WASHINGTON — Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, has given 287 speeches on the Senate floor raising alarms about climate change, often delivered mainly to the C-SPAN cameras in a nearly empty chamber.
But now Mr. Whitehouse has a much bigger megaphone for his zeal for saving the planet, and one with real power: earlier this year, Mr. Whitehouse became chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, which shapes federal spending and revenue. He is using his new authority to argue that a warming planet poses fiscal dangers, injecting climate change into the partisan fight over federal spending, just as economists warned that the nation is nearing a catastrophic default on its debt.
At his first committee hearing as chairman on Feb. 15, he focused on the risks of climate change to the federal budget and the global economy. He gave each of his colleagues a 615-page binder detailing the fiscal threats posed by droughts, storms, wildfires and rising seas.
At its second hearing on March 1, the Budget committee targeted rising sea levels and the climate risk to coastal communities. And on Wednesday, the committee will hear about the economic devastation brought by wildfires.
“I can make the case for the danger of unchecked climate change blowing the debt through the roof, in the same way that both the mortgage meltdown and the pandemic together added $10 trillion to the deficit,” he said in an interview.
“We have all these warnings,” Mr. Whitehouse said at the Feb. 15 hearing. “Warnings of crashes in coastal property values as rising seas and more powerful storms hit the 30-year mortgage horizon. Warnings of insurance collapse from more frequent, intense and unpredictable wildfires. A dangerous interplay between the insurance and mortgage markets hitting real estate markets across the country. Inflation from decreased agricultural yields. Massive infrastructure demand. Trouble in municipal bond markets.”
The new chairman is also pushing a solution that he believes could draw support from at least a handful of Republicans, even if they aren’t eager to support climate action. It’s essentially a tariff added to imported goods like steel and cement based on the carbon emissions created by their production. Analysts project that a carbon tariff placed on imported steel and aluminum, just two of many products that would be covered, could raise tens of billions of dollars over a decade.
“It advantages American industry and pokes at China’s pollution,” Mr. Whitehouse said. “And anything that is anti-China warms the cockles of Republicans’ hearts.”
Mr. Whitehouse’s rise parallels a movement across the Biden administration to inject climate considerations into everything from farm subsidies to national intelligence.
Some budget experts say that’s merited.
“It’s clear that American taxpayers are paying for the cost of climate change, and that those costs are large and growing,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.
The Biden Administration’s Environmental Agenda
While Medicare and Social Security are a large part of federal spending, damages from severe weather linked to climate change are growing. Mr. Ellis pointed to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that shows that the number of weather disasters where damages exceeded $1 billion jumped from three in 1980 to 18 in 2022, costing the country an estimated $165 billion.
“It’s good that Chairman Whitehouse is using his bully pulpit to put a spotlight on these issues,” Mr. Ellis said.
Many Republicans disagree. At the Budget committee’s February hearing, Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, said the nation’s ballooning deficit and debt are “driven by runaway profligate spending by the federal government, not because of any effects of climate change.” Mr. Lee slammed those “on the left who seek to use climate alarmism to justify a widespread federal government takeover of our economy.”
Mr. Whitehouse’s counterpart in the House of Representatives, Republican Jodey Arrington of Texas, said a carbon tariff is a nonstarter. “Republicans on the Budget Committee are focused on ways to rein in spending and unleash American prosperity and energy independence,” said Mr. Arrington, who chairs the House Budget committee. “A carbon tariff would result in just the opposite — higher energy costs for consumers and more regulatory burden on an economy teetering on recession.”
Grover Norquist, the anti-tax lobbyist, responded to a question about Mr. Whitehouse’s carbon tariff idea with a straightforward text message: “He is delusional.”
To be sure, given a divided Congress, committee chairmen of either party likely lack the power to pass major new legislation.
When Democrats controlled both chambers last year, Mr. Whitehouse was involved in the effort to advance what became the nation’s first major climate law. While he was unable to insert a tax or fee on carbon dioxide, Mr. Whitehouse did help ensure that the law included a modest fee on some pollution of methane, another planet-warming gas.
