In Episode 26, Quinn & Brian ask: what drives a man to give 200 climate speeches to Congress? That's once a week since 2007. Our guest today: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the junior senator from Rhode Island. We discuss his speeches, his future carbon bill, bi-partisanship, calling bullshit when we see it, Rhode Island’s fossil-fuel lawsuit, and so much more. Want to send us feedback? Tweet us, email us, or leave us a voice message! Links: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on Twitter Sandra Thornton Whitehouse Republicans for Carbon Tax Resilient Rhody Trump’s Book Club: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson Quinn Emmett on Twitter Brian Colbert Kennedy on Twitter Intro/outro by Tim Blane Subscribe to our newsletter at ImportantNotImportant.com! Like and share us on Facebook! Check us on Instagram! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pinterest! Tumble us or whatever the hell you do on Tumblr! Ok that’s enough good lord
Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.
Brian: And my name is Brian Colbert Kennedy.
Quinn: And this is episode 26, and today's question, curious one, what drives a man to give 200 climate speeches, one every week, to the day, to Congress?
Quinn: That's a driven man.
Quinn: And on that note, our guest is Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He is the junior senator and all-around fantastic gentleman of the great state of Rhode Island. Senator Whitehouse was formerly a US Attorney, and he was later the Attorney General for Rhode Island, and he's been a member of Congress since 2007. I believe he's currently moonlighting as, checks my notes, Captain Planet.
Brian: Yes, that is correct. I concur.
Brian: He thinks of the Earth.
Quinn: Yeah. You know how, Brian, when you wake up every day, and among the things that you consider to take care of are feeding yourself and I guess your new cat?
Quinn: His first thought is, "How do I protect the planet?"
Brian: Right. I wonder if he has a cat.
Quinn: I don't think he has time for that shit. Who would have time for a fucking cat when he wakes up-
Brian: Well, you don't have to say it like that.
Quinn: When we wakes up every day and says, "How can I protect everyone that is alive on this planet, and no one is listening to me?"
Brian: Right, "No one's listening. I keep talking."
Quinn: Yeah, sure. Yeah.
Brian: He's pretty incredible.
Quinn: No, I like it. He sounds like he's reaching across the aisle, will continue to do so even if things change on November 6th. Fuck those guys, what? But also not afraid to call out all the folks just one by one destroying our adorable little democracy from the inside out.
Brian: Yeah, which is pretty important, I think.
Quinn: Yeah, let's call it what it is at this point.
Quinn: Hey Brian.
Brian: Hey Quinn.
Quinn: What'd you think of The Greatest Showman soundtrack three days later?
Brian: Oh, I didn't listen to it.
Quinn: Goddamn it. This is just like ... Add it to the list, Getting Things Done, GTD, The Checklist Manifesto, and The Greatest Showman soundtrack. Three things, again, would change your life, certainly improve our business, all three of them.
Brian: Hold on. Listening to The Greatest Showman soundtrack will improve our business?
Quinn: Yeah. You know how when you got on the line today, and I was like, "Hey what's wrong," and you're like, "Nothing." And I'm like, "Oh yeah, no. That's definitely when something is not wrong." Let me tell you what. If you had listened to The Greatest Showman soundtrack, I said, "Hey Brian, what's going on?" You'd be like, "Everything is amazing."
Brian: I've had a couple-
Quinn: Because you know what? Because you'd be dreaming with your eyes wide open.
Brian: Oh my God, is that a song title?
Quinn: No it's not, but it's part of one.
Brian: Well, I'm very excited to listen. I'm so sorry that I haven't yet. Holy cow, I'm pumped. Wow.
Brian: No, I will, I will. I remember that last time we talked, I did say I was going to listen to it, and then I got ... I'm very busy. Not as busy as you, but I'm pretty busy.
Quinn: Okay, interesting. Do you listen to anything when you're driving around on your stupid motorcycle?
Brian: It's not stupid, and no, of course not. I am all eyes, all ears on the road.
Quinn: Though you did say that you use another sense, which is that you like to smell everything, correct?
Brian: I do, I do ... I don't like to smell everything. I'm not going around smelling everything, but I like that on the motorcycle I noticed that you get to smell a lot of things just around town that you wouldn't if you were all boxed up inside a car.
Quinn: Can I ask you a question? How does everything smell when it's 116 degrees in LA this week?
Brian: Weird and wet and bad.
Quinn: Not good, right?
Quinn: Not good.
Brian: It's been far too warm.
Quinn: How was it ... I believe you went to Las Vegas since we last spoke?
Brian: I went to Las Vegas. I think it was hotter here.
Quinn: Where, in Los Angeles?
Quinn: Yeah, well it's about time for the city to end, I think. I think it's had a good run.
Brian: Got myself an AC unit for my bedroom window.
Quinn: Nice, classy.
Brian: It's so comfortable in here.
Quinn: You know where you're not going to need air conditioning?
Brian: Ooh, Asgardia.
Quinn: Do you have any idea without Googling? Get your fingers off the fucking keyboard.
Brian: Of course, they're not.
Quinn: What happened with Asgardia in the past week, couple weeks?
Brian: I'll tell you. I'll tell you right now.
Quinn: I just told you not to look it up. I literally just said, "Take your hands off of ..."
Brian: I didn't ... No, what?
Quinn: From Motherboard, always reliable, "The space nation of Asgardia inaugurated its first leader in an incredible ceremony."
Brian: What? How did I miss that?
Quinn: Yeah, yeah.
Brian: Was it televised?
Quinn: I think it was online. It sounds ... What's the best way to put this without insulting you? Pretty fucking weird.
Brian: That was the best way you could put it?
