Host Kristin Hayes talks with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) about the reintroduction of the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act. Sponsored by the senator and several colleagues, the legislation would impose a carbon fee on fossil fuels, starting at $52 per metric ton of CO2 emitted. They also discuss the challenges facing our planet’s oceans—a topic of great importance to the senator from the Ocean State.
Listen to the Podcast
Top of the Stack
References and recommendations made during the podcast:
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Kristin Hayes.
This week, I talk to Sheldon Whitehouse, United States Senator from the state of Rhode Island, and long-time champion of environmental and climate policy. We discuss the reintroduction of the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act. Sponsored by the senator and several colleagues, the legislation would impose a carbon fee on fossil fuels, starting at $52 per metric ton of CO2 emitted. We also talk about the challenges facing our planet’s oceans—a topic of great importance to the senator from the Ocean State. Stay with us.
Senator Whitehouse, it is truly an honor to be here with you today on the Hill to talk about climate policy and the carbon fee legislation that you and your cosponsors recently introduced, in this case reintroduced: the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act of 2019. Thank you very much for joining us on Resources Radio.
Sen. Whitehouse: Great to be with you.
Kristin Hayes: Great. So we always like to start our podcasts by asking our guests to share a little bit about why they were drawn to work on natural resource or energy or climate issues in the first place. So you've been a strong advocate for climate policy during your tenure as a lawmaker. Can you tell us just a little bit about what led you to take a lead in developing policy proposals in this space?
Sen. Whitehouse: Well, I grew up as a foreign service kid and we were posted in a lot of places that were in pretty dire situations, but we were also near the ocean and I learned two things from that. One, American leadership really matters and is valuable, and two, the oceans are incredibly precious. I represent the Ocean State. I'm married to a marine biologist, and I've been witness to the dramatic harm that we've inflicted on the oceans, and how really abused our oceans are right now. And I've witnessed in recent years a terrible failure of American leadership in this space. So both to try to encourage American leadership and to protect this incredibly important environment that we have, I've worked pretty hard in this area.
Kristin Hayes: That's great, and we're grateful for it. So you have introduced a carbon fee for a number of years, and I believe you've probably been working on climate change for years before that. So I wanted to also ask a sort of an opening question. How do you see the political conversation around climate change having evolved in the time that you've been focused on these issues? This year will be 10 years since the introduction of Waxman Markey. What's changed since then?
Sen. Whitehouse: I got here in 2007. And for 2007, 2008, and 2009 this was a pretty bipartisan issue. There were multiple bipartisan bills or bipartisan hearings or bipartisan conversations. It was a big thorny issue, but the Senate was taking it on in the way you would hope a Senate would. Then came January of 2010 and the Citizens United decision. And the Citizens United decision unleashed unlimited spending in politics by big special interests, and the fossil fuel industry took maximum advantage of that new decision, plus they figured out how to hide their identity when they were doing the spending. So they unleashed not only the unlimited money problem, but the dark money problem, and attached to those of course is the problem of—if you can spend unlimited dark money, you can threaten to. And you don't actually have to spend it, you can just tell people, don't you dare.
So there was a real heart attack that took place in the beginning of 2010 that stopped that bipartisan heartbeat of work. And we're still recovering from that, and trying to get out from under the political pressure of the fossil fuel lobby, it's front groups, it's electioneering. It's been a really brutal effort by the fossil fuel lobby. But we're at a stage now where you can only deny for so long, farmers and foresters are seeing it. Fishermen are seeing it, home state universities are teaching it, major home stake corporations are trying to adapt to it, and I think the Republicans are now in a place where they're trying to fight their way out from under the grip of the fossil fuel lobby.
Kristin Hayes: And speaking of bipartisanship too, one of the things that we read just this morning was that you were in conversations with Senator Cassidy from Louisiana, and that you were excited about the bipartisanship of that conversation too. Is there anything else that you want to add on that?
Sen. Whitehouse: I've done 240 weekly “Time to Wake Up” climate change speeches. On a number of occasions I've been joined by colleagues, on some occasions I've been joined by a great number of colleagues, but for the first time I was joined by a Republican colleague and I really appreciate Bill Cassidy doing that. Louisiana obviously has huge climate exposure, huge coastal risks. Their governor has declared their coast to a state of emergency. And I think Bill is going to be a very thoughtful person to engage with.
