The last effort to pass serious climate change legislation in Congress collapsed without even getting a Senate vote. Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the most outspoken climate hawks in Congress, remembers it vividly.
It was the first Congress under the Obama administration, and the bill on the table was for cap-and-trade. “Speaker Pelosi stepped up and passed serious climate legislation that put some of her members … in real peril,” Whitehouse told me in a recent interview. “And then her work came over to the Senate.” Congress had just finished an exhausting, drag-out war to barely pass the Affordable Care Act, and by the spring of 2010, a grim midterm situation was developing.
“And the message was that the Obama White House had lost interest in having any more fights, and was walking away from climate, leaving the House high and dry,” Whitehouse recalls. “And that is in fact what took place, and it was many months before the Obama White House would use ‘climate’ and ‘change’ in the same paragraph.”
Whitehouse sums up the Obama administration’s climate change legacy, which includes a Clean Power Plan that the Supreme Court blocked from going into effect, as “a pretty grim and weak record.” The Paris Climate Accords salvaged that record “somewhat,” he said, although President Trump walked away from that shortly after taking office.
“So they weren’t quite 0-for-3, but it was pretty bad,” Whitehouse said. “And that’s probably why people are so anxious about making sure that we don’t walk away this time.”
Obama’s midterm fears were not unfounded: Democrats lost unified control of government when Republicans won the House in 2010, effectively killing the opportunity for legislative action on climate change for a decade. During those intervening years, Whitehouse tried to keep a focus on the issue by employing the bread-and-butter of senatorial techniques: talking. Nearly every week that the Senate was in session between 2012 and 2021, Whitehouse gave a floor speech to draw attention to the latest troubling developments in climate change. He called them his “Time to Wake Up” speeches. Sometimes he would get company, as when dozens of other Senate Democrats joined him for an all-night talk-a-thon on the issue in 2014 that got some press. Much of the time, though, he got about as much attention as Sen. Dan Sullivan would for his “Alaskan of the Week” addresses. After nine years and 279 speeches, though, Whitehouse finally put the speeches to bed in January. Democrats were back in power, climate was on President Biden’s agenda, and it was “time to get to work.”
Democrats in both the House and Senate are now very much at work on the all-purpose, multi-trillion dollar reconciliation bill that will include major climate legislation. A slew of big climate proposals are under consideration, including a Clean Electricity Payment Program, designed to incentivize electricity suppliers to transition away from carbon; a methane polluter fee; and a carbon polluter import fee to pressure trade partners to make their own carbon mitigation efforts, among other items.
When I asked, after 279 speeches, what his absolute must-haves are in order to support the bill, Whitehouse said that “it’s actually nature that is setting the must-haves.” The idea is to put in place “all the tools necessary” to achieve “1.5 degrees or less of planetary overheating.” (He did add, more specifically, that he doesn’t see how we “get to that place that I have just described without a polluter fee on carbon pollution.”)
But for Whitehouse, it’s not just the what, but the when. As he said in an August 9 floor speech, “if we lose the House next year, as people are predicting, to gerrymandered states, we’re done on getting serious about climate.” Democrats had an opportunity in 2010 to preempt much of the worst of climate change, and they missed it. Now they have a final opportunity to mitigate the worst of it. They cannot wait another ten years. That’s why it’s necessary, Whitehouse said, for the legislation to put in place tools that can be dialed up, or dialed down, by executive branch agencies regardless of who’s in power.
But future Republican majorities aren’t the current impediment to strong climate action. Democrats need to get 50 out of 50 Democratic votes in the Senate to put any of this in place. And West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the most conservative Democratic senator who represents home-state energy interests, has said some of the provisions in the bill to transition from fossil fuels are “very, very disturbing.”
When I asked Whitehouse how he and his climate hawk colleagues would navigate the Manchin issue, he quoted from the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln.
“When the folks needed to go out and close the deal for the votes on the Fourteenth Amendment,” he said, “and they asked Lincoln, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ And he stood up and said, ‘I am the President of the United States of America, clothed with great powers, go and get me those votes!’” What Whitehouse was getting at was that the persuasion needs to come from a place above his pay grade.
“I think that ends up being, frankly, a conversation between the president and Sen. Manchin,” he said. “But to me it is not an excuse to yield against strong climate measures. There have to be other ways to accommodate Sen. Manchin than to imperil the future of the planet.”
Whitehouse pins the Obama administration’s backing away from the legislative fight, and national politicians’ general tendency to let climate slide to the backburner, on a self-reinforcing cycle. Polls show that while Americans think something needs to be done on climate change, it ranks low on the list of priorities behind the economy, health care, and so on. With those poll numbers in hand, politicians then don’t talk about the climate issue as much. When they talk about it less, it disappears from the conversation, and becomes less of a priority. Soon enough, Congress’ action on climate change is limited to one senator giving a speech, to an empty chamber, once a week for nine years.
There may be one reason, though, to suspect that legislators can sustain the willpower they need to enact major legislation this time around: Just walk outside, and there’s a good chance you’ll encounter it. As I write, the heat index is 92 degrees on a mid-September afternoon in Washington D.C. Much of the east this summer suffered from torrential rains and damaging thunderstorms, and tornadoes, and hurricanes that quickly ramp up in severity and flooded a swath stretching from New Orleans to New England. The Pacific Northwest has been trapped under “heat domes” bringing record-breaking temperatures, while California is getting used to the term “gigafire.” In 2009, climate change was something Americans would read about. In 2021, it regularly punches you in the face. Maybe that will finally make it impossible for the White House and Congress to go back to the familiar cycle that ultimately ends in inaction. But ultimately, just like in 2010, Whitehouse thinks it’s up to the president.
“What breaks that cycle is courage and leadership,” Whitehouse said. “And I think what the Biden administration will find is that courage and leadership will actually be rewarded by voters.”
“And if not?” he added. “Worse case scenario, all we do is save the planet.”