Quinn: "To celebrate the momentous occasion, the Asgardians held a fantastical celebration at a 13th Century Hofburg Palace, the former principal imperial palace in the center of Vienna, Austria. It was creepy. It was beautiful. It was elegant and magical in a way that terra-based ceremonies no longer are, and it began with children introducing cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev, who shared a very special message from the International Space Station." Anyways, "Placed his hand on the Asgardian Constitution ..." We can come back to that, "And donned the ceremonial Asgardian jeweled necklace."
Quinn: How do you feel? You've got a leader now.
Brian: I guess this is my favorite part. At the end of the article that I have here, there's an Editor's Note that says, "Grumblings within the Asgardia community reported by Gizmodo reveal that 72.5% of the votes for the Asgardian Constitution," which you just mentioned, "may not match the people's true opinions."
Brian: So I think that's a good start, that's a good start.
Quinn: Interesting. Other quotes, some of these totally typical, "This day will certainly be recorded in the annals of the greatest events in the history of mankind." Sure, right?
Quinn: "I can therefore declare with confidence that Asgardia, the first space nation of the United Humankind ..." United, strong word, "has been born." Oh, and then one last one, "The most suitable candidates for citizenship will include citizen selection including IQ tests." Whoops, what's that?
Brian: Oh, say again?
Quinn: Yeah, yeah. It sounds like anybody who wants to be part of the nation, IQ tests, which is an interesting way to weed things out. Sounds like United Humankind. How do you feel about that? Two things, how do you feel about it, and two, how would you do on an IQ test right now?
Brian: Sometimes people start things, and then as time goes on, they grow and change in a different way than perhaps the original vision, so ...
Quinn: This isn't a puppy we're talking about or like a sophomore album from an indie band. This is the first space civilization of United Humankind.
Brian: The first of many probably, okay? Who says that this guy's going to be the guy who does it? He's just the first to come out and say, "Hey, I want to live in a place where everybody's smart, and all the dumb people can't come." Which I'm not down with, by the way.
Quinn: His first move as leader, puts on the special necklace, who made it? How much is it worth? Curious, anybody please let us know. If you made it, definitely reach out. Anyways, first move, there will be IQ tests.
Brian: It sounded cool at first, and now the more we learn about it, maybe I don't want to be a citizen here.
Quinn: No no, to be clear, you're in.
Brian: Yes, yes I'm in, but it doesn't say anywhere as far as I know, I didn't read the small print, that I can't back out.
Quinn: No no, I'm saying for the good of the podcast, you're in this thing.
Brian: I have to stay in.
Quinn: You're Stan Beeman undercover with the KKK. You don't want to be there, but it's not your decision anymore.
Brian: I guess I should keep up on it a little bit more.
Quinn: I would. You have a leader now. Anyways, speaking of official leaders who are doing the right thing, let's go talk to Sheldon Whitehouse.
Brian: We should talk to the Senator.
Quinn: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.
Quinn: Our guest today is Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of the great state of Rhode Island, and together we're going to ask what drives a man to give the same climate speech 200 times? Senator Whitehouse, welcome.
Sen Whitehouse: Thank you. It is terrific to be with you both.
Brian: We are very very happy to have you.
Quinn: All right Senator, just quickly tell us who you are and what you do.
Sen Whitehouse: I am Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. I'm the junior senator from the state of Rhode Island, and obviously I work in the United States Senate.
Quinn: Yeah, that's pretty succinct. That'll do it.
Brian: Groovy, so we're just going to get our conversation going for today.
Quinn: It's kind of our ethos a little bit.
Brian: Yeah, yeah. I think it's quite clear but if it isn't, we are in a time for action right now, and the best action comes from provocative results-oriented questions, "Why? What if? How?" Questions that shine a light on where we need to go, personally or as a country or as a species, so we want to ask those questions, and then formulate some specific steps that everyone here can take to make a little dent in the universe if that works for you, Senator.
Sen Whitehouse: Works for me.
Quinn: Awesome. Senator, we start with one important question. Again, instead of saying, "Tell us your life story," we want to get to the heart of why you're here today both on the podcast, but also existentially, so we like to ask ... Senator, why are you vital to the survival of the species?
Brian: I love that reaction.
Sen Whitehouse: Good Lord, I hope I'm not. I hope there are plenty of other people weighing in. I do try to lean in quite hard on climate issues in the Senate, because for a long time, there was no conversation about them, and at times it was deeply deeply aggravating and frustrating that the climate concern simply wasn't being addressed, so that's where I began the process of giving a weekly speech. If I didn't make my staff lock down that time every single week, it would've slid off into the valley of what gets pushed out by the news of the day, so that's why we locked it in, and just for the record, it's not the same speech. Every single one is different.
Quinn: Oh, well I guess I meant the theme of it, but regardless, we are impressed by your dedication, and I appreciate the scheduling. I do the same thing for Brian just to do podcasts, and I think it drives him crazy.
Sen Whitehouse: Otherwise he'd just go off on a wander?
Quinn: You know, he goes off on a wander-
Brian: Who knows where I'd end up?
Quinn: ... and it's always something every day that distracts him. He's like a Golden Retriever puppy.
Brian: But my intentions are good and I'm adorable, just like the puppy.
Quinn: Just so needy. Senator, we're going to establish a little context for today's topic, which means it's time for Context 101 with Professor Brian, which is a good gentle reminder that Professor Brian is not, in fact, a credited professor and honestly has no accreditation whatsoever.
Brian: Yeah, but I'm a man of the people.
Quinn: Yes. Anyway Senator, this is the thing we do. Brian explains the issue from his point of view, that is to say from the point of view of our listeners, maybe aren't super nerds but are interested and don't want, for example, Waterworld with Kevin Costner to turn into an educational resource.
Brian: Yeah, no.
Quinn: We're going to give a little basic background, and then we'll dive in to the weeds with you. Brian, let's see what you've got.
