Bloomberg BNA reporter Anthony Adragna sat down with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in his office Jan. 17 to discuss the climate change agenda in the coming year. According to Whitehouse, forthcoming EPA regulations on power plant emissions could open a new window for action on carbon legislation. He also said some Republican senators believe in climate change but are afraid to speak publicly for fear of reprisal, and the U.S. has been the “weak link” in negotiating an international treaty. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
BBNA: You've sort of assumed this mantle as probably the most vocal advocate for climate change action in the Senate. What was the impetus to seize that mantle and what drew you to this issue?
Whitehouse: It's been a long, slow build. There was a moment, I think, when we could have done cap and trade. The House passed it and I think the Senate could have—and I think there was a deal to be made there, but fainter hearts prevailed and we missed that moment. In the depths of the horrible recession, there was only one thing on everybody's mind. But, as we began to emerge from that and as the toll of carbon pollution began to be paid in heavier and heavier penalties, and as we lost Senator Kerry [now secretary of state]—who I think was a very articulate and forceful voice on climate—I came to the belief that this was actually an issue we could and should win. And that really our own lack of effort was our own worst enemy. So I figured, throw effort at the problem.
BBNA: You launched a new caucus, and there are a lot of new faces in the Senate. Who do you see as members who are going to be outspoken on the issue?
Whitehouse: Gosh, there are a lot of them. I would say [Democratic Sens.] Chris Murphy, Brian Schatz, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren. It's a strong group and, as you saw at the task force meeting, it's a lot of the new people who still have a lot of energy and fire.
BBNA: Do you expect them to make an immediate impact?
Whitehouse: Yeah, I think the thing that makes the most impact in the Senate is concerted group action. That has been my experience in the time that I've been here. I think it made a real difference when a very large delegation of senators went in to see [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.] at the early part of the engagement process that you've been describing and said, “Look, we've got to up our game on this.” And I think when 22 senators all say, “Look, we need to take more action,” and are willing to do that, that makes a difference. I think you'll see group floor activities fairly soon that will reflect the strength in numbers and the strength of our commitment
BBNA: Is this something Majority Leader Reid has been passionate about for a long time but perhaps hasn't put forward because of the political climate?
Whitehouse: Perhaps. What I can say is that in recent months he really has shown considerable personal interest in this issue and considerable leadership support for our effort. I'm grateful for both.
BBNA: Have you reached out specifically to any Republicans about joining the caucus? Have any indicated support for attending?
Whitehouse: There's an array of responses, none of them publicly positive. There are Republicans who both personally believe this is an important thing to solve and believe that it's important for their states, and are waiting for a political moment when it's viable, as a Republican, to take action.
BBNA: People seem to think there's this ground-swell of Republicans who privately do believe in climate change and in the science, and see the need for action but don't want to say so publicly. What is that political moment that will allow them to speak?
Whitehouse: They have to feel political heat on the other side. At the moment, they're only feeling political heat from the hundreds of millions of dollars that the Koch brothers are spending to prop up the Tea Party. So you take Tea Party extremism and Koch brother money and you focus it on protecting the climate denial message. That puts Republicans who are afraid of what happens in primaries in a very tough position.
BBNA: The converse to that: red state Democrats who are perhaps in tough reelection battles. How should they approach this issue, and is there a way to make this a winning issue for Democrats in 2014?
Whitehouse: I think there is. I don't believe that there is anybody who denies climate change in the Democratic caucus. Everybody accepts that it is a real problem. For some states—in addition to being a problem for nature in their states and for the businesses being affected by climate harms in their states—it's also a risk to fossil fuel business in their states. And those fossil fuel businesses are entitled to the attention of their elected representatives about the problem that this creates for them.
I think there are ways to work with that industry and try to solve some of the problems so the transition to sustainable energy is far less painful than it would otherwise be, and that there are benefits that can flow that can help some of those states. But, at the moment, since most of those folks are Republicans and since the Republicans are so dominated by Tea Party extremism and Koch brother money, the conversation is hard to get going that would solve that problem.