Kristin Hayes: That's great. Well, let's talk just a little bit more about the types of policies that you have introduced. Carbon pricing policies come in several flavors and you've chosen, at least most recently, to propose a fee. So why is that your preferred path?
Sen. Whitehouse: Two reasons. One, you can actually reliably predict that it will solve the problem, and to what extent it will solve the problem. So you're dealing with a known outcome. You're not just taking chances. It's too late, I think, to take chances. And there is in fact an economic market failure that this cures, so you're doing the right thing economically and you're creating a predictable solution to our carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas problem. So that's one.
The second is, if you get away from the sphere of influence of the fossil fuel industry, and out into Republican world more generally, and you look at all the Republicans who've thought through the climate change problem, virtually without exception, they end up in the same place, which is a price on carbon that is border adjustable and revenue neutral. So if we're going to do this in a bipartisan fashion, why not go to where they're signaling their most comfortable place is? So, both for reasons of likelihood of solving the actual tangible physical problem of climate change, and a likelihood of having a bipartisan approach, I think a carbon price is the way to go. And the carbon fee is simpler than cap-and-trade and other more complicated methods.
Kristin Hayes: This is a federal carbon pricing policy, but all senators represent their home states first and foremost. So what have you learned about the potential impacts of climate change on the State of Rhode Island?
Sen. Whitehouse: I go around Rhode Island with my friend Grover Fugate, who is the head of Rhode Island’s Coastal Council, what we call our CRMC. And we do a presentation about how the map of Rhode Island is going to change in the coming decades as a result of sea level rise. Since before European settlers came, the map of Rhode Island has always looked the same to the Narragansetts and the Wampanoags and others who live there. And it's always looked the same until now. But the predictions are that we're going to see dramatic redrawing of our state map into what I call the Rhode Island archipelago.
And that is a really brutal thing for a small coastal states like mine with enormous homes, businesses, infrastructure, towns. There's an enormous amount of harm coming our way and of course, the prospect of another hurricane of 1938, a storm of that magnitude to really devastate, is worsened by all of this. So for us, it's really physical. The biggest danger that Rhode Island faces is sea level rise and coastal storm.
Kristin Hayes: How much of the population of the State of Rhode Island is in fact based on the coasts? Is it a pretty coastal heavy state?
Sen. Whitehouse: It's a pretty coastal heavy state. The most populous municipalities are coastal municipalities and our least populous municipalities are our northern and western ones that are away from the [coast], so we're very coast heavy. And of course as a huge tourist attraction, with a strong blue economy of fishing and naval research and things like that, the impact of this is going to be economically very powerful and very debilitating for the state. And we're small too, so retreat is not such a wonderful idea.
Kristin Hayes: We need to preserve all of Rhode Island that there is, that's for sure.
Sen. Whitehouse: I'm very interested in that.
Kristin Hayes: Well, speaking of oceans, what is happening with the oceans, either through the impacts of climate change or other environmental challenges that they're facing?
Sen. Whitehouse: We are a terrestrial species and they're not a lot of us who spend a lot of time in or on the ocean. So we're blind right now to some of the most extraordinary changes that the oceans have seen. The oceans have taken up 30 percent of the excess carbon dioxide we've put out. And when they do that, they react chemically. They become acidic. And that prevents shells from forming, for instance, that prevents coral from growing for instance. So we're seeing massive die-offs in our coral reefs. Massive die-offs. And that's really tough because they’re our nurseries for a lot of species.
We're seeing core ocean species like the Pteropod, a little oceanic snail, it flies around in the water column, unable to make their shells, living in damaged shells. You crash a population that is at the bottom of the oceanic food chain and the whole food chain can collapse with it.
The oceans are warming, 90 percent of the heat we've added to the earth by climate change has been actually absorbed by the oceans. We've been spared, but it's four Hiroshima style bombs worth of heat per second.
Kristin Hayes: Per second?
Sen. Whitehouse: Per second that we're adding to the oceans. So they're dramatically warming. And when you combine warming and acidification, it's a double whammy on the reefs. And it's really tough for people who live around the world and have artisanal local fishing livelihoods because the fisheries are all moving. We can manage in Rhode Island, we have species moving out and species moving in and we've got NOAA helping us and boats can travel great distances, but if you're fishing with a net out of a pirogue someplace and you lose your fishery, you lose your livelihood, you lose your village.
So the oceans, even though they seem like they're big and distant and far away and can't be harmed, they really are being harmed, they're being harmed dramatically, and the counterpunch we get when we don't take care of the oceans is going to be a lot of suffering for humankind.
