A picture of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Sheldon W.
Democrat RI

About Sen. Sheldon
  • Climate Change

    by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

    Posted on 2013-12-17

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    WHITEHOUSE. Madam President, this is my 53rd time for consecutive weeks we are in session that I have come to the floor to speak about climate change and to urge my colleagues that it is time to wake up. These speeches are not easy. A great deal of effort goes into assisting me with research and crafting of them. I am particularly grateful for the hard work of Dr. Todd Bianco in helping me to prepare them. He is the fellow sitting on the other side of the sign, looking embarrassed that I have just called him out.

    Todd joined my office in September of 2012 as a Geological Society of America-U.S. Geological Survey congressional science fellow. He has contributed considerable scientific understanding and analytical rigor to our work. His ability to interpret the latest climate research has helped me to convey complex scientific concepts both accurately and in a way that is accessible and meaningful to policymakers and the public. You may be used to seeing him with me here on the floor for each week's speech, but he has also been effective in researching legislation and preparing for hearings in the Environment and Public Works Committee.

    I say this because this week marks the end of Todd's fellowship and he will soon return home to Rhode Island with his wife Allison. Allison Bianco, by the way, is a very talented artist whose work reflects our deep human connection to the natural world. In addition to lending us Todd, Allison has also lent us some of her artwork which is hung on display in my front office. So in addition to thanking Todd for his efforts, I also want to thank Allison. Todd, like me, is an over- married human being.

    I wish them both the best of luck back home, and I thank Todd for his work in the U.S. Senate to advance responsible public policy, grounded firmly in the best science.

    It is time at last for Congress at least to heed that best science and act responsibly. It is time to wake up. Denying and delaying is irresponsible. In the judgment of history, it will ultimately, I believe, be shameful. Carbon pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is altering the climate. The consensus around this fact within the scientific community is overwhelming, and public awareness of this crisis is growing stronger.

    Interestingly, it is growing stronger across party lines. Republicans might want to listen to this. A survey conducted for the League of Conservation Voters found that more than half of young Republican voters, 53 percent of Republicans under the age of 35--53 percent would describe a politician who denies climate change is happening as ``ignorant,'' ``out-of-touch,'' or ``crazy.'' Madam President, 53 percent of Republicans under 35 view that kind of climate denying as ``ignorant,'' ``out-of-touch,'' or ``crazy.'' Even though a majority of young Republicans understands that denying climate change is out of touch with reality, Republicans in Congress refuse to get serious. Why? Another national survey, this one by the Pew Research Center, found that 61 percent of non-tea-party Republicans actually agree there is solid evidence the Earth is warming, with a plurality saying it is mostly because of humans. But the tea partiers are different. Seventy percent of tea partiers, contrarily, say there is [[Page S8904]] ``no solid evidence'' the Earth is warming and 41 percent of tea partiers assert that warming is ``just not happening.'' Not that we don't have enough information yet, but it is ``just not happening.'' Regardless of what you think is the cause, there are legion independent measurements that the Earth is warming. This is not a theory. We measure that the temperature of the atmosphere and oceans is rising. We measure that snow, ice caps, and glaciers are melting. We measure that seas are rising. We measure that the very seasons are shifting.

    It is one thing to be the party that is against science. The tea partiers would make it the party against measurement. Just as the tea partiers led the Republicans off the government shutdown cliff, just as the tea partiers tried to defeat the budget deal most Republicans supported, so the tea party wants to lead the Republican Party off the climate cliff.

    Outside these walls it is different. Responsible Republican voices more and more acknowledge the threat of climate change and call for responsible solutions. Many want to correct the market failure that aids and abets the polluters' irresponsible practices.

    My colleagues, Representative Henry Waxman, Representative Earl Blumenauer, Senator Brian Schatz, and I have put forward just such a market-based proposal, a revenue-neutral fee on carbon emissions, the revenues of which would be returned back to the American people. Here, within Congress, where the polluters' money flows so abundantly, no Republican colleague has come forward to join us. But outside of Congress here are some of the responsible voices in the Republican Party: Former South Carolina Representative Bob Inglis has long urged his party to get serious on climate change. In an article in the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum this year, Mr. Inglis invoked the tenets of conservative economics. He wrote: If you're a conservative, it is time to step forward and engage in the climate and energy debate because we have the answer--free enterprise. . . . Conservatives understand that we must set the correct incentives and this should include internalizing pollution and other environmental costs in our market system. We tax income but we don't tax emissions. It makes sense to conservatives to take the tax off something you want more of, income, and shift the tax to something you want less of, emissions.

    That was Bob Inglis and that is exactly how you use his words ``internalize pollution and other environmental costs in our market system.'' You do it with a carbon fee.

    Sherwood Boehlert and Wayne Gilchrest, former Republican Representatives from New York and Virginia, in a joint February 2012 op ed with Representative Waxman and Senator Markey, made the fiscal case for a carbon fee. Here is what they said: The debate over how to reduce our nation's debt has been presented as a dilemma between cutting spending on programs Americans cherish or raising taxes on American job creators. But there is a better way: We could slash our debt by making power plants and oil refineries pay for the carbon emissions that endanger our health and environment. This policy would strengthen our economy, lessen our dependence on foreign oil, keep our skies clean--and raise a lot of revenue. The best approach [they continue] would be to use a market mechanism such as the sale of carbon allowances or a fee on carbon pollution to lower emissions and increase revenue.