BBNA: One of the things coming from the inaugural meeting of your new caucus was the need to go on the offensive. Given the political realities right now, what does that offensive look like?
Whitehouse: That offensive looks like changing the political realities, which I think is very doable if the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] proceeds with speed and vigor on regulating carbon emissions that changes the status quo for the big polluters and can make carbon legislation look like the lesser of two evils. That would be a big shift if suddenly the polluters were saying, “Okay, let's talk about this.” That opens up the door for the Republicans to do it immediately. That would be one feature.
The second feature is that Karl Rove and the Koch brothers were waiting, ready in the blocks, for the Citizens United decision and they came bursting out of that start with enormous, very one-sided spending that we are now catching up to a bit. But, when you get the folks like League of Conservation Voters—who've been very active politically in this with resources to offset the one-sided Koch brothers industry political effect—then that changes things quite dramatically. If Republicans start losing their seats because they're climate deniers, that is a very salutary signal.
And the third piece that changes the equation is if we on our side get organized. The climate denier side is inherently organized. It's basically the same beast. It's constructed with dozens, if not hundreds, of false front organizations to make it look like there's this big array of independent voices that all question climate change, but it's all the same beast so it's naturally organized.
We, on our side, are actually a lot of groups and companies and organizations that are created for other purposes. Trying to get us organized is more complicated, but we do have the ability to organize. If we do, when you put the big corporate folks that are behind this—Pepsi and Coca-Cola, Walmart, Ford and GM, Nike, Apple, Google—big, nameplate American companies that know we have to do something about climate change, some of them already have internal prices on carbon that they apply in their internal accounting. So you've got a huge corporate sector that if properly organized could be a powerful public and political force. Then you've got groups like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Garden Clubs of America and of course the entire environmental array of groups.
Right now everybody's milling around on the battlefield with no plan and no joint effort as a result. Leadership that brings those groups together to say “How are we going to do this? Let's get this done right” creates a force that I don't think even the Koch brothers with all their money can resist.
BBNA: Who would lead those groups?
Whitehouse: Ideally it would be either the president or people designated by him, because if you're on that battlefield and wondering which tent is the command tent, the president of the United States saying “That's the command tent” is a pretty good signal you're in the right place.
BBNA: Should we expect him to speak again on this issue this year?
Whitehouse: I will be astounded if he does not dedicate significant attention in his State of the Union [speech] to the climate problem we face.
BBNA: Could we see a similar standalone speech like the one in June 2013 at Georgetown University?
Whitehouse: I would hope so. John Podesta [a senior adviser for domestic issues, including energy and climate policy] is newly on board. Katie Beirne [Fallon, deputy communications director for the White House] is newly onboard. Phil Schiliro [an aide to Obama on health care issues] is newly returned. This is big strategic issue for them, and I think they need to take a little bit of time to kind of put together what they're going to do and how they're going to do it. But I'm convinced that process is under way, and I'm convinced they've turned a corner in terms of energy and effort on this issue.
BBNA: Could staff changes at the White House impede progress on this issue?
Whitehouse: You've got people like Podesta and Schiliro who are veterans. Katie Beirne in her own way is a veteran—not necessarily of the White House per se, but she's been around us and politics and Washington. The one empty seat is the CEQ [Council on Environmental Quality] seat. I very much hope that they will bring somebody on who has heft of their own beyond just the heft you acquire from being a senior White House official. But someone who has contacts, reputation and standing. I think that would be a very good signal that they are further raising their game on carbon pollution. I think that also adds to the team strength that can be devoted to this issue.
BBNA: On the EPA power plant rulemaking, there's some concern that the EPA is using the Clean Air Act beyond how it was originally intended. You were a former state attorney general. Do you have concerns about that?
Whitehouse: Like many laws, this law was written before this particular threat emerged so it's not specifically tailored to it. Which, for EPA, creates some technical concerns about its application in the right way. That's a technical, legal, administrative set of steps to work through.