Kristin Hayes: Maybe just one follow up question on oceans in particular, aside from addressing climate change which of course is a significant aim of your legislation, are there other efforts that you think we should be taking specifically focused on that resource?
Sen. Whitehouse: Yeah. The other big thing, it's not climate related directly, but we're doing a lot of work on ocean plastics. Here there's quite a lot of bipartisanship in the Senate. There's been considerable progress, the bills passed unanimously. The industry is on board and we've located where most of the problem is, which is in five or six Asian countries. 10 rivers, if you could manage their flow for plastic, put 90 percent of the plastic into the ocean. And it's just bad waste management practices as well as a plastic product that doesn't biodegrade.
So those are solvable problems, but—you want to leave a lousy the ocean to the kids—by 2050, if we don't change our trajectories, there will be a greater mass of waste plastic in the ocean than there is a massive living fish. That is not what we want to leave to our grandchildren. It's not a climate problem, but it's a big ocean problem and it's one that we can solve.
Kristin Hayes: I feel like that is something where the visuals coming from that part of the world and the storytelling that comes related to plastic pollution is extremely powerful, and it shows the importance of those ways in which you can make tangible, the impacts that we're having on the planet.
Sen. Whitehouse: Yes. And if people mock switching from plastic straws to paper straws because it's not enough: yes, it's not enough. But it's part of understanding that this is real, and is part of helping move our species to a solution, and all these little steps, particularly the symbolic ones, point us in the right direction and ultimately add up. You can't be satisfied with them, but we shouldn't mock them. We should encourage them and ask what more we can do.
Kristin Hayes: That sounds great. Well, we at Resources for the Future, we were very pleased to host Senator Van Hollen and Representative Don Beyer back in March as they reintroduced their Cap and Dividend bill. And I'd like to put to you one of the questions that we put to them back then. What do you see as the path forward for this bill and what was your goal in reintroducing it now?
Sen.Whitehouse: I think the path forward is that the Republicans move from their more or less climate denial and obstruction mode, which we're seeing them begin to do. They move more rapidly for two reasons. One, the fossil fuel industry is frightened of litigation and wants to get a solution like the tobacco industry did. And two the financial community is frightened of another major crash. And folks like the Bank of England and Freddie Mac—are not environmental groups—are predicting the prospects of a real economic crash related to climate change and climate risk.
So with the financial community saying, we better do this, and the fossil fuel community saying, wait a minute, we may need to get out from under this problem with a deal, you could see a situation in which Wall Street and the financial community, which is a huge backer of the Republican Party, the fossil fuel industry, which is the biggest backer of the Republican Party, and the desire of Republican senators to get a good, decent solution all come together. And when they come together, you look around and say, well, where is that likely to happen? And you look to the outer Republican world where they've done this and they all come to the carbon pricing. So that's how I think it happens. And it could happen quite quickly.
Kristin Hayes: And it's something that we hear frequently at RFF is that things seem impossible until they're inevitable.
Sen. Whitehouse: Exactly. Right. It's a wonderful phrase, I'll use it all the time.
Kristin Hayes: When the window opens, it's very important to have policy solutions. Previously thought-
Sen. Whitehouse: My other example is the snow on the roof in New England. The snow falls flake by flake and storm by storm all through the winter. But in the spring when it suddenly comes off the roof, it comes off in a big whomp. And I think that's going to be the pace of change when the dam breaks and the fossil fuel industry’s obstruction yields.
Kristin Hayes: And the policy solutions are really ready to move.
Sen. Whitehouse: And the policy solutions are ready to go.
Kristin Hayes: So I want to turn to an international context for just a second. So there's, I think a pretty robust debate about whether the yellow vest protest in France, were fundamentally about France's carbon tax policy. But it does seem fair to say that, that that policy played a role. Canada is having similar challenges in maintaining commitment to carbon pricing in various provinces. So how do you think about that in a US context? How would you make carbon price durable?
Sen. Whitehouse: It does not defeat my optimism. First of all, I think in France there was a lot going on. The continued Gilet Jaune protests after the gas tax was withdrawn show that that was not the thing. I think they had a sense that a whole array of policies were advantaging the financial sector, investors, big shots, fancy people and regular working French folks were getting left behind and the gas tax was like the straw that broke the camel's back. And it was a tax, unlike the carbon fee. The tax went to fund government stuff. Whereas the carbon price that I've done and that Baker and Schultz folks have done, and that Van Hollen has done. That we all agree that the money has to go back to the people. And if you send the money back to the people, I think it takes some of the edge off.
