A few weeks ago, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) literally dropped the mic, after a nearly eight-year streak of weekly speeches in which he called for action on climate change. Whitehouse explained that with a new administration in the White House, the conditions were in place for what he called a “new dawn… there’s no need for my little candle against the darkness.” It marked the 279th and last time that Whitehouse would carry a “Time to Wake Up” poster to the Senate floor but not the end of his efforts to deal with climate change; his home state is the site of the first offshore windfarm in all of North America—a milestone in renewable energy that has been closely followed not only by environmentalists but by Wall Street analysts.
And his activism does not stop there: Whitehouse has told the press that he believes that charges should be filed against the big oil companies under the RICO statute—the anti-racketeering act that was initially aimed at mobsters.
In this interview with the Bulletin‘s Dan Drollette Jr—conducted three days after the second of Trump’s impeachment hearings in the Senate—Whitehouse describes his reading of the prospects for dealing with climate change in the Senate and elsewhere.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.)
Dan Drollette: The New York Times and the Washington Post have been running front-page stories that emphasize how Biden’s presidential town hall is aimed at kicking off a new phase of his presidency, moving past impeachment, and toward selling his coronavirus relief plan. And by extension, building back better—that is, using more climate-friendly technology, and being more resilient. Is that your sense of things too?
Sen. Whitehouse: Yeah, generally. I don’t think it’s crystal clear yet. I do know that the immediate focus is the COVID bill and trying to make sure that that helps us turn the corner from the pandemic, both medically and economically. And then I think fairly shortly after that, we’re going to roll into build back better. And because everybody’s still working on the COVID measure, and we haven’t settled that yet, it’s a little premature to decide what exactly is going to be in build back better. But it’s going to be a lot of infrastructure and with it, a lot of green infrastructure. And with that, I hope a lot of climate and environmental provisions.
I don’t think that should be the end of our climate and environmental effort. But I think it’ll be a big step forward, and then we have a lot more to do this Congress after that.
Drollette: The impression I get is that all the so-called “easy” things have already been done by the Biden administration, such as rejoining the Paris Agreement, undoing some last-minute executive orders from Trump, and having Biden issue his own executive orders. What do you think should be next?
Whitehouse: Right now, I think they have passed the early tests of personnel and executive orders with flying colors. That opens up the regulatory arena, which you can’t do immediately because of the Administrative Procedures Act, but which you can do as an executive branch. And then as I said, there’s going to be a considerable legislative effort around build back better. If we don’t get the job done fully and build back better, then another legislative effort after that focused on climate.
Drollette: So you’re fairly positive that things can get done in the House and the Senate, even with those razor-thin majorities?
Whitehouse: Yes, I think so. Bear in mind that we have reconciliation available to us—the budget routine that allows us to pass measures in the Senate with a simple majority. And while every climate and environmental measure won’t pass scrutiny under what is eligible for reconciliation treatment, a lot will—and we have three separate reconciliation opportunities in this Congress. So we have a lot of tools to work with. I would hope that Republicans would want to help and to get some of the big stuff done. But if they don’t, and if we have to go it alone, then we can.
Drollette: Do you think there’s public support for that—that we’ve passed some kind of a tipping point when it comes to acceptance, at least, of the evidence for climate change? Do you think the Republican Party is a bit more agreeable than it has been? I noticing that even the US Chamber of Commerce is now talking about tougher action to combat climate change.
Whitehouse: To a degree.
But what powerful interests say and what they do can be different things. And in Congress, people survive because they become expert at what powerful interests are doing. So, don’t get misled by what they are saying.
And the test as to whether all this talk is going to turn into actual political effort has not yet arrived.
I would say that the fossil fuel industry continues through front groups and intermediaries to behave pretty much just as wickedly as it always has. And the corporate sector that is not the fossil fuel industry is still as indifferent to climate action as it has always been. There are clear signs that both of those conditions could be changing, but that change has not yet happened. So my fingers are crossed, and I’m optimistic that the change will come, but I’ve got to be realistic about pointing out that it is not here yet. There remains literally zero political effort—in fact, net negative political effort—from non-fossil fuel corporate America as a group on climate right now.