    For one former Republican Member of this body, the threat of climate change has serious professional implications. As Secretary of Defense, it is Chuck Hagel's job to account for all hazards to our national security and our interests in the world. He gave this clear-eyed assessment at the Halifax International Security Forum just last month: Climate change does not directly cause conflict, but it can significantly add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. Food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, more severe natural disasters--all place additional burdens on economies, societies, and institutions around the world. . . . The effects of climate change and new energy resources are far-reaching and unpredictable . . . demanding our attention and strategic thinking.

    Top advisers to former Republican Presidents have joined this chorus of Republicans speaking out on climate and urging a carbon fee. Republican Presidents listened to these men and women. Who knows, maybe Republican Members of Congress will listen to them also.

    William D. Ruckelshaus, Lee M. Thomas, William K. Reilly, and Christine Todd Whitman, all headed the Environmental Protection Agency during Republican administrations. They spoke with one voice in an August New York Times op-ed. They wrote: As administrators of the EPA under Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush, we held fast to common-sense conservative principles--protecting the health of the American people, working with the best technology available, and trusting in the innovation of American business and in the market to find the best solutions for the least cost.

    These former Republican officials recognize both the wisdom of properly pricing carbon and, as well, the obstinate opposition that stands in the way of progress in Congress. They continued in their article: A market-based approach, like a carbon tax, would be the best path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but that is unachievable in the current political gridlock in Washington. But we must continue efforts to reduce the climate-altering pollutants that threaten our planet. The only uncertainty about our warming world is how bad the changes will get and how soon. What is most clear is that there is no time to waste.

    They could even have said that it is time to wake up.

    George Schultz, another prominent Republican, served as Secretary of both Labor and Treasury under President Nixon and Secretary of State under President Reagan. He, too, is calling for an end to the polluters' free ride.

    In an April op-ed with Nobel economist Gary Becker that appeared in RealClearPolitics, George Schultz appealed to our American sense of fairness writing: Americans like to compete on a level playing field. All the players should have an equal opportunity to win based on their competitive merits, not on some artificial imbalance that gives someone or some group a special advantage. We think this idea should be applied to energy producers. They all should bear the full costs of the use of the energy they provide.

    Let me repeat that: They all should bear the full costs of the use of the energy they provide . . . Clearly, a revenue-neutral carbon tax would benefit all Americans by eliminating the need for costly energy subsidies while promoting a level playing field for energy producers.

    Veterans of a much more recent Republican administration are likewise acknowledging the appeal of a carbon fee proposal.

    David Frum, speechwriter to George W. Bush, wrote in a December 2012 cnn.com op-ed that a carbon fee could help address a number of pressing national issues. Here is what he wrote: Take three worrying long-term challenges: climate change, the weak economic recovery, and America's chronic budget deficits. Combine them into one. And suddenly three tough problems become one attractive solution. Tax carbon. . . . The revenues from a carbon tax could be used to reduce the deficit while also extending new forms of payroll tax relief to middle-class families, thus supporting middle-class family incomes.

    Gregory Mankiw, economic adviser to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, specifically highlighted our carbon fee proposal in an August op-ed in the New York Times. Our bill, he wrote, ``is more effective and less invasive than the regulatory approach that the federal government has traditionally pursued.'' Speaking of us, he said: If the Democratic sponsors conceded to using the new revenue to reduce personal and corporate income tax rates, a bipartisan compromise is possible to imagine. Among economists, the issue is largely a no-brainier.

    I say to Mr. Mankiw, as one of the Democratic sponsors, we are very interested in a bipartisan compromise. We just need a Republican to come to the negotiating table and we can begin. That is what the American people want, what voters want, and it is what responsible State and local leaders want as well.

    Take, for example, Jim Brainard, a five-term Republican mayor from Carmel, IN. In an Indianapolis Star op-ed this month, Mayor Brainard implored Democrats and Republicans alike to face up to the reality of climate change. Here is what Mayor Brainard said: [T]his issue isn't just about saving polar bears. It's about saving our cities. . . . No matter your politics, there is overwhelming evidence of climate change and we as a nation have a moral obligation to address these issues.

    [[Page S8905]] For himself, he says he plans ``to urge the federal government to take a stronger leadership role in helping our cities prepare for what is certainly coming our way.'' There are a lot of Republicans out there who are awake to the threat of climate change and to the win-win-benefits of pricing carbon and using the revenues to invest in tax reductions and adaptation and other ways to protect ourselves and advance our economy.

    Unfortunately, in Congress, the dark, heavy hand of the polluters is helping the tea party drive the Republican party off the cliff. One day the Republican Party will pay a heavy price for this, and that day may be soon. They need to make the change.

    It is the responsibility of Congress to heed the warnings of environmental calamity, to stamp out market distortions that favor polluters, and to steer this country on a prudent, reasonable path toward a proud future that is both sustainable and equitable. It is time for Congress to wake up.

    I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mr. Donnelly). The Senator from Ohio.


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