The Supreme Court has settled that carbon, under these circumstances, is a pollutant and that it's “regulate-able” under the Clean Air Act. And they said the authority of EPA was legitimate and would begin as soon as they made the necessary endangerment finding, which the EPA has done and which has been upheld. So it's now the settled law of the United States of America that this type of carbon pollution should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. It's hard to doubt that, but if you're denying the reality of carbon pollution, you might as well, I suppose, deny the reality of Supreme Court decisions and EPA jurisdiction.
BBNA: There were even concerns within the Office of Management and Budget that carbon capture and sequestration technologies were “adequately demonstrated.” Are you satisfied that they are demonstrated and if so, why?
Whitehouse: I'm not an expert in carbon capture and sequestration technologies but, from what I understand, they have been built and operated successfully on a test basis. So that would appear to me to show that they qualify as best available control technologies.
BBNA: Are you satisfied with the pace of the EPA rulemaking and their public statements?
Whitehouse: There was a period of hiatus that I thought was unfortunate but that has passed. I have a lot of respect for [Administrator] Gina McCarthy and my belief is that she is moving vigorously and rapidly forward with a due regard for getting it legally right and getting all the i's dotted and the t's crossed.
BBNA: More broadly speaking, the role of regulations in place of laws and statutes—is that something you find problematic at all?
Whitehouse: Not to me. We have had regulatory agencies in this country for many decades now and we entrust them with very significant ongoing problems that either are too detailed for Congress to pay attention or too risky of politicization for Congress to be trusted with or need such constant attention that it's hard to get Congress to come into attention regularly. This is really no different than what we do to make sure the banks are safe, to make sure stocks aren't traded on crooked exchanges, and what we do to make sure factories make food that hasn't been tainted or poisoned. To me, there's nothing new about it and nothing extraordinary about it.
BBNA: Do you feel the EPA is under a microscope as a federal agency? Does the political climate make it harder for that agency to function?
Whitehouse: The big polluters are confident in their grip on Congress. They have basically achieved control of the Republican Party and as a result they are basically able to block action in Congress that the public needs and the country deserves. That leaves EPA as their greatest vulnerability in terms of what could interfere with their ability to pollute for free. So there's been an intense political focus put on EPA.
If Congress was able to do its job and if polluting industries did not have such a nefarious control on this place, then there would be no such concerns about EPA. We'd be addressing it here the way we did the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and other major legislation in the past. And the polluters would just be another voice in that process. But because they've disabled the process, now they're trying to disable the regulatory side as well.
BBNA: Are they succeeding?
Whitehouse: They've sure as hell succeeded in Congress.
BBNA: At diminishing the role of EPA as an agency?
Whitehouse: They've done a good job of trying to make EPA look like it's a rogue agency and hostile or antithetical to the wellbeing of the average American and all that. But I don't think it's taken yet. I think people really understand that clean air and clean water and not having factories dumping their emissions into the atmosphere and into the rivers and into the sea has been a very good thing for America. EPA stands watch for very important principles that go all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt.
BBNA: Internationally, the U.S. has put a lot of effort into getting India and China and other developing countries to combat their emissions and pollution issues. Does it harm the ability of the U.S. to be taken seriously when we have outspoken members of the House and Senate as climate deniers?
Whitehouse: We would like the rest of the world to look up to American democracy. So when there is this kind of folly taking place, it makes it difficult for other rational nations to look up to American democracy. That hurts us not only in creating consensus on the climate problem, that hurts us in a general way. Each generation in this country gets the responsibility of being the ambassadors for this American democracy that our parents and grandparents fought, bled and died for. And we're supposed to bring it forward into the world in a way that people do look up to it and are proud of what America offers. When you look at the world's greatest democracy now humiliatingly captive of polluting industries on an issue of this magnitude, it's hard to imagine that the public not only in America but in the rest of the world doesn't think that's kind of a disgraceful spectacle.
BBNA: Does that make it harder for an international agreement on climate change?
Whitehouse: Had America not been tied in knots by its polluters, we would have that international agreement already. We've been the weak link in the international chain on this.
Anthony Adragna covers waste, security and congressional issues for a number
of Bloomberg BNA publications, including Energy and Climate Report.
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