Brian: Climate change, not good, not good at all. I'm not sure if we've mentioned that before. The Earth used to look a lot different, and there is a complex group of interconnected systems that have drastically changed over time, and the climate has always changed. It used to be way hotter than it is now, for example. Actually, much of the world was covered in lava.
Quinn: Yeah, that's not great.
Brian: No no no no, and at a different time, much of the world was covered in dinosaurs.
Quinn: That was great.
Brian: Maybe they'll come back. At a different time, much of the world was covered in ocean, even more so than no. Here's a cool fact: Sharks are even older than dinosaurs, and that feels crazy to me, but I'm pretty sure it's true. Male seahorses carry babies, some fish glow in the dark.
Quinn: Okay, we got it. The ocean's awesome.
Brian: Ocean's awesome. There are underwater lakes and rivers, which I cannot even begin to wrap my mind around. The ocean is amazing.
Quinn: Got it, we got it.
Brian: It used to be a hell of a lot colder here on Earth than it is now. There were icebergs everywhere, I think everywhere, and humans either didn't exist during any of these periods or barely survived them. Humans, that we know of, have never been able to actually effect the Earth's climate, because that would be crazy. Little humans able to effect the climate of a planet, yeah right.
Quinn: Seems crazy.
Brian: Turns out we did that and it's not great. Climate change is happening. It is happening, and all those interconnected systems are under enormous strain, and every part of the Earth will be effected differently. Some parts are going to get much hotter. Some parts are much hotter and drier and more prone to fires, which we are very aware of living in California.
Quinn: California for example.
Brian: Some are going to get colder and wetter. Some will experience more violent and impactful storms than ever before. Most folks didn't even know this was happening until about 30 years ago. Some folks did, and some of those folks were actually supplying the finite resources extracted out of the Earth upon which we eagerly brought most of our entire civilization into the future. The production and burning and use of those resources, fossil fuels, released and continue to release specific gasses into the atmosphere, and most of us didn't know that, but again, some did.
Brian: They wrote it down on paper, which is not a good idea, and then they covered it up which ... You put it on the paper, man. Anyway, humanity has until very recently failed to act on the greatest threat to our existence, mostly because again most of us just didn't know what we were doing, and then partly later because we have mostly, for the history of our species, failed to spend money on prevention or the future, and instead we just spend it in a purely reactive state if we even spend it at all.
Brian: Some of the action that has been taken has resulted in international accords, most of which are non-binding, which we know all too well about. Some of the action has resulted in cities suing the fossil fuel companies, not because they supplied those resources, but because they covered up the side effects of them, and now those cities and the plaintiffs are projected to be le fucked.
Quinn: Right, Serge Dedina.
Brian: Exactly, like Serge in Imperial City.
Quinn: Imperial Beach.
Brian: Some more of the action has included a certain Senator using his position to give 200 climate speeches on the floor of Congress to little avail, and the very first American state sued 14 of those fossil fuel companies last week.
Brian: That state has 400 miles of ocean shoreline under direct threat to sea level rise, and that Senator that we mentioned comes from that same state which, I don't know, sure feels like they're trying to sound the alarm bell, and that Senator is on the line and has listened to this whole thing, and man I hope it sounded all right.
Sen Whitehouse: It sounded great.
Quinn: I feel like science educators everywhere should just print up the transcript of all of that and just put it straight into textbooks, Brian.
Brian: Super happy to make that available for anybody who needs it.
Quinn: Great, great. With that, and thank you, Senator, what drives a man to give a climate speech every week of his tenure? Tell me how long was it between getting elected and giving your first climate action speech?
Sen Whitehouse: It was a couple of years, because we actually made progress early on. We were doing ... I got elected in 2006, so I got sworn in in 2007, and 2007, 2008, and 2009 were actually pretty good years legislatively for climate stuff in the Senate. We did bipartisan hearings, we did bipartisan bills, we did bipartisan conferences, and one of the leading Republicans in the Senate, who was the Republican Party's presidential nominee, took a really good climate change platform into that election, so it all looked pretty good until 2010 came along, and in 2010, the Supreme Court decided a case called Citizens United.
Sen Whitehouse: Citizens United gave the fossil fuel industry a license to spend unlimited money in politics, and they went instantly to work to crush every little flicker of Republican interest in climate change, and they did, and we have been partisan on this issue ever since. And so my frustration grew through that period when the Republicans stopped working on this, and actually for a long time, Democrats didn't do much about it. It was a lot of frustration.
Quinn: That's understandable. Citizens United, I have such a vivid memory of President Obama. Was it State of the Union when he got up there when he was talking about and he addressed the Supreme Court sitting in front of him specifically about Citizens United, and Justice Alito was shaking his head. It seems like such an innocent time.
Sen Whitehouse: Yeah well, it was an innocent time, because when you power up big special interests like the fossil fuel industry with the ability to spend unlimited money in politics, and you don't police the fact that they are able to hide their identity when they do a lot of this spending, you end up with a really disgraceful state of affairs, and that's what we have going on right now, and that's the problem with bipartisanship on climate.
Quinn: How did the first speech begin? What was the thesis behind it?
Sen Whitehouse: The first one was basically just an intro to the science of it, and for a long time I just spoke about different aspects of the science. Then I began to drill in to the oceans part of it, because the oceans are such powerful witnesses to climate change, and because the denial machinery has not done a good job of creating an alternative narrative about why the oceans are acidifying and warming and rising and all of that. That was a fruitful place.
Sen Whitehouse: And then I went on to visit a lot of my Republican colleagues states and bring home the home truth from their states and what was happening with climate change, whether it's Utah losing the greatest snow on Earth, or Republican mayors down in the Keys desperately doing climate work to prepare for sea level rise, or the poor wretched New Hampshire moose wandering around with tens of thousands of ticks on them, and their calves dying because of the retreat of the snows. There've been a lot of different topics, but those were the three early themes.
