One senator’s lonely war against climate change

November 15, 2013

Every week, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse heads to the floor of the Senate, sets up an easel and some poster board and delivers a speech. He works hard on these speeches. They’re deeply researched and beautifully crafted. He delivers them with passion and fervor -- to a mostly empty room. His colleagues figure they have better things to do than listen.

It's getting hot in here... (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)
It's getting hot in here... (Reuters /Carlos Barria)

But 100 years from now, when our grandchildren look back and try to understand what we were doing while the world burned, these speeches may well be some of the most famed rhetoric of the age.

The speeches are on climate change. They range in tone from morally outraged to deeply wonky. One considered how best to structure a carbon fee. “We should start by setting aside about $140 billion -- or 12 percent of the total -- to help lower-income households,” Whitehouse said.

Another concerned Hurricane Sandy. “We do know that a warming planet increases both the severity and the likelihood of these storms; that it, to use one analogy, loads the dice for extreme weather,” Whitehouse said.

One focused on how climate change hurts our public works. “We can no longer use historical climate patterns to plan our infrastructure projects,” he warned.

My personal favorite featured Whitehouse’s response to a Senate colleague who had averred, “God won’t let us ruin our planet.” Whitehouse was unsparing: “That is seeking magical deliverance from our troubles,” he said, “not divine guidance through our troubles.”

On Wednesday, the Rhode Island Democrat delivered the 50th of these speeches. It came at a depressing time for climate activists. A new report from the United Nations Environment Program shows the world is on track to blow past the 2 degrees Celsius increase in global temperature that climatologists have set as a sustainable limit on warming, and rush right up to 4 degrees.

The difference may not seem like much. Humans naturally tend to comprehend temperature in terms of personal experience rather than global climate models. But while 4 degrees might be the difference between shorts weather and sweater weather for an individual, on a planetary scale it’s roughly the difference between the globe’s current climate and the Ice Age.

A recent World Bank report envisioned a future shaped by 4 degrees of warming. The results were -- no pun intended -- chilling.

“Recent extreme heat waves such as in Russia in 2010 are likely to become the new normal summer,” the authors wrote. Ocean acidification could increase by 150 percent, wiping out coral reefs and the ecosystems that depend on them. Sea levels would rise by 0.5 meter (1.6 feet) to 1 meter, leading to floods of biblical proportions. Tsunamis and hurricanes -- such as the one that killed at least 4,460 people in the Philippines last weekend - - will become more powerful and lethal. Climate change will become the central threat to biodiversity: Unable to mobilize technology, or pick up and move to new climes, animals and plants will succumb to a warmer world.

It’s not even clear that humans will be able to mobilize enough technology to adapt to that much warming. “Given that uncertainty remains about the full nature and scale of impacts, there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4 degrees C world is possible,” the authors warned.

Holding warming below 2 degrees is still possible. It’s just not likely. To achieve it, global carbon emissions would need to fall about 14 percent by 2020. That’s technically achievable, but in a world where few countries seem committed to painful emissions cuts, and where China, India and other developing nations continue to power growth with fossil fuels, something truly disruptive would be required to change the warming trend significantly.

Still, Whitehouse remains optimistic. “There is a path before us,” he said in a phone interview. “The first part has already been done, and that is the president’s climate action plan for new and existing power plants. When faced with the cost of compliance I think those polluters might well decide that an economywide carbon fee makes more sense. The second is people are starting to fight over this issue in elections in a very big way. I think you’ll see deniers pay a heavier electoral price.”

To Whitehouse, this isn’t just an isolated policy issue. It’s a test of American democracy -- one that might reverberate long into the future. ’’What if the world takes notice of what is already happening all around them, and takes notice of how we blew it at dealing with carbon pollution, and, as a result, turns away from our great American experiment, because of this conspicuous and consequential failure of American democratic governance and leadership?’’ he asked in a speech in July.

In those same remarks, Whitehouse recalled “an iconic recruiting poster for World War I” that featured a man sitting in an armchair surrounded by his children. “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” The man’s expression makes the answer clear: Not enough.

Whitehouse went on to imagine the same question being posed to him and his colleagues. “What if we have to be asked by our children and grandchildren when they are studying this disgraceful episode in their history classes: ‘Mommy, what did you do in the Great Climate Fraud; Grandpa, what did you do in the Great Climate Fraud?’”

With little hope of such climate legislation moving anytime soon, and few lawmakers paying attention to his weekly floor speeches, I asked Whitehouse whether his addresses were really aimed at his own descendants -- at leaving a record of how he fought against denialists and cowards who refused to protect the one and only planet we have.

“I very much want my grandchildren to know that I fought the good fight,” he replied. “But much more than that, I want to turn this around.”

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Brad Plumer · November 15, 2013