U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, one of Congress' few outspoken environmental advocates, is making a new argument for legislative action on climate change: Lawmakers who oppose future measures to reverse global warming, Whitehouse argues, will pay a price — in votes.
Whitehouse, who last Thursday announced the formation of a bicameral task force to address the issue, compared climate change to social issues like gay rights and immigration reform that Democrats claim are moving to the center.
"I'm hoping we can convince Republicans that this is a big generational issue and, like being on the wrong side of immigration and gay rights, there will be a huge political price to pay in the future for being on the wrong side of climate change," said Whitehouse, the Democratic junior Senator from Rhode Island, in an interview with BuzzFeed.
"There is absolutely no doubt that climate change is going to be a dominant political issue before long," Whitehouse added. "People who have been recalcitrant servants of the pollutants industry will end up being disgraced and swept out of office."
The question is, he said, "whether or not the timeline for that is soon enough that we can actually do something."
That Whitehouse believes climate change could be a winning electoral issue shows just how far the issue has come since 2006, when former Al Gore was global warming's lone crusader and Davis Guggenheim's blockbuster documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, was just barely dragging climate change onto the national stage.
But the argument could also be wishful thinking on Whitehouse's part. Polling by the Pew Research Center on global warming indicates that last year only 42% of Americans say that "the rise in the earth's temperature has mostly been caused by human activity"; in 2006, that figure stood at 47% of Americans.
More recent polling by CNN — conducted after President Obama's Inaugural address, in he said ignoring climate change woud "betray our children and future generations" — casts an even more discouraging picture for climate activists. In the poll, 49% of Americans agreed with Obama that global warming was caused by human activity — a figure down seven points since 2007.
Whitehouse said his task force, co-chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, would in part be dedicated to pushing those numbers back up through public awareness. The group will also focus on building a membership across both the House and Senate, and will ultimately try to put together legislation, although Whitehouse says the group is "still working on what the legislation will be."
Taking up another cap and trade bill to limit carbon emissions — similar to the one in 2009 that failed in the Senate — would be near impossible, suggested Whitehouse, because "Republicans have spent so much time opposing it," he said. "It would be one of the harder ones."
But Whitehouse did not rule out a carbon tax as one piece of legislation the task force would consider. The senator said he would support "any way that we can find to put a tax on carbon, or a price on carbon, that is commensurate with the future costs of carbon pollution. It's basic Econ 101 to put the cost into the price of the product. That's not controversial, unless you apply it to this set of industries that just want to have it their way."
Whitehouse has been a staunch supporter of legislative action on climate change since he assumed office in 2007. He cares about the issue so much, he says, in part because he's from Rhode Island, a state that has "a multi-century relationship with the sea." For the past year, Whitehouse has spoken once a week on the floor of the Senate to address the need to pass new legislation and take on his colleagues who refuse to acknowledge climate change as a man-made phenomenon.
"There are two categories of colleagues on the Republican side," he said. "The people whose eyes glaze over on climate change, who don't want to hear about it and go into denial. And then there are the people who know better and are afraid that this is going to be the issue that could take them down in a Tea Party primary."
"The fear among rational Republicans is a very real problem for progress," said Whitehouse, adding that those members of Congress may make a shift on the issue if they believe it will cost them with constituents.
"If we can make that case," said Whitehouse, "then the door is open a little bit for bipartisan legislation."