Quinn: Makes sense.
Brian: How has it, if so, how has your address changed over time with the Senate and the House changing hands?
Sen Whitehouse: I moved a little bit more to also trying to explain what was going on behind the scenes, and trying to out the climate denial apparatus that the fossil fuel industry runs. They obviously don't call their climate denial apparatus the Fossil Fuel Climate Denial Apparatus Company. They make-
Quinn: What was the old Looney Tunes thing? Acme?
Sen Whitehouse: Exactly. They make up all these sweet and touching names. They co-opt the names of founding fathers. They talk about heartland and heritage and all this stuff, and it's all a complete phony baloney load of crap, and so I started targeting the machinery through which they deploy this effort as well.
Quinn: And how successful has that outing been? Where have you seen successes?
Sen Whitehouse: One success has been ... We were able to develop a bipartisan Oceans Caucus in the Senate, and that was an idea that came to me when I was talking about oceans and trying to figure out what to do about oceans, and approached Senator Murkowski from Alaska about doing something bipartisan on oceans. She agreed, and we've gotten a lot done. We got the first Marine Plastic Debris Bill ever passed through the Senate. We got a whole bunch of fisheries treaties and a law passed about pirate and illegal fishing, and we are circulating legislation now on ocean data monitoring, so that's been a spin-off success from this effort. In terms of more direct benefit, I think my colleagues have come around to the even begrudging admission that I am sincere and determined.
Quinn: Right. "He's not going to give up after three weeks."
Sen Whitehouse: That actually has value in the Senate. People actually think, "Oh geez, well I'm a climate denier, but this Whitehouse guy, he is still talking and he's serious about it," and there's some credit for that.
Brian: If I could, I just want to swing back really quick to how you were mentioning that you're putting a lot of emphasis on the effects on the ocean. Your wife has a PhD in marine biology, right?
Sen Whitehouse: Yep. She's really the one who knows what she's talking about on this stuff.
Brian: That must be such a great influence for you.
Sen Whitehouse: It's spectacular. She's really really knowledgeable, and I've been involved as a carrier in her work. "Please take this there. Please take that. Don't do too much thinking, but pull, lift, and carry."
Quinn: Right, exactly. You're like a Sherpa basically.
Sen Whitehouse: Yeah, exactly. But as a result, I've had the chance to see her up close in action, doing her work and it's very impressive to me to watch the marine science community do its thing.
Quinn: What in particular is she working on?
Sen Whitehouse: Right now, she's working on trying to make sure that ocean planning is done in a sensible way. One of our victories in Rhode Island was that we got the first off-shore wind turbines up, built, steel in the water, electrons on the grid, and we did so because we developed a very good planning operation for siting it that came out of the entity that she used to chair, so that's been a pretty good thing to work on, just good sensible ocean planning.
Sen Whitehouse: When we first met, she was studying a little shrimp and a larval winter flounder, and how they interacted at the bottom of Narraganset Bay, but since then, Narraganset Bay has warmed up so much that they don't interact that way any longer. It's been one of the real time changes that we've seen.
Quinn: I saw some reporting recently on how the lobster industry up there is going to change drastically in the next couple decades.
Sen Whitehouse: It's going to be wiped out. It's virtually dead in Long Island Sound. The Connecticut fishery has more or less collapsed. Rhode Island has had to go way off shore to find lobsters, and the center of gravity of the lobster industry in Maine is moving steadily up the coast as warming water makes it more and more difficult for lobsters to thrive. Pretty soon it'll probably be a Canadian industry more than an American industry, and that's a sad thing, because a lot of people have come to Newport and enjoyed a good Rhode Island lobster over the years.
Quinn: Sure, and it's easy to make a cliché our a t-shirt out of lobsters in the Northeast, but I don't think it's a small thing to say that there are entire economy's, statewide and region wide, built on that crustacean.
Sen Whitehouse: Yeah, people worked hard, and they worked in all kinds of weather, and it's a difficult, challenging, and dangerous physical work, and it paid the mortgage and put the kids through school, and people worked hard and were proud of their work and succeeded, and now to see the thing that they have spent their lifetime harvesting just evaporate out from under them is very distressing.
Quinn: It's interesting, and this is absolutely apples to oranges, but it does ... Lobster fisherman were not poisoning the air knowingly, but it does make you a little bit empathize with coal miners in the sense that this is something that generations of people have been doing, families have been doing in very specific areas of the country, and it has been taken away, and they've been only trained to do this, yada yada. Where this is more of a optional thing that the country's pursuing, I mean optional in the sense that we have to do it or else we're toast, but at the same time, you can understand the angst a little bit of, "What am I supposed to do now?" Watching these towns crumble, it's almost interesting foreshadowing for those areas.
Sen Whitehouse: The unfortunate thing about that is that the very best solution to the climate change problem is a price on carbon to tip the economy away from the subsidies fossil fuel has enjoyed, and to give renewables a fair chance to grow and develop and thrive, and an adjunct of that is that very considerable revenues get brought into the government from the carbon [inaudible 00:27:23], and with those revenues, you could protect coal miners who's pensions have been devastated. You could protect coal miners whose health plans have been devastated. You could allow coal miners the dignity of retirement, full benefits right now. You could help bring investment to those towns. Heck, you could buy everybody who ever swung a pick a pick-up truck.
Sen Whitehouse: Remember when Huey Long said, "Every man a king?" You could make every miner a king with a tiny sliver of those revenues, and the fact that the coal barons won't work towards protecting their own people and just want to protect their industry and their profits, even if it causes their own miners to suffer, is one of the many despicable pieces of conduct out of the fossil fuel industry in this whole saga.
