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US Senator Addresses Politics of Climate Change

At Pardee, Rhode Island’s Whitehouse assesses humanity’s future


All else being equal, a dozen to 20 Republican senators would vote on meaningful curbs on climate change today. The bad news is that all is not equal, and their party’s in thrall to fossil fuel industry donors like Charles and David Koch.

US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) delivered that message to 30 faculty and graduate students at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies Wednesday.

“At its heart, climate change is a story of corruption as much as it is a story of science,” said Whitehouse. “And when that corruption story has its worst manifestation in the vaunted United States of America…it’s not a great moment.” By corruption, he didn’t mean direct bribe-taking, which he said the Supreme Court has established as the standard for illegal corruption. Interest groups don’t wield influence through bribes: “They’re not some yokel who comes in from Alberta and says, ‘Hi, guys, I’m here, I need a big favor. Here’s $100,000.'”

Whitehouse was invited to address the select group in light of his environmental work in Congress and last December’s Paris climate change agreement.

More than 170 nations, including the United States, signed that accord, but, Whitehouse said, governments from China to the European Union have raced ahead of us to implement cuts in the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for warming temperatures. He said he has proposed legislation that would impose a $42.50-per-ton tax on carbon emissions, with the tax rising annually to encourage use of more benign energy sources until the global thermostat has been safely reset.

The approach economists favor for its administrative simplicity, a tax has a political advantage as well, Whitehouse said: “It’s the place to which every single Republican who has come to a solution on climate change has come.…The getaway car is waiting, and it’s the one they ordered.”

For the moment, fossil fuel industry donations hold the GOP captive, he said, a fact underscored when he denounced the Koch brothers, heads of the nation’s second largest privately held company. A Republican colleague—“not one of the greenies”—upbraided him: “What the hell are you complaining about? They’re spending more money against us than they’re spending against you” to enforce GOP purity.

Yet Whitehouse sees counteracting forces in capitalism. Young consumers are demanding environmental responsibility from businesses, and more than 100 of them, in turn, joined environmentalists in demanding action at the Paris climate conference. Meanwhile, academic research has exposed fossil fuel industry support behind what Whitehouse termed the “machinery” of climate change denial.

“The denial castle has been crumbling now for some years,” although its dismantling will be frustratingly slow, he said.

Whitehouse spent most of his appearance at Pardee fielding audience questions. He and Adil Najam, dean of the Pardee School, sat in chairs at the front of the small meeting room, facing the audience in an intimate, conversational format.

The son of a family of foreign service officers who “bounced from post to post all around the world,” Whitehouse said his lifetime has been marked by “a tide that has run in America’s favor around the world,” with developing nations especially admiring the example we set. But as industry money corrupts US politics on climate change, stymieing any progress while warming temperatures wreak havoc on global weather, agriculture, and habitable areas, the country risks squandering that goodwill, he warned.

“They see that it was the developed economies that did this, led by the United States,” he said. “I dread to think what would happen if that quiet tide that has run in our favor for my lifetime should shift the other way, because there are competing visions of governance in this world.”

Speaking the day after Donald Trump drove his remaining competitors from the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Whitehouse said every congressional delegation traveling overseas gets the same question about the businessman’s political success. They ask, “‘What’s happened to your country?’ So I think there’s a lot of anxiety about Trump’s nativism, isolationism, bluster, and sort of general ignorance of international things.” (Trump denies the notion of human-made climate change.)

Whitehouse has represented Rhode Island in the Senate since 2007. He was a US attorney and Rhode Island’s attorney general before that. He graduated from Yale and the University of Virginia School of Law.

His record addressing climate change and other environmental problems led Najam to express “gratitude for the battles you have been fighting on all our behalf.…We are all admirers.”

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

6 Comments on US Senator Addresses Politics of Climate Change

  • Missy on 05.06.2016 at 11:49 am

    As a scientist I am deeply concerned that academics are pushing this agenda. Statistically significant results prove nothing but rather merely compel us to reject the null hypothesis. But what is worse, is that the NIH has recently gone on recording recognizing the much of the peer reviewed published data cannot even be reproduced! Moreover, the “government” has recently removed the limit on cholesterol consumption after years of telling us to avoid eating too many eggs! And yet, we still have academic scientists who should know better getting in bed with politicians to push this hot button politically charged agenda.

    • Anthony on 05.09.2016 at 12:32 pm

      NIH is quite critical on reproducibility of research, but never cited climate change specifically. Irreproducible data is found in all fields of research so to state that some climate change research is irreproducible without giving a number is like saying the sky is blue. Since you are a scientist I assume you have witnessed NIH research expanding the frontiers of science in your own field as it has done in environmental science. If you spend some time looking at peer reviewed climate change articles in an objective lens, you will find that much of the data proving anthropogenic climate change has been reproduced by multiple research groups around the world already. Some research is done to reject the null hypothesis, but you are ignoring the vast majority of peer reviewed climate change research if you claim nothing further has been proven. I am glad to hear that the United States is moving to join the rest of the world in a debate of how to address anthropogenic climate change, rather than continue a debate over a fact.

      • Missy on 05.10.2016 at 6:29 am

        “Some research is done to reject the null hypothesis, but you are ignoring the vast majority of peer reviewed climate change research if you claim nothing further has been proven.”

        The only thing that has been “proven” by your comment is my point. When we reject the null hypothesis it does not mean that we accept the alternative as proving the a priori hypothesis. Rather it means the significant difference we have observed “suggests” that there is a relationship between the independent and dependent variables that cannot be explained by normal variance in the dependent variable. Again real scientists like myself do not walk around saying their significant findings prove anything because they know better. In fact, every reputable scientific paper tempers the interpretation of findings by citing the limitations of the study which range from sample size, to human error and investigator bias.

        • Anthony on 05.16.2016 at 9:57 pm

          Your argument can be used to play the devil’s advocate for any scientific consensus, so I wonder what your opinions are on past politically charged agendas such as the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. I trust that as a scientist you have read the literature concerning anthropogenic climate change and if your conclusion remains that the findings are inconclusive, then I can say no more. I merely challenge the notion that science can only reject the null hypothesis because if we never acted upon alternative hypotheses in science that were strongly inferred by empirical evidence, then what’s the point? Suggesting an alternative hypothesis that is supported by evidence is just as essential to science as rejecting the null hypothesis.

  • Peter on 05.06.2016 at 7:51 pm

    I’m with Trump on this. No record of global warming for the last 16 years. No cities under water. Kilimanjaro has snow. Polar bears are doing quite well. Nothing Gore had predicted has come to pass.

    Another tax, and who benefits? Probably companies like Solyndra , who make major donations to the left, before disappearing with the rest of the loan in bankruptcy. This does not go to making ‘your’ vehicle more efficient, or insulating ‘your’ house.

    Sheldon want’s to go after “deniers” like me with RICO laws. That’s right the fossil-fuel industry, and its supporters have been misleading the public,and he thinks racketeering laws should apply, much as it has with tobacco products.

    The truth is that we cannot, even with our destroyed industrial base, exist without fossil fuel.

    • Andrew on 05.09.2016 at 1:08 pm

      What if I said in the last 6 months I have felt healthier, more quick witted, and more flexible? Does that mean I have just proven that my body is resistant to the natural aging process? Of course not. The point I’m trying to make is your frame of reference is too small. Don’t listen to Gore, do your own objective research (i.e. don’t use political sites/don’t only try to find research supporting your claim), and don’t read about conspiracies before you read about facts. You will find your answer there.

      By the way, you can still be concerned about the economic and logistical consequences of ending the fossil fuel industry while acknowledging that humans are the major contributor to global warming.

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