Interview

How Big Money in Politics Blocked U.S. Action on Climate Change

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse believes the 2010 Supreme Court decision unleashing corporate money into politics derailed any chance of U.S. climate legislation. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, he talks about how fossil-fuel interests have intimidated Republicans from tackling the issue.

In his new book, “Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, rails against the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which opened up a floodgate of corporate political contributions, much of it in the form of “dark money” whose origins do not have to be disclosed. 

Sheldon Whitehouse

Sheldon Whitehouse

Whitehouse, calling the ruling “a mischief-riddled legal monstrosity,” argues that the resulting meteoric rise in corporate political spending has had a profoundly disabling effect on the democratic process, including when it comes to climate change legislation.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Whitehouse contrasts Republican stances on climate change pre- and post-Citizens United. Before the 2010 ruling, “There was a constant steady heartbeat of Republican climate change activity in the Senate,” says Whitehouse. Then, after the ruling, “No piece of carbon dioxide regulation legislation has managed to get a single Republican co-sponsor in the Senate.” The reason? Moderate Republicans fear political retribution from the powerful Koch brothers and their allies in the fossil fuel industry.

Whitehouse, who sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, maintains that corporate leaders who believe in climate science urgently need to support like-minded Republicans. “One of the reasons [Republicans] exist in this state of fear of the fossil fuel industry artillery is that the corporate leaders who are good on climate have not set up any counter-batteries of their own to provide a little bit of cover … If you’re a Republican senator, you look at fossil fuel-funded front groups that are threatening your elimination as a political figure on the one side, and you look at the other side, and everybody is just sort of standing around looking at the ceiling tiles. Nobody is saying to you, `Look, you got to do the right thing here. I know those guys are going to come after you, but we will have your back.’”

‘From that moment forward, no piece of carbon dioxide regulation legislation has managed to get a single Republican co-sponsor.’

Yale Environment 360: In your book, you write that talking to Republican senators about climate change is like talking with prisoners about escape. So if Republicans are in prison, who is the warden and who gave the warden the power?

Sheldon Whitehouse: The warden is the Koch Brothers’ political apparatus, which at this point is, in many respects, actually bigger and more formidable than that of the Republican Party. And what gave them their power is the five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court who made the terrifically misguided Citizens United decision and allowed the biggest special interests to spend unlimited amounts of money in politics.

e360: What do the Koch Brothers want?

Whitehouse: They want to be able to pollute without having to pay the externality costs, as an economist would say, of their pollution. They would love to be able to compete against other energy sources and have the public pay for the responsibility of the poisoning of our atmosphere and oceans and all the climate consequences that they cause, and not have that baked in the price of their product, which is lousy economics, but really, really good for their finances.

e360: In your book, you compare some Republican stances and legislative activity on climate change before the Citizens United decision and after that decision. Describe that contrast a bit.

Whitehouse: I got elected in 2007, and for all of that year and 2008 and 2009, there was a constant steady heartbeat of Republican climate change activity in the Senate. We didn’t actually get a bill done, but there were numerous versions of legislation floating around. Hearings were held. A lot of bipartisan work was going on, and it is more or less exactly what you would expect the Senate to be doing on a big and difficult issue — working in a bipartisan way to try to find a solution. Then comes January 2010 and the Citizens United decision, which the fossil fuel industry asked for and expected and took instant advantage of. And from that moment forward, no piece of carbon dioxide regulation legislation has managed to get a single Republican co-sponsor in the Senate.

‘There stand the sentinels of the fossil fuel industry threatening them with political extermination if they dare to budge.’

e360: You’ve had a number of Republican colleagues tell you behind closed doors some interesting and quite honest things regarding their support of climate change legislation and climate science. Talk about that.

Whitehouse: Well, if you look at what the three former Republican Treasury secretaries recently said in their report recommending that Republicans get behind putting a price on carbon emissions, one interesting piece of that report was them saying that this was an issue that the Republican Party really needed to get right on because otherwise they risked staining the brand of their party and losing an entire generation of young voters who know that climate denial is nonsense and they aren’t going to put up with it. It’s not just the three Treasury secretaries who feel that way. There are plenty of Republican senators who are just as politically attuned and just as bright as those secretaries. So a lot of them are feeling the same pinch. They’re hearing from their home state universities that are teaching climate change. They’re hearing from fishermen who are concerned about fisheries moving about, farmers who are suffering extraordinary drought and flooding, and in their pine forests out West, they’re seeing the pine beetle munching its way through thousands of square miles of forest.