Quinn: Absolutely, absolutely.
Quinn: It's interesting. We've talked a little bit on the podcast about the failure of Washington State to pass their carbon tax a few months back last year, end of last year, beginning of this year, in a state that is fully democratic, and it does seem clearly there's some sticking points, like where is the revenue going to go and how is it going to be spent that Democrats and Progressives are still arguing over. It sounds like you're talking about a potential carbon tax revenue.
Quinn: I apologize for not having the specifics, but is a national carbon tax something you're behind? Are there specifics there?
Sen Whitehouse: I actually have a bill that proposes a ... I call it a carbon fee, because one of the things that the Republican green community, small as it is, but the Republican green community has demanded and said, "Look, we can accept a price on carbon. That is the market-based solution to this problem, but we can't have the revenues go just to fund more big government." I don't particularly care to have both those fights at the same time. I want to solve the climate change problem, and if their way to solve the climate change problem is to say, "All the money goes back to the American people," I'm cool with that and our bill does that, so I think that provides some protection, and it would make a far bigger difference than the clean power plant. It's much more effective, so yes, I'm a fan of a carbon fee, and I call it a fee not a tax, because tax goes to fund big government, and a fee is just a fee that you pay, and it'll go right back to the American public.
Quinn: Sure, and even any conservative climate activist, whether they're in a position of power in Congress or not or a state legislature is never going to be able to publicly support something with the word "tax" in it. Fee, we can work on.
Sen Whitehouse: Yep, and [inaudible 00:30:18] we can work on, and the funny thing is, we've got basically bipartisan agreement as to what the solution would be, which is this revenue-neutral border-adjustable price on carbon, and we have a lot of Republican senators who want to do something about climate change, and I know that because I talk to them about this, and between the senators who want to do something about this and the remedy that we are likely to agree on, there is this barbed wire electrified wall with guard towers that is policed by the fossil fuel industry with the weaponry that Citizens United gave them, and they will tell these guys, "Look, you are dead if you cross us on this."
Sen Whitehouse: And it's just been really really hard for Republicans to try to work their way around that, particularly given the example of people like Bob Inglis, who did in fact lose their seats when they had the temerity to take climate change seriously, so they've hung a body on the lamppost to show all the others.
Quinn: Bob was actually one of our first guests.
Brian: Yes he was.
Quinn: We talked a lot about that, which was essentially for these folks, what are they willing to risk to push for action? If we can get into details for a second, how specifically does the revenue go back to the American people in your bill?
Sen Whitehouse: The bulk of it goes back through an offset to the payroll tax with a similar benefit that flows through Social Security and through the Veteran's Administration for retirees who aren't paying the payroll tax any longer, and then there's a chunk of it, about 20% maybe, that goes back through to the states so that the individual state can work on what is most important to it. What the state of West Virginia is going to want to do in response to a carbon price is going to look very different from what the state of Rhode Island is going to want to do. It's going to look very different from what the state of Wyoming is going to want to do. It's going to look very different from what the state of Arizona is going to want to do. All of those governors and legislatures are going to need some resources to help them solve those localized problems, so that's the ... It goes back with a bank shot off of the state government, but not not not not to fund big increases in the federal government.
Quinn: Got you.
Brian: Sure, sure. What happens to current clean air and water regulations in your bill?
Sen Whitehouse: At the moment we don't have any reference to that in the bill. I don't want to bargain against myself. I'm very aware that in a negotiation, there's going to be an interest in getting rid of some of the regulations, and frankly that should be a fact-based conversation in which, if you can show that the interstate transport rule, for instance, becomes unnecessary because we've done so much better with the carbon price than that rule could ever do, then I don't care that much to defend rules for rules sake. I like the rules because they keep people healthier, and if we've done a better job, but I don't want to start negotiating that until I've got somebody to negotiate with, and at the moment, the guards in the guard towers with their Citizens United machine guns are still telling everybody in the Republican side, "Don't negotiate. Don't get involved with any of this.'
Sen Whitehouse: And it's really tiresome, because you've got the CEOs of oil companies saying, "Hey, we understand that climate change is a real problem, and we know that our product causes it, and we support a price on carbon." And having to hear that nonsense while I'm here watching their damn lobbyist and electioneering forces fight exactly against that proposition they claim to support ... It can get frustrating to see them lie like that.
Quinn: That's a very gentle was of putting it, and we'll get back to the future and what could happen when maybe some of those folks aren't in office. Is there any action on current fossil fuel subsidies in the bill?
Sen Whitehouse: Nothing specific. This so overwhelms them that it's basically a way of remedying ... Let's put it this way. It's a way of remedying the biggest fossil fuels subsidy of them all, which is the right to pollute for free, and that has been evaluated by the International Monetary Fund at a $700 billion per year subsidy just in the United States alone to the fossil fuel industry. $700 billion, and then when you look at all this denial machinery that they've set up, when you look at all these fraudulent front groups and all the phony scientists that they trot out to wear a lab coat onto a talk show, all of that nonsense is cheap compared to $700 billion a year. You could afford an enormous amount of political mischief for that money, and they do.
Quinn: Sure, sure. Absolutely. Let's go back to the speeches for a second. It's 2018 now as far as I can tell, even though it feels like the year's never going to end. You've got years of these speeches under your belt, and like you said, you've done state-specific stuff, you've talked about the science, you've tried to call out some of the folks who are undermining the efforts to get anything done. Has there been a moment so far when you felt like, "This time is different, I'm getting through to these morons?" Anything?