While the new law is projected to help cut the nation’s greenhouse emissions up to 40 percent by 2030, it will not be enough to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by midcentury, which climate scientists say is required of all major economies to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. For that, some economists say, a tax or fee on pollution is needed.
That’s where Mr. Whitehouse sees his opportunity.
“It’s beginning to sink in that we are well short of being on course for our climate goals, which are themselves only a two-thirds shot of being remotely safe,” Mr. Whitehouse said in an interview in his Senate office. “I do think that there is a moment when some of the realistic prospects for debt and deficit reduction can come to the fore and they include carbon pricing, which creates massive revenues.”
Dressed in pinstripes and Allbirds on a recent afternoon, the 67-year-old senator sat back in an armchair in his Capitol Hill office, surrounded by trappings of a life of privilege. There was a photograph of Franklin Roosevelt, inscribed by the former president to Mr. Whitehouse’s grandfather, Edwin Sheldon Whitehouse, who served as United States minister to Guatemala and Colombia. (Mr. Whitehouse’s father, Charles, was the United States ambassador to Laos and Thailand.) Another old photo showed Mr. Whitehouse sailing out of Newport with Edward M. Kennedy. A copy of WoodenBoat magazine lay on a table.
Mr. Whitehouse has been regarded as something of a Quixotic figure for his relentless promotion of climate legislation, even during the Trump administration when it was clear that such efforts would be fruitless.
It wasn’t just the daily speeches. Mr. Whitehouse, who had never chaired a Senate committee before this year, directed his staff to compile thousands of pages documenting the fossil fuel industry’s influence on electoral politics. He spent years trying to make deals with Republicans and lawmakers from fossil fuel states — inviting Senator Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, to walk on the beach in Rhode Island to see the impact of rising seas and joining Mr. Manchin on a helicopter tour of Appalachian coal country. Mr. Manchin ended up killing key climate portions of the Inflation Reduction Act, although in the end his vote was crucial to passage of the slimmed-down law.
Mr. Whitehouse has had some successes. He worked with Mr. Manchin on legislation that promotes carbon capture technology, which contains the gas before it escapes into the atmosphere. That language was folded into the new climate law. The fossil fuel industry supports the technology, which is not yet commercially viable, because it would allow power plants to continue to burn coal, oil and gas without increasing carbon dioxide emissions.
He has worked with senior Republicans, including Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming and Senator Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia — both opponents of Mr. Biden’s climate change agenda — on legislation to maintain and expand the number of zero-emission nuclear power plants.
Mr. Whitehouse’s own analysis of why he keeps beating the drum on climate change, even when it seems like nothing would change: “I’m a WASP and I live in fear of shame,” he said.
But his efforts are not without some Republican support.
At the February budget hearing, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah — who has increasingly become an outlier in his own party — offered full-throated support for a carbon tax.
“I have no question that the impact of climate change is going to be significant, devastating in some areas more than others,” said Mr. Romney, who as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 mocked former President Barack Obama’s pledge to fight global warming. “If we want to do something serious about global emissions then we need to put a price on carbon.”
Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, is writing his own version of a carbon tariff, intended to protect his home state’s petrochemical industry.
Some strategists say a deal could be found by pairing a carbon tariff with a bill that Mr. Manchin has long sought that would expedite that permitting of a fossil fuel pipeline in his state.
Frank Maisano, a veteran Republican media strategist with the firm Bracewell LLP, which lobbies for fossil fuel companies, said that despite Mr. Whitehouse’s endless quest to fight climate change, he has distinguished himself by being willing to work with Republicans.
“Sheldon is willing to go over that line and talk to people and find practical solutions,” Mr. Maisano said. “It’s shone through already in his work on carbon capture and nuclear. A lot of these climate activists, and House progressives, would never be willing to do that.”
Would that ever translate into enough Republican votes to pass a carbon tariff?
Mr. Maisano paused.
“Perhaps,” he said. “There’s a middle ground there if you’re willing to find it, and guys like Sheldon Whitehouse have been willing to find it — even with his strong values on the environmental side.“
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