Drollette: I see where a lot of progressively minded big pension funds and shareholder activists are saying that they can use their influence to get the boards of, say, Exxon or Shell, to listen when it comes to long-term threats. Do you think that really has possibilities? Or is that being oversold by the people who run pension funds to make themselves look good?
Whitehouse: I think both. I think it has a lot of potential, and I think it’s being oversold. Let me preface my point by saying that I don’t think that there’s a way to carbon safety and 1.5 degrees [Celsius of average worldwide global warming] without political action, particularly action in Congress. And I am not the only person saying that; I don’t know of any person who can demonstrate a path to 1.5 degrees that doesn’t require political action—particularly action in Congress. So against that backdrop, the efforts of investors to try to make adjustments in corporate behavior is helpful, but a long way from making the difference.
And a key part of the problem here has been that for a very long time, the political stance of America’s corporate elite regarding climate has not been measured, and they have not been held accountable. It’s only because people have started to score political activity and influence—beginning to map political activity—that this has been on the radar at all.
And to top it off, I think if most CEOs were to commission a political audit of their influence operation, they would find that their own influence operation was hostile to significant climate legislation, even if their company’s official policy was to be sustainable and to be acknowledging of the climate crisis.
Drollette: Speaking of political action, you are quite well-known for speaking often on the Senate floor about the need for action on climate change, while carrying a “Time to Wake Up” poster. Is it true that you’ve delivered more speeches on climate change than any other senator?
Whitehouse: Yes, that’s indisputably true. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve given more speeches on climate change than every other senator combined, not just any other one senator.
Drollette: It must have been an uphill battle.
Whitehouse: Well, it was long and lonely for a while, particularly during the years of the Obama administration when you couldn’t get them to put the words “climate” and “change” in the same paragraph.
We missed a lot of opportunities; let’s put it that way.
Drollette: But I saw an article in the Boston Globe that quoted you as saying that you’re encouraged by the Biden administration’s push to end public subsidies for fossil fuel industries, and their push to expand renewables—like offshore wind. So you’re feeling pretty positive about this administration so far?
Whitehouse: I am. I think all the early signals have been as strong as one could hope for—and they’re just getting started. So there’s every reason for optimism. And that’s why I stopped giving the speeches because I think there’s no need for it any longer. This administration gets it. Now it’s time to sit down and start drafting bills, and putting together regulatory programs, and helping explain what the stakes are to the American people.
Drollette: And your home state, Rhode Island, really seems to have been at the forefront in many ways when it came to offshore wind energy, as I found in doing a Bulletin article on Block Island and its wind farm. I was really impressed by what was going on there. But I had the impression that the Trump administration was doing all it could to gum up the works with additional last-minute requirements. There was always another review or another study that they were calling for.
Whitehouse: Yeah, I came to the same conclusion. I was proud that Rhode Island got the first iron in the water, and got the first electrons on the electrical grid, and proved that offshore wind was a viable industry in the United States. I was really proud of that. And we’ve been watching very carefully the development of the federal leases. And I came ultimately to the conclusion that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management [the regulatory agency handling offshore wind power] was deliberately dragging its feet in order to give the natural gas industry more winters of selling natural gas in New England markets without competition from offshore wind.
Drollette: I saw a talk you gave to the Society of Environmental Journalists a few weeks ago, where you said that the wind farm companies that were succeeding seemed to be the ones that were putting effort into public outreach and getting all the stakeholders on board.
Whitehouse: Well, that was the key to the success of Rhode Island’s experimental windfarm with its five windmills, and [Massachusetts-based] Vineyard Wind’s failure to do so was a key factor in the problems that they encountered as they tried to move forward to commercial scale, with hundreds of windmills. They did not have early conversations with other users of the public oceans. And they did not adapt well to the needs of other users until they were in real trouble. And by then they’d lost an enormous amount of goodwill and regulatory momentum. So I think they were a case study in how not to do it.
Drollette: In researching those windmills of Block Island, Rhode Island, I was impressed at how overwhelmingly positive people were about offshore wind. I also got the impression that everyone felt that if nothing else, their concerns had been listened to, regardless of whether they were a shop owner or a fisherman or whatever.