Sen Whitehouse: There have been a couple. There have been a couple. There have been private conversations in which senators have verbally agreed to work with me on a climate bill, gotten together to have bipartisan meetings, very secret ones, to talk about what to do on a climate bill, engaged with groups that I know what they're doing, because I'm basically running around behind enemy lines trying to help the Republican resistance, try to get something done about climate. There's ... I wouldn't do this if I couldn't keep my optimism up, and there's always something on the horizon, in some cases, even the very near horizon, that gives me hope.
Sen Whitehouse: The latest thing is these three Treasury Secretaries, Schulz, Paulson, and Baker having stood up a [F01C4 00:36:51] which, for people who don't know it, is basically the political equivalent of a Sherman tank. It is what you use to go out onto the political battlefield and do warfare, and the good guys on the Republican side had none of that until very recently, and the bad guys on the Republican side looked like a Soviet May Day Parade of political artillery, so this group, this new F01C4 showing up to support Republicans who want to do something about climate could be a pretty significant tipping point.
Sen Whitehouse: It's got big entities like Walmart supporting the group, and so if you're a Republican who is looking for somebody, anybody to have your back on climate change, maybe that somebody just showed up.
Quinn: That's super compelling, because as much as I'm sure some of these people are just super villains and like oil for oils sake and dirty air, you have to imagine for some of them it's a little more callous, and it's just about how many dollars are in their bank account, and if it's coming from a good source then sure, we'll take it. As much as I despise money in politics, I guess it's a little bit like steroids and baseball. We have to play the game.
Brian: That's a whole nother conversation we can get into.
Sen Whitehouse: And a lot of these people, if you know you're going to get pounded if you do this today, then why not wait just until tomorrow and see if something has changed? And the problem is those tomorrows pile up. These are people who aren't against it. They just have a form of heightened procrastination, threat-heightened procrastination. Tomorrow could be a safer day to take this on. Why pick this fight right this minute?
Quinn: Sure, of course.
Brian: Speaking of tomorrow actually, skeptics say that even if Democrats were to take back the house and simultaneously gain even a slim majority in the Senate, that nothing would get done, or if it did it wouldn't be enough.
Quinn: Let's imagine November 6th, things go at least moderately well for Democrats and Progressives, at the very least climate activists. Imagine you've suddenly got 50 other Democratic colleagues in the Senate and they're going to be sworn in soon, which seems crazy and so far off, but it really wasn't that long ago when that was the case. What is your first course of action, Senator, with regard to climate and I guess specifically your bill?
Sen Whitehouse: The likeliest scenario is probably that the House will turn to Democratic hands and that the Senate will be very close, but may not. Legislation would likely begin in the House. It would likely be drafted with the view that the Senate's ultimately going to have a voice, and we need to work on it. Would likely be bipartisan in the House, because there are enough Republican congressmen who are desperate on this subject, because they represent the Florida Keys or the city of Charleston or some place in Arizona that's on fire that they have to pay attention finally.
Sen Whitehouse: Now you've got a potentially bipartisan bill that has been worked with the Senate to a degree, that comes out of the House and it comes rolling down the middle of the Capital Building, and it crashes up against the doors of the Senate. It becomes really tough at that point for Mitch McConnell to refuse to give it any kind of a hearing, and it puts all of us as Democrats in a position to have something serious to push for and to take more aggressive floor action with an actual immediate goal in mind.
Quinn: And that's a big move, because that's Mitch's go-to move is just, "We're not going to talk about it."
Sen Whitehouse: Call up the fossil fuel guys and get them to spend tens of millions of dollars beating up Democratic senators. That's his go-to move, so he'd have to give up that particular weapon, and that would not be easy for him, so this would not be easy, but one other thing that's happening out there is that the oil companies in particular are getting frightened of their liability, of their litigation risk, not only the outcome of being sued for creating a public nuisance or for lying to their shareholders, but actually the process where you get to the point where you've got to cough up your files, you've got to show people the memos that you wrote to your scientist telling him to shut up about the science, the notes that you wrote to your lobbyist telling him even now, "I know we're saying we want a carbon price. We don't. Go squash anybody that tries to put a carbon price forward on the Republican side."
Sen Whitehouse: When all that stuff comes out, they're going to look really really bad, so they're frightened I think about all of that. I think they're frightened about the economics and the stranded assets carbon bubble problem, and I think there comes a time where some of the cooler heads in the oil industry start to say, "Okay, we've had our run with Congress. We've had our way for a long time. Now we have to throw in the towel and behave like grown-ups. We've said we supported a carbon fee. Now we have to actually support a damned carbon fee." That could break, and then if you get that moving and you have something bipartisan, you then go up to Trump and you say, "Hey, by the way, you were the guy who took out an advertisement in the New York Times that say the science of climate change was irrefutable, and that said that the consequences of climate change would be catastrophic and irreversible. We want that guy back."
Sen Whitehouse: The guy has no principles, so he could easily say, "Oh yeah, I'm that guy now."
Quinn: Right, and so I guess that's the question, and this is completely unpredictable, but after all that, and again the answer might just be, "Who the hell knows," but what does that legislation have to look like for Trump to actually sign it? Do we have any idea?
Sen Whitehouse: I don't think he has any substantive concerns about anything at all. It's all what does the press conference look like, and what does the press around it look like, and is this finally the big deal that he promised he would be able to do? And I do think that it would be very helpful if he felt that he could go through the Appalachian coal fields and deliver everybody their Trump pick-up truck free certificate, and let them know that they can retire right this minute, full pension, full benefits, and that they can get onto a GI bill type program for their kids and actually go to college.
Sen Whitehouse: You could for very very little money come through coal country like a king handing out just all sorts of gold and tribute wherever you went, and I think if you gave him a moment like that with people cheering and saying, "Thank goodness, you saved my family, you saved my house, I can now do the think I've always wanted, which is a really dignified retirement, and the pension that I banked on, and go hunting or do sculpture or work for my wife's company or do whatever else I want to do."
