Addressing America’s Climate Future

At an Environmental Solutions Initiative event, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse speaks about defending science and moving forward on climate action.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse was the guest speaker at an MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative People and the Planet lecture. (Photo: Casey Atkins)
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse was the guest speaker at an MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative People and the Planet lecture. (Photo: Casey Atkins)

By Stephanie M. McPherson | Environmental Solutions Initiative 

United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) spoke at MIT on Nov. 20 about efforts to deny the legitimacy of climate science and how such misinformation can be combated.

“In this, the era of climate change, we need more than ever the guidance and innovation of science to make the right decisions,” Whitehouse said. “[But] the enterprise of science now has … an industrial-strength rival … that apes science’s form but has the perverted purpose to defeat the influence of science on public policy.”

Whitehouse’s remarks were delivered in the second talk of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative’s 2017-18 People and the Planet lecture series.

Whitehouse discussed the 100 organizations, trade associations, think tanks, foundations, and public relations firms that he says were created as front groups for the fossil fuel industry.

“[Their purpose] is to create faux science that looks enough like real science to create the illusion of controversy to deprecate real science thus to delay or defeat regulation,” he said.

Whitehouse works actively to identify political activities funded with contributions from fossil fuel companies. Climate politics, in his view, were significantly affected by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that led to the practice of industries pouring money into political funding groups. In many cases, these groups do not have to reveal their donors.

Citizens United opened up enormous amounts of unlimited money into politics, and it did not take the political influencers very long to figure out how to hide their identity to make that money dark money,” Whitehouse said. He added that this decision has allowed those with a business interest in denying climate change to muddy the waters with misinformation and bully Republican candidates who may otherwise be amenable to discussing climate change policy. He said that bringing transparency to various funding sources will give voters more clarity during election cycles.

Whitehouse encouraged people to step up in support of the understanding and acceptance of climate change. He called on various institutions, including universities, to create mechanisms and entities to help scientists defend their research and refute climate denial.

“If a science building caught fire, you wouldn’t leave it to the scientists to fight the fire. You’d call the fire department because the fire department has the equipment and skills to fight the fire,” he said. “In the same way, the science enterprise needs a group that has the equipment and skills to defend the enterprise of science … science generally and universities specifically will need a common strategy to resist this potent and approaching adversary.”

He suggested individuals could also make a difference by demanding that powerful corporations make climate change policy a priority, in particular with their elected representatives in Washington.

“If corporate America stood up in Congress on this issue they could blow out the fossil fuel industry folks,” he said. “Sure they look terrifying … because nobody else is on the field. But if anybody else would show up on the field with any kind of clout … off we go!”

Whitehouse was elected in 2006 and has made climate change and other environmental challenges among his central legislative priorities. Since April 2012, he has spoken about the social and environmental effects of climate change each week the Senate is in session in a series of speeches titled “Time to Wake Up.” He has also been publicly critical of the Trump administration’s nominees to environmental posts — most recently Kathleen Hartnett White, who has been tapped to lead the Council on Environmental Quality.

In July 2017, Whitehouse introduced legislation, the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act, with fellow Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Congressmen Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and David Cicilline (D-RI). This bill would institute a fee on all major generators of carbon pollution. Starting in 2018, these industries would be required to pay $49 per metric ton of carbon pollution, with the potential for adjustments depending on methane and other greenhouse gas emissions. The fee would then increase by 2 percent per year.

In an effort to attract bipartisan support for their bill, Whitehouse and his co-sponsors wrote the legislation so that revenue created by the carbon fee would be used to lower corporate income tax rates. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) became the first Senate Republican to voice support for a carbon tax, though he has not yet cosponsored the Whitehouse bill.

Rhode Island is nicknamed the Ocean State, and Senator Whitehouse has long recognized the critical role that ocean ecosystems play in protecting the environment both locally and globally. He organized the bi-partisan Senate Oceans Caucus with Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in 2011 to address illegal fishing, ocean debris, and improved monitoring of ocean systems. The group now boasts more than 30 members.

John E. Fernández, director of MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative, said he was pleased that the senator brought his unique perspective and long-standing commitment for an improved environment to the MIT community. “In our extraordinarily contentious times we are due for some more cool and sedate reflection. We are also due for action and solutions,” said Fernández. “In hosting the senator this evening we intend to take one more step in advancing MIT’s unique role in providing the conditions for reason and action on climate change and the environment.”

David Goldston, the director of the MIT Washington Office, appreciated the steps suggested by Whitehouse for becoming involved in the environment. “The really important takeaway for MIT, especially for students, is that if you care about this issue this is the time to be active, not alienated,” he said.

Whitehouse ended the evening on a positive note. “Hope kind of springs eternal,” he said. “You wait … and you work … and you lean in … and things come and things go and you sustain your disappointments and then someday the door opens. … There are plenty of things that can be surprisingly good that can happen if we are ready, if we can move, and if we can lean in when those moments come.”