on to a single-payer bill than before, and at least some on the left view that as the result of months of constituent calls, and town halls, to Democratic offices demanding members sign up for the bill.

I’m curious why there is no similar effort — or if you think there is one and I’ve just missed it — around demanding Democrats adopt a position on addressing climate change.

Sheldon Whitehouse

Boy. They are two such different worlds that it’s really hard to compare and contrast. In the case of health care, you have a political party that for a considerable period of time has spun its base to hate Obamacare. And we’ve all seen the interviews of people saying, “I hate Obamacare; I like the Affordable Care Act.” So there’s a lot of mischief and nonsense in the whole enterprise — but the result was their base was very spun up about it.

They had to do repeal and replace, and they had no way to do it. We had to defend some pretty basic stuff.

And I think at the same point, we also wanted to put a marker on the horizon that Obamacare is not the end-all and be-all — that there is a way to deliver universal health care in this country; there’s a way to achieve single-payer; and that we should continue working in that direction. ... That’s the frame I put on that whole argument.

On the climate side, we have a very different situation. We have a party with a considerable number of elected [officials] who are not only willing but eager to do a bill of some kind on climate change. They have signaled — through [Hank] Paulson, [George Bush’s Treasury secretary]; [former GOP Secretary of State James] Baker; [conservative economist Arthur] Laffer; the American Enterprise Institute; a whole variety of entities — that the way they want to do that is with a price on carbon. That’s the conservative way to do it.

I’m happy with a carbon fee. I don’t think that’s a bad idea. So there’s not, like, some idea on the horizon that we’re far from but want to try to guide toward. We have an immediate virtual yes from the Republicans about this; we have an immediate problem that we have to solve sooner than later.

So trajectory points on the horizon aren’t part of our battle in climate. Finding a way to have Republicans see safe passage to the fossil fuel industry’s threats and bullying and political weaponry is the test there. And that’s a question of putting the heat under them with the facts of what’s happening in their own states and across the world; pressing on them with NDAA amendments in the House and Senate; pushing on the American corporate community, the good guys, to do a good job actually showing up; and trying to shame the fossil fuel industry and their huge array of smelly, scandalous front groups that they maintain.

There’s almost no correlation between the two sets of problems. I see no overlay other than the fact that we’re all Americans, it’s about the American polity, and this is government. Other than that, the similarities totally end.

Jeff Stein

I was hoping you could expound more on your suggestion that there are Republican idea men and conservative officials who, if I’m hearing you correctly, you think have enough sway to get Republicans to a yes —

Sheldon Whitehouse

Not quite yet. But there are enough to prove the proposition that there is a yes to get to on the other side of the kill zone that the fossil fuel industry has set up.

Jeff Stein

You don’t see this as a “Lucy pulling the football from Charlie Brown” situation?

Sheldon Whitehouse

No.

Jeff Stein

What gives you faith Republicans are going to move on this issue? Only one, Lindsey Graham, has co-sponsored your carbon bill, and the Republican president denies the reality that it even exists.

Sheldon Whitehouse

Because it’s so widespread ... from people who are Republicans but who are not currently Republican officeholders. That’s a very bright signal of where the party wants to be and where they want to go, and it’s all virtually the same place — a border-adjusted, revenue-neutral price on carbon. That’s what they all virtually are saying.

Then you have the people in the corral — with Exxon and the US Chamber and API and Americans for Progress and the whole rest of the ghouls — that say, “If you dare touch this issue we’ll punish you politically.”

Another way I describe it is that the problem is that talking to Republicans about climate change is like talking to prisoners about escape. Once you find safe passage for them through the fence, through the kill zone around the fence, then the getaway car on the other side is one we all agree on. There are truly six to 10 Republican senators who I talk to about this stuff and are waiting for their moment and are quite candid about what the problem is, and it’s the politics of political threat from the agents of the fossil fuel industry — mostly the Koch brothers, but also the US Chamber [of Commerce].

Whitehouse: “If I can get something big done now, I’d rather do that than wait for some day that may never come”

Senate Finance Committee Holds Hearing On Graham-Cassidy Healthcare Bill
Sen. Lindsey Graham is the only Senate Republican who has come out for a carbon tax.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Jeff Stein

Given that you’ve had these private conversations and I have not, I’m curious why you think the six to 10 Republican senators you’ve been talking to feel interested in working on climate change.

Is it because they face political pressure in their home states from activists and organizers and are worried about the political consequences of inaction? Are they convinced by the external validators outside the Capitol? Is it a genuine conviction [of the danger of climate change]? Or is it because Sheldon Whitehouse is very convincing?

Sheldon Whitehouse

I don’t think it’s the first one at all. [Whitehouse also dismissed the last one.]

It’s a combination of the second two that you said. And a third — which is particularly boldly expressed in the Baker-Schultz-Paulson report — that to a very significant degree, the reputation of the Republican Party is at issue here. If you want to have a valid Republican Party 10 years from now, you can’t have a generation of people that grows up seeing the Republican Party as climate deniers.

It’s a combination of validation from the experts, experience at home as their fisherman and foresters [face the impact of climate change], and this sense that if we don’t get this right, we could damage our party’s brand for a generation — which I think is a very legitimate concern on their part.