Whitehouse: The day-trip boats love them because they can take people out fishing around the bases of the windmills, which act as sort of reefs and attract fish. And everybody else, I think, is proud of them—and enjoying the lower utility bills and the diminished air pollution.
Drollette: And I think they’re also enjoying reliable electricity, which was a surprise, because one of the big complaints against wind power has been that wind is intermittent. But the Islanders were saying that the wind is a lot more reliable than what they had to deal with previously, when they had to ship barrels of diesel fuel by boat from the mainland across 10 miles of open ocean to supply the electrical generator for the island.
Whitehouse: That wind blows out there, it really rocks along. And the islanders are now wired to the grid for backup if they need it. And those old Block Island Power Company generators used to fail or have to be taken down for maintenance from time to time. So there is not a reliability issue out there.
And people think they’re pretty. They love to see them work.
Drollette: So how do you feel about the overall prospects for scaling up to the really big, full-scale wind farms that have hundreds and hundreds of windmills instead of five windmills like Block Island? I think Biden said he wants to double offshore wind usage by 2030. Do you think that’s attainable?
Whitehouse: Oh yes. There are hundreds of billions of dollars of wind projects out there being proposed. And I think it is an enormous new opportunity, both for clean energy and for industrial jobs. And I think it’s just very important that the industry learn the lesson of Vineyard Wind. And recognize that there are a lot of other people who use those same oceans, and they need to adjust their plans and their behavior accordingly. There will still be lots of money to be made, and lots of electrons to be generated, at a good rate. And I think that’s the most important lesson.
Drollette: One last thing I was hoping to ask you. Back in 2015, you wrote an Op-ed for the Washington Post that called for filing charges against big oil under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. And I think you’ve brought it up other times. Is that something you’ve ever seriously considered, charging them with corruption under US law?
Whitehouse: I think a lot of the behavior by the industry, both around its political influence and around its climate denial operation, was indeed corrupt.
And I know that the Department of Justice did not give an honest look as to whether the tobacco model of a civil—and let me emphasize that again, civil—RICO lawsuit should be pursued against the misconduct of the fossil fuel industry. And to this day, I am both sorry and upset that the Department of Justice would not give that an honest look.
Drollette: From what I’ve heard from the climate scientists, it sounds like the fossil fuel industry just took a note from the playbook of the tobacco industry and said: “Okay, here’s the formula for denialism; let’s follow this.”
Whitehouse: Yes, but it was actually more than just the formula. It was some of the same organizations that were left behind by the tobacco industry. And it was some of the scientists that were left behind by the tobacco industry.
And the telling thing is that the tobacco industry had to knock off its lying, and get away from those groups, and stop paying those scientists, in large part because of that litigation by the Department of Justice. There was overlap in people, in organizations, and playbook that just segued right from the tobacco team into the fossil fuel climate-denial team. And the Department of Justice had right in front of it, its victory—a smashing victory—in the tobacco case. And they refused to take an honest look at the fossil fuel industries’ misbehavior.
Drollette: Didn’t you write a book about how the fossil fuel industry has this undue influence?
Sheldon: Yes, Captured: the Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy. Yep. I’ve been watching this behavior for a long time, and it’s very unsettling—and by the way, that was under the Obama Department of Justice. It was pretty obvious that the Trump Department of Justice would hop through whatever hoops the fossil fuel industry told it to, but for the Obama Department of Justice to not give it an honest look was very disappointing.
Drollette: And you’re saying that as a former federal prosecutor who took on organized crime in Rhode Island, right?
Sheldon: Yes, and attorney general for the state of Rhode Island.
Drollette: One last question I wanted to squeeze in, if I may. I saw an article in the Boston Globe headlined “Senator Whitehouse delivers his 279th and final ‘time to wake up’ climate change speech.” And they said you ended it with a dropping of the microphone. What were your closing words in that final speech?
Whitehouse: I said “There’s no more need for a candle against the darkness when dawn has broken.” And I’m trusting that with the Biden administration, dawn has broken.
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