Quinn: Sure sure, and fine. If that's the win he wants, great. Whatever gets us there. We've developed such an attitude of whatever the means are at this point that get us there.
Sen Whitehouse: It's not work baking the planet to deny this clown a victory.
Quinn: No, it's not. It's not. Do you feel like, and again knowing that that's totally unpredictable, do you feel like these theoretical future Senate colleagues of the same flavor as you have the backbone to keep passing legislation regardless of whether he signs it, to show your constituents and the American people and the world that we're actually trying, that we actually give a shit?
Sen Whitehouse: Yeah, I think they might. I think that the tipping point could come quite soon. I know that the oil majors are discussing actually supporting a full on $40 per ton price on carbon, and if they actually do support it and this isn't just more of their game of saying they support a price on carbon while instructing their political and electioneering operation to destroy any such notion-
Brian: [crosstalk 00:45:23] opposite.
Sen Whitehouse: Yep, but if they're serious, then I think that shifts things for a lot of Republicans and that opens the door and it makes it a lot harder for the gun towers to be credible. It's like opening the fence at the end of the incarceration. They can walk out free into the sunshine and see there's the getaway car, the carbon price that's border-adjustable and revenue-neutral, and everybody's good.
Quinn: I'm pretty sure that's just the ending of The Shawshank Redemption, but we're going to go with it.
Sen Whitehouse: I had that in mind to tell you the truth. I've seen too many movies, and I've seen that one 19 times.
Quinn: Who hasn't? It's on TNT every day.
Sen Whitehouse: And it's fantastic.
Quinn: By the way, why not do it now? Even if we keep losing the vote, and I know there's strategy to it and we're just hopeless romantics who don't want to melt.
Sen Whitehouse: We don't get to call anything up now because we don't have any gavels, so that's the problem. As soon as we get gavels, then we can call something up, and know that we're not just designing legislation for decorative purposes. We can actually put it to the floor.
Quinn: Sure, and then you can say, "Hey we've tried, but the orange guy keeps turning it down." Let's pivot a little bit. Talk to me a little bit about the lawsuit coming out of the great state of Rhode Island this week. Obviously, you work with the federal government and it's a state lawsuit, but you used to be an Attorney General. Can you give us a brief explanation of that suit? We've talked a lot about it. We've actually interviewed Mayor Serge Dedina of Imperial Beach here. Tell us how Rhode Island's suit is different than lawsuits that were tossed out recently and the ones that are still standing.
Sen Whitehouse: I think the core part of the lawsuit is the issue of public nuisance and whether the CO2 emissions of power plants and the CO2 emissions of tailpipes that the industry knew about have created a public nuisance that the industry has a responsibility to abate in any way. I think that as a legal matter, that argument probably holds up. Some of these cases have gone to federal court on the grounds that Federal Clean Air Law and so forth has pre-empted the state public nuisance law, and if that's the case, it probably dies in the federal courts, but in state court, it looks pretty good.
Sen Whitehouse: And as you probably know, the California State Supreme Court just let stand a public nuisance verdict to the lead paint companies treating lead paint as a public nuisance, so that provides a road map for litigants to follow to plead a state level climate public nuisance, and I think that's the road the Attorney General in Rhode Island is following. I think it stands a very credible chance of success, and even more to the point and more immediately, it adds to the pile of litigation risk that these companies face, and particularly the dreaded day when they have to actually turn their files over and show what they've been saying secretly all along, because that happened to the tobacco industry years ago, and that was the end of their credibility, and I think the same thing is going to happen with these guys.
Sen Whitehouse: ExxonMobil, if you can believe it, actually went into court in the commonwealth of Massachusetts and told a Superior Court judge, who had probably driven by an Exxon station that morning on her way to the courthouse, that they did not do business in Massachusetts, and therefore they could not be pursued by the Massachusetts Attorney General.
Quinn: That's fucking incredible.
Sen Whitehouse: Yeah, that's what a lawyer would call an f'ing hail Mary. They clearly are in a state of panic. They're clearly in a state of panic when they're throwing those kinds of arguments out.
Quinn: Yeah, absolutely. All right, I know we've taken up a ton of your time here. What our listeners need to know is, and they're across the country, across the world, what they can do to help. And these people, they've taken so many actions this year, a lot of folks for the very first time. The list of things they've had to do and have stepped up to do is getting long, and honestly, super annoying at this point, but climate change is the one thing that can melt or sink us all, so aside from just vote on November 6th, what else are you telling your constituents or are things that we can help express from this platform that people need to be doing specifically?
Sen Whitehouse: I think the most helpful thing that people could be doing right now is to hold big business accountable for its lobbying in Congress, and I've already described how the fossil fuel industry, the oil companies specifically, that have claimed to support a carbon price are in fact busily trying to make sure that no such thing happens on the side through their political and electioneering operations. What is less well known is that enormous American industries like the tech sector, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, come to Washington to lobby, and despite having really good climate policies, they don't say a word about climate change.
Sen Whitehouse: And I've been chasing them for years to have their group TechNet actually use the word climate change in your lobbying presentation. Just say it. Come on, be a man.
Quinn: And all of these companies have put out so many press releases, and it's great that they're all powered entirely by renewable energy, but use that clout in a different way.
Sen Whitehouse: Use that clout in Congress where the problem is that is keeping climate legislation from being passed. Coke and Pepsi are my other two favorite examples. They do their lobbying through the American Beverage Association, which doesn't spend a nickel in support of climate legislation, through which in fact, they run money to the US Chamber of Commerce, which is our number one enemy on climate change.