Jeff Stein

Do these Senate Republicans seem scared by these weather events and say, “Oh, shit, we have to get on this"? And does that make you think there’s a window of opportunity that opened up but may close until the next disasters strike?

Sheldon Whitehouse

Some. But I don’t think this is a question of a window opening or closing. I think it’s a question of the window is going to constantly open more and more and more. I think it’s an inevitability that Republicans will recognize climate change and take climate action.

The problem is: Can we wait? Will it be in time? There are a lot of tipping points in nature; we don’t get to do a redo if you go past them. There are a lot of baked-in consequences — you can stop the locomotive and shut her down, and that train is still going to run for miles down the track. And those two combinations are what’s dangerous about the time problem.

It’s not a window that’s going to close; we’re in a race against time. And as time goes by, the certainty that Republicans will support action on climate will eventually come true.

Jeff Stein

I’m still not sure what gives you faith that Republicans will change on this issue. Because I think a lot of people don’t believe that.

Sheldon Whitehouse

The reputation of the Republican Party hangs in the balance for future generations. Let’s say you’re a Republican up in 2022 or 2024 — what’s your bet on how the public will look at this by then? What’s your bet on how people will view, “Oh, the climate has always been changing; oh, this is a hoax.” It’s not a good outlook.

Jeff Stein

But they’ve been moving away from climate action for so long. You said in the New Yorker article, accurately, that in 2008 there were tons of Republican co-sponsors of climate bills — now there’s just one.

Sheldon Whitehouse

That was before Citizens United. [That Supreme Court decision] gave the industry the power to create the kill zone in the first place — before they could be mad as hell, and blow the whistle, and turn their faces red, and write a $10,000 PAC check. They could not set up a $2 million shell foundation to beat the crap out of you with ads in your congressional district.

Jeff Stein

But the problem of money in politics hasn’t gotten better at all recently; in fact, it’s getting worse, if anything.

Sheldon Whitehouse

No, I think it’s getting better because it’s up against the irrevocable force of fact. And of these storms. And what’s happening in these farms.

It’s moving in our direction since 2010, which was a disaster. But it’s just not moving fast enough when you see the mounting, gathering threat.

Why Whitehouse incorporates Republican/conservative ideas into climate bills

Senate Democrats Urge President Not To Withdraw From Paris Climate Agreement
Whitehouse joins Sens. Tom Carper and Ben Cardin to urge Trump not to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Jeff Stein

Do you feel there are things Democrats should be willing to give up in exchange for a climate deal? To say, “There are huge Republican priorities X, Y, Z, and we can let you win on them if we get something done on this issue”?

Sheldon Whitehouse

If you look at my bill, maybe close to half of the revenue the bill produces goes into corporate income tax reduction. Paid-for corporate income tax reduction — which is not a Democratic priority.

[Former GOP Rep.] Bob Inglis has said, I’m not offering an olive branch by doing that; I’m offering an olive limb. That’s a very obvious thing we’re willing to negotiate on. I won’t go further because I don’t want to negotiate against myself.

Jeff Stein

I imagine some on the left would suggest that the real dilemma here is Republican control of power, and that until Democrats find a way to unite Americans around the rallying cry of climate justice, this is an exercise that will be difficult.

The left, I think, also feels one problem with Obamacare was that it incorporated [conservative ideas] — the Heritage Foundation mandate; the individual exchanges, which was a Republican idea — and that incorporating these ideas ultimately made the bill more politically vulnerable.

Sheldon Whitehouse

We have, on more than one occasion, fallen into the trap of coming up with a Rube Goldberg-complex Republican way of doing things in the hopes that would pacify Republican opposition. And we discovered that those Republicans have now gone after them for the very complexity of their own Rube Goldberg mechanism. I don’t think a carbon fee is very complex.

Look, nothing would make me happier than to have a Democratic speaker, a Democratic president, and more than 60 Democratic senators. But that’s not a credible thing for me to lay ground for to try to solve the carbon problem. Nature doesn’t care who is in charge of our politics; nature is doing its biology and physics and chemistry right now. Time is not our friend. And if I can get something big done now, I’d rather do that than wait for some day that may never come, when those political planets all line up in perfect alignment.

Jeff Stein

... With Republicans releasing their tax reform package, I wanted to ask if you’ve made overtures to the “Big Six” leading that effort to include some sort of carbon pricing, as your bill would.

Sheldon Whitehouse

I think, given the current state of politics — given the death grip that the fossil fuel industry still largely continues to hold particularly over Republican leadership — the moment for this, politically, is going to come further down the road once they’ve figured out they can’t get 51 Republican votes for a [tax reform] bill.

Our best scenario is that they try the partisan route again; they fail. Trump is furious he’s again been led into a boxed canyon of failure by Republican leadership, and then we can say: Not only is there an opportunity for tax reform, but we can make it stronger in some areas. But here’s the deal: You’ve got to be willing to sign on for this [carbon pricing], which would make it the deal of the century for the guy who says he understands the “Art of the Deal.”

And then maybe we have a shot.