A Rhode Island senator speaks out often about the dangers of climate change

Living on Earth
Seal leve rise RI bay

Sea levels along the coast of Rhode Island have risen 10 inches since a destructive hurricane in 1938. Areas around Narragansett Bay are beginning to see the effects.

Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has risen 135 times on the Senate floor to urge his colleagues to act on climate change. They may not be listening, but that won’t stop him from speaking, he says.

“I'm from the Ocean State,” he explains. “Ninety-plus percent of the heat captured from greenhouse gases has been taken up by the oceans. So they're warming and you [can] measure that with thermometers. And unless somebody's going to repeal the law of thermal expansion, when oceans warm they get bigger, and when they get bigger they rise against our shores.”

Off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island, scientists have measured 10 inches of sea level rise since a devastating hurricane in 1938, Whitehouse points out. And while the oceans are rising and taking up heat, they're also taking up carbon dioxide.

“Unless you're going to repeal the laws of chemistry, this causes them to turn more acidic,” he explains. “We now have oceans that are acidifying at the fastest rate in 50 million years — 50 million years is a long long time to go back for your last example of when oceans suffered this sudden and devastating a change. So if you're from the Ocean State, that ought to be enough to get your attention, setting aside what is happening on the land.”

Whitehouse does not mince words about where to pin the blame for Congressional inaction and the pervasiveness of climate change denial among elected officials.

“The fossil fuel industry has an enormous subsidy to defend and they're defending it through a very, very powerful climate denial apparatus,” he says. “[And] the Citizens United decision put unprecedented political artillery into their hands that they have used to murderous effect.”

Whitehouse says Exxon-Mobil, the Koch brothers and the "lingering group from the tobacco denial operation" are the prime movers behind the climate denial movement. 

“They’ve gotten more sophisticated and multifaceted since then. It almost seems quaint to think that Phillip Morris tried to hide behind the American Tobacco Institute," he says. "It’s a very powerful operation and Exxon-Mobil has been at the heart of it. ... The CEO of Exxon may say nice things at a Davos cocktail party about climate change being real and Exxon being interested in a carbon price, but down at the American Petroleum Institute, where they lobby, they're telling people, ‘Don't believe that. You cross us and you're toast.’”

Reporting has already shown that Exxon’s own scientists were warning the company about global warming as early as the 1970s. Yet, Exxon bankrolled the climate change denial movement and still supports it now, Whitehouse says. In addition, the company’s financial reporting continues to claim trillions of dollars of fossil fuel in the ground as an asset. These valuations raise issues about whether the company is being honest with their shareholders, Whitehouse says.

A former prosecutor and state attorney general, Whitehouse says there is a strong case for charging Exxon-Mobil with fraud over its actions.

“There's a precedent for it, and a very good one, which is the civil lawsuit that the Department of Justice brought against the tobacco industry for fraud about the dangers of that product,” he says.

That case confirmed the proposition that corporate fraud is not protected by free speech or the First Amendment, he explains. “Fraud is fraud and free speech is free speech. There is a line between the two and, by and large, prosecutors and juries can tell them apart. ... If fraud is there, there should be consequences. And there's plenty of smoke around what the climate denial operation did to suggest that an investigation to see whether there's fire is justified.”

As for his 135 speeches on the Senate floor, Whitehouse says in the absence of Congressional action, the least he can do is “be a sentry out there every single week, reassuring people that there's at least one voice that gets it: This is real. We need to do something about it. It’s important. Let’s go.”

“We grew up looking at the group that won the Second World War as the Greatest Generation,” he continues. “Our grandchildren will look back at us as a particularly loathsome and shallow generation that succumbed to the greed of a very small group of people because they were politically powerful. That would be a very unfortunate legacy.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

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