Whitehouse sees silent GOP support for action on warming

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said today that a dozen Senate Republicans privately support action on climate change but are afraid to discuss it openly for fear of political reprisals.

Speaking at a forum sponsored by New York University Law School’s Institute for Policy Integrity, Whitehouse blamed the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission for silencing Republicans who back climate action.

Citizens United effectively struck down contribution limits for companies and individuals, means that wealthy fossil fuels industry donors can threaten Republicans with primary challenges if they don’t toe an anti-regulatory line.

“After Citizens United uncorked all that big, dark money and allowed it to cast its bullying shadow of intimidation over our democracy, Republicans have backed away from any real work on major climate legislation,” he said.

When the Supreme Court handed down its Citizens United decision, there was still some hope the Senate would follow the House in passing a carbon cap-and-trade bill. But within months, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had stopped working with then-Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on a Senate cap-and-trade measure, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had dropped the bill from the chamber’s immediate agenda. The effort died.

“There are probably a solid dozen Republicans in the Senate who understand very clearly that something has to be done on climate change,” he said, adding that the number could be as high as 20.

He declined to identify them, but he predicted that Republicans would emerge as the public demanded action.

“They have to be scareder of the voters than they are of the special interests that can spend the money or yank the money,” he said.

Polls showing more Americans including younger Republican voters believe in climate change are encouraging, he said. More farsighted Republican leaders will start to realize that climate skepticism will damage the party brand, according to Whitehouse.

Industry also plays a role, he said. Many non-fossil-fuels businesses already see some degree of benefit in efforts to address carbon emissions, he said, and that movement could strengthen if Congress puts forward a carbon tax where new revenues go to offset cuts in business taxes.

The model could also roll back EPA authorities, but Whitehouse said that would have to come with an assurance that the carbon tax would take effect and would yield the expected reductions.

“You’d want to be looking for mischief in parts per billion in that equation,” he said, adding that he would “be happy to yield the regulatory road for a strong, clear market signal.”

Another use for some of the revenue generated by a carbon price would be providing “adjustments” for communities that lean heavily on fossil fuels.

“Some states are just going to be hurt more than others,” he said, adding that climate advocates would have to be “sensitive” to that.

The White House said recently that it has created a new position within its Domestic Policy Council that is “working to align and leverage federal resources to target assistance to workers and communities most impacted by long-term economic trends in the energy sector.”

Whitehouse joined with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in floating draft legislation in March that would price carbon emissions, asking for feedback from colleagues and other stakeholders. He has predicted that the political climate will change enough after this year’s midterm election to allow a carbon-price measure to move forward.