Sen Whitehouse: Here you've got these companies that have a really good position on climate everywhere except in Congress where their net lobbying position is hostile to their own publicly stated position, and you can go on to the lumber industry and the timber industry, and they obviously have a huge stake in this. Nope, nothing. You can go on to the people who write the checks, the property/casualty insurance industry. Nothing. There's got to be an accountability moment where if you want to get the support of American consumers who are concerned about climate change, you've got to own your lobbying, and if it does not align with your stated position on climate change, you've got to correct that.
Quinn: I love that, absolutely. Absolutely.
Brian: Thanks for walking the walk here.
Sen Whitehouse: It shouldn't be asking a big American corporation too much to align it's lobbying and electioneering effort with what it's stating its actual position is. That should not be asking too much.
Quinn: Absolutely not.
Brian: All right, I know we're getting so close to time here Senator. First of all, just thank you so so very much for being with us today.
Brian: And chatting with us. Is there anybody else defending the world that we should talk to?
Sen Whitehouse: Oh, there's some really, I think ... Brian Schatz is my co-author on the carbon price bill, the Senator from Hawaii, Ed Markey had his heart broken after Waxman-Markey passed the House and the Senate failed to even take it up. We had a Democratic-controlled Senate and we had a Democrat in the White House, and we had a bill through the House for climate change, and we didn't even bother. It makes me ill, so Markey's now over here in the Senate and he's been a great ally. Tom Carper has been our leader on the EPW Committee. There's been some really really good, really really good work done.
Quinn: Awesome, well we might hit you up for some intros on those if that's all right. However you guys, I don't know if you guys have a special Senate insta-messenger or something there you communicate. Senator, just a couple quick last questions, a bit of a lightning round, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
Sen Whitehouse: When I went to work in the Attorney General's office in the state of Rhode Island, and was able to, as a young lawyer, help make things happen that could change the way Rhode Island worked. And then I went up to the state house as a legal counsel for the governor, and it really opened up, and so I learned the power of change as a young lawyer.
Quinn: I love it. Senator, who is someone in your life that's positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Sen Whitehouse: In the past six months? I would say one of my most helpful friends in the Senate has been ... I'm mention two. One is Lindsey Graham.
Quinn: Okay, not the answer I saw coming, but please proceed.
Sen Whitehouse: No, Lindsey's been doing good stuff with me on letting our subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee look into various Russia election infiltration stuff, and then my colleague from Alaska, Dan Sullivan was my co-author of the Marine Plastic Debris Bill, and you're going to fall out of your chairs, but an original co-sponsor of our Marine Plastic Debris Bill was none other than Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.
Quinn: Come on, Senator.
Sen Whitehouse: I kid you not.
Quinn: We have a no bullshit policy on this podcast.
Brian: There's no reason for these blatant lies.
Sen Whitehouse: When we did the hearing on the bill and he walked through the door into the EPW Committee, my head fell onto the counter. I said, "Dammit, why did you even have to show up? You're from a square state. You don't have a coast. Couldn't you just stay away and leave us alone? We were having such a good hearing." And then this is a story of pre-judgment, because he listened to the witnesses, and it turns out that as a boy, he'd gone down to the Texas coast and he has a real affinity for sea turtles.
Quinn: No shit.
Sen Whitehouse: He used to stand out on the beach with a flashlight waving away the jeeps and trucks driving up and down the beach so they wouldn't squash the little sea turtles headed for the sea, and he knows about the sea turtles being caught in plastic debris, and he liked the hearing and he said, "I'm in."
Quinn: That's amazing. That just goes to show you what happens. Brian I told you, when you assume what does it do? It potentially takes away someone who could vote to not kill the planet. I told you.
Brian: You tell me that every day.
Quinn: Brian has his one last favorite question, Senator.
Brian: I have one last question. We're such big fans of this question, Senator. If you could Amazon Prime one book to Donald Trump, what would it be?
Sen Whitehouse: Oh boy.
Quinn: Anything. We've gotten everything from The Little Prince to The Constitution to ... You name it. We've got some good ones.
Brian: Harry Potter.
Quinn: And again, this is assuming that someone will read it to him.
Sen Whitehouse: Oh boy. This is such a wild question, because I'm trying to pick a reading level before I even go there. What was the Dr. Seuss one about the ...
Quinn: It could be an audiobook. Who knows?
Sen Whitehouse: I'd go with Silent Spring.
Brian: Silent Spring.
Quinn: Awesome. We will put it on the list. Senator, where can our listeners follow you online.
Brian: On Twitter, @SenWhitehouse. And then you can go to whitehouse.sen.gov, or you can go to just Senator Whitehouse on Facebook.
Quinn: Awesome, awesome.
Quinn: We know you're out of here. Senator, we cannot thank you enough for your time today, and for all that you've done, you've been doing in anticipation of leading the way on climate action in hopefully a few months.
Sen Whitehouse: Let's keep our fingers crossed. You never ... You always do better in a fight when you're optimistic, so stay optimistic.
Brian: It seems like a theme that you've been sharing this whole episode, and it's been very inspirational.
Sen Whitehouse: Thanks an awful lot.
Quinn: We appreciate it Senator. Thank you so much, and have a great day, Sir. We will talk to you soon.
Sen Whitehouse: Okay, thank you.
Brian: Thank you.
Sen Whitehouse: Thank you both.
Quinn: Thanks to our incredible guest today, and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute or awesome workout or dish washing or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free e-mail newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. It has all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
Brian: And you can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter @importantnotimp.
Quinn: Just so weird.
Brian: Also on Facebook and Instagram at ImportantNotImportant, Pinterest and Tumblr the same thing, so check us out, follow us, share us, like us, you know the deal. And please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this, and if you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple Podcast. Keep the lights on, thanks.
Brian: And you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website importantnotimportant.com.
Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jammin' music, to all of you for listening, and finally most importantly, to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian: Thanks guys.