In Canada, I think it's actually a continuing success story. It's fits and starts. It's always going to be fits and starts. But more and more provinces have a price on carbon. The fight is over. Do you do a national one and try to regulate all of them together? And we'll see where that ends up. But there's a lot of carbon pricing taking place at the province level and in some surprising provinces it's very successful and where it succeeded is where the money's going back to the people.
Kristin Hayes: That dividend-
Sen. Whitehouse: Essentially you end up paying the same tax burden that you would have anyway, but you get the advantage of not having a climate crisis.
Kristin Hayes: Well, that's a great lead into another question that I wanted to ask you, which was about states and provinces and their role as sort of learning laboratories. You've put forward an economy-wide policy, but there are a number of sector-specific policies that are being proposed at the state level, but also at the federal level. Are those sectors specific policies, things like a clean energy standard in your mind, are those second best policy options? Or can you see a path towards decarbonization where were those sectoral approaches have a role to play?
Sen. Whitehouse: I think the time is going to come when we realize how desperate our situation really is, and how the time lag between what we make inevitable, and when we get punched in the face by the inevitable has harmed us. And I think at that point it'll be, we've got to throw everything we have at this problem. And so all of these local efforts or sector specific efforts are incredibly valuable and important in providing those increments of change that will get us ahead of this problem eventually.
But that said, I don't see a way in which they come together to address the solution successfully without an underlying price on carbon. The perfect example is carbon capture, which has a great opportunity to be a really important part of the solution. But you can't do carbon capture if there isn't a business proposition for a carbon capture investor.
And there isn't a business proposition if you don't have a price on carbon because there's no revenues. If you can pollute for free, why would you pay somebody to capture your carbon? It's just not going to happen. So we hear a lot of talk about innovation. Innovation is going to be driven by a price on carbon. I do not think at the end of the day there's a way to get ahead of the climate crisis without pricing carbon. It's too big a subsidy for this industry. It's too big a deformation of the market economy, it has got to be fixed.
Kristin Hayes: And how do you think about innovation policy actually? Is that something that you see as complementary to carbon price?
Sen. Whitehouse: Yes.
Kristin Hayes: Because it does feel like innovation is a big part of the conversation. How do we drive that forward?
Sen. Whitehouse: You just got to distinguish between foe innovation, what I call the innovation theory, a talking point to try to avoid getting anything done, and what you can do to change the conditions that have prevented innovation from solving this already. The condition that has prevented innovation from solving this already is the massive, according to the International Monetary Fund, 700 billion dollar a year subsidy, that fossil fuel enjoys by virtue of having this market protection, not having to pay the costs of its arms. So you solve that and suddenly innovation is going to explode and it's going to burst forth. And that I think is the goal that we need to achieve.
Kristin Hayes: Great. Well this has been very enjoyable. I really appreciate your taking the time to tell us a little bit more both about the bill, but also about climate policy and your role in that in general. So I just wanted to close with our regular feature as well, which we call top of the stack. And this is our chance to ask you, Senator Whitehouse, what is on the top of your stack? What have you read or watched or listened to that you might want to recommend to our listeners on Resources Radio?
Sen. Whitehouse: I have just finished the Our Planet series with wonderful Sir David Attenborough narrating, and I could not commend that more highly. It is astonishing, beautiful footage. He has the most wonderful voice. The images are incredible, and the message is one of hope that nature can rebound and is resilient, but also seriousness that at the moment we're not on a path to allowing that to happen. We've got to change the way we're addressing this.
Kristin Hayes: Great. I know that at least a number of our listeners within the RFF building have watched and enjoyed it as well, so hopefully this will encourage others to do the same. Well, thank you so much and-
Sen. Whitehouse: My pleasure. Thank you so much for doing this, and I want to say, RFF has done really wonderful work supporting all of this carbon pricing, what will it accomplish? You guys are an incredibly important and trusted resource. So, big thank you to RFF.
Kristin Hayes: Well, we deeply appreciate that. Thanks so much.
Thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio. We'd love to hear what you think, so please rate us on iTunes or leave us a review. It helps us spread the word. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources For The Future. RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions, through impartial economic research, and policy engagement. Learn more about us at RFF.org.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources For The Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Kate Peterson, with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.