There’s this building-up of information pouring in and pressure on them and an understanding that they’re really on the wrong side of the issue. There’s no safe passage for them to do anything about it because there stand the sentinels of the fossil fuel industry threatening them with political extermination if they dare to budge, and pointing at [former U.S.] Representative Bob Inglis as the example of a really conservative politician who they just plain took out for the sin of taking an interest in climate legislation. 

e360: Yes, Bob Inglis is the poster child in that regard. He was “primaried” in South Carolina and lost to a Tea Party candidate in a runoff. 

Whitehouse: I think that Bob is being really brave and is energized on the climate change issue, and he is trying to steer his party towards climate solutions that comport with conservative economic principles, and there are such solutions. 

e360: Do you think some Republicans are embarrassed by this science-denial stance that they feel they have to take?

Whitehouse: Absolutely, particularly people I know who’ve been long-time New England Republicans and can remember environmental heroes like Rhode Island’s Republican Senator John Chafee and all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt. The idea that this is a party that has to be sold out to polluting special interests runs really against a lot of the traditional Republican independent, conservation-oriented grain. So yeah, there’s a lot of embarrassment about where the party is — even among Republican senators there’s a lot of embarrassment. They’d love to find a way to get into a place where we could be doing a climate bill. But at this point, the Citizens United decision has given the fossil fuel industry and the Kochs, who are part of the fossil fuel industry, such incredible political artillery that they’re waiting until it’s not a suicide mission.

e360: Recently, 17 Republican members of the House signed a resolution vowing to work constructively to find  “economically viable ways to combat climate change,” and they cited the conservative principle “to protect, conserve, and be good stewards of our environment.“ Is this a hopeful sign to you, and do you think we’ll see any of those 17 return to office after the 2018 election?

Whitehouse: I think we probably will. I think there’s an understanding with Speaker [Paul] Ryan and with the big Republican funders that if you’re Representative [Carlos] Curbelo and you represent the Florida Keys, and they’re starting to lose their fresh water, and everybody knows that the reefs are dying, and they’re looking at Army Corps of Engineers flood maps that show that the Keys get overwhelmed by the sea, it’s pretty hard to expect him to continue with climate denial. And I suspect that a détente has been reached where as long as they promise that all they will do is meaningless resolutions, then everybody else will sort of stand back and let them sign this comfortable half-resolution. I don’t think it’s very impressive when you look at the number of actual solutions that are out there that the best that they can do is say, “We think we should be looking for a solution,” and they won’t actually get behind any actual solution.

‘We might have to redraw all those maps [of Rhode Island] into an archipelago of new islands carved out by rising seas.’

e360: You close your book by imploring readers to “wake up and get off the couch.” What does that look like on the ground in terms of opposing what you see are these negative consequences of Citizens United on climate change solutions?

Whitehouse: Well, it looks like the hundreds of thousands of people at the climate march in Washington. It looks like scientists beginning to stand up against all the science denial and having their own science march. It looks like the explosion of voter interest in activity specifically on this issue that has occurred since President Trump was elected and started leading this country down a really disgraceful climate path. And I hope that it actually ultimately looks like some of America’s big, good corporations, the Cokes and the Pepsis and the Walmart’s and the Apples and the Googles and Unilevers and so forth doing something about climate change as part of their lobbying priorities in Congress. 

At the moment, one of the problems with these Republicans and one of the reasons that they exist in this state of fear of the fossil fuel industry artillery is that the corporate leaders who are good on climate have not set up any counter-batteries of their own to provide a little bit of cover, a little bit of counter pressure. So if you’re a Republican senator, you look at fossil fuel-funded front groups that are threatening your elimination as a political figure on the one side, and you look over at the other side, and everybody is just sort of standing around looking at the ceiling tiles. Nobody is saying to you, “Look, you got to do the right thing here. I know those guys are going to come after you, but we will have your back.”

e360: You represent the state of Rhode Island. If climate change progresses unabated, what does your state look like in the coming decades?

Whitehouse: It looks like an archipelago. The western end of Newport becomes an island as the flooding rises. The towns of Warren and Bristol break off and become islands with new islands of their own. Warwick Neck, which is a big part of the city of Warwick, becomes an island. We probably lose a good deal, if not all, of our coastal ponds since the barrier beaches either get overwhelmed or run back against the backside of the coastal pond. And we have to do something really big to protect Providence. We need basically a dike across the valley there to keep downtown Providence from being overwhelmed. So it’s going to be a really big deal in a state whose map has looked more or less the same for thousands and thousands of years. In the next 80 years we might have to redraw all those maps into an archipelago of new islands carved out by rising seas. 

But to close on a more enthusiastic note, I really do think that public pressure and scientific pressure and the emerging facts on this issue, at some point, are going to break the back of the fossil fuel political apparatus, and that cannot come soon enough.