Why Would Anyone Want to Be the Next Al Gore?

Sheldon Whitehouse’s lonely climate fight.

WASHINGTON - JUNE 11: U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) (L) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) (R) listen during a news conference after the Senate Democrats failed to invoke cloture to proceed to a no confidence vote in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales June 11, 2007 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Senate Republicans have blocked a Democratic effort to vote no confidence on Gonzales.
National Journal
Lucia Graves
Nov. 12, 2013, 4 p.m.

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When Shel­don White­house makes his 50th cli­mate speech on the Sen­ate floor this week, he’ll likely face a deser­ted cham­ber. Cli­mate change is about as dead a polit­ic­al plat­form as you can find these days, something most politi­cians will go to great lengths to avoid. But the Rhode Is­land Demo­crat is in­tent on mak­ing it his is­sue, even if it seems like he’s talk­ing to him­self week after week.

Does it feel lonely, be­ing the only one up there talk­ing about it?

“Yeah, ab­so­lutely,” White­house said. “What’s frus­trat­ing about feel­ing lonely is that I think this is an is­sue that we would win, in that the Amer­ic­an pub­lic would win, if we simply put our minds to it, put our at­ten­tion to it and took it up.”

At 58, and after just a few years in Wash­ing­ton, the former state at­tor­ney gen­er­al has po­si­tioned him­self to be the next Al Gore, giv­ing weekly floor speeches on the per­ils of car­bon pol­lu­tion. At an event on Cap­it­ol Hill earli­er this year, the former vice pres­id­ent seemed to pass him the pro­ver­bi­al cli­mate torch. “Shel­don White­house has be­come the lead­ing United States Sen­ate ad­voc­ate for solv­ing the cli­mate crisis, and you ought to be very proud,” Gore told an audi­ence of Rhode Is­land lead­ers who’d gathered as part of White­house’s an­nu­al en­ergy and en­vir­on­ment event.

Why any­one would want that mantle, though, is an­oth­er ques­tion.

Gore’s rise and fall have been well-doc­u­mented. In the years since his Oscar-win­ning doc­u­ment­ary An In­con­veni­ent Truth and sub­sequent No­bel Peace Prize, the act­iv­ist group Gore cre­ated has waned, and with it, its mis­sion to build a glob­al non­par­tis­an move­ment around cli­mate change.

Its struggles began in 2009, when the cap and trade bill failed in the Sen­ate. There’s no Second Com­ing in sight. Any move to push a cli­mate-change bill for­ward is com­pletely at odds with cur­rent polit­ic­al real­ity: Com­pre­hens­ive le­gis­la­tion has zero chance of pas­sage in the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House and little chance even in the Demo­crat-con­trolled Sen­ate.

White­house knows this, and to date has fo­cused his ef­forts on simply mak­ing noise — edu­cated, in­formed, de­lib­er­ate noise. Work­ing with Henry Wax­man in the House, he formed a bicam­er­al cli­mate task force of a few dozen Demo­crat­ic law­makers who give speeches about cli­mate change on the House and Sen­ate floors every day Con­gress is in ses­sion. “Si­lence is the en­emy,” White­house said.

He’s cer­tainly not the only cli­mate hawk in the Sen­ate. There’s Sen. Bar­bara Box­er, chair­man of the En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee; John Kerry, who, be­fore he left to head up the State De­part­ment, spent the bet­ter part of 2009 and 2010 tucked away in a host of Sen­ate of­fices, pros­elyt­iz­ing on cli­mate change; and Ed­ward Mar­key, the staunch Mas­sachu­setts en­vir­on­ment­al­ist who re­cently moved over from the House fol­low­ing a spe­cial elec­tion.

So far White­house, a ju­ni­or sen­at­or who’s been try­ing to find an is­sue on which to dis­tin­guish him­self, has been the most vo­cal on the is­sue. But it’s Wax­man, whom White­house lis­ted as among his ment­ors, who’s been the le­gis­lat­ive muscle be­hind the move­ment. Had Wax­man not over­reached with the cli­mate bill in 2009, he might have mas­ter­minded cli­mate’s sig­na­ture re­form.

Now, however, he and White­house are locked in a wait­ing game. “It took us a dec­ade to get AIDS le­gis­la­tion. It took us 15 years to get to­bacco reg­u­la­tions,” Wax­man told Na­tion­al Journ­al earli­er this year. “Some­times when you play the long game, you get a stronger res­ult. You put everything in place, you do the work, and you wait for the right mo­ment to ar­rive.”

Cli­mate policy has inched for­ward in a num­ber of the states most af­fected by Hur­ricane Sandy, but the broad­er U.S. pub­lic has shown little in­terest in ex­tend­ing that con­ver­sa­tion at the na­tion­al level. For Rhode Is­land, known as the Ocean state, the ef­fects of cli­mate change can have ser­i­ous im­plic­a­tions along its al­most 400 miles of coast­line and in its coastal rivers, in­dus­tries, and in­fra­struc­ture. A change of just a few de­grees in the tem­per­at­ure of the wa­ter, for in­stance, can mean the death of an en­tire fish­ing in­dustry.

“It’s really on people’s minds,” said Janet Co­it, dir­ect­or of the state’s De­part­ment of En­vir­on­ment­al Man­age­ment, who over­sees nat­ur­al-re­source is­sues and en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion is­sues in Rhode Is­land. “Even since I’ve had this job, we’ve had week-long power out­ages from Sandy to Irene, and when we have these storms it really gets people’s at­ten­tion.”

But na­tion­ally, that’s not the case.

White­house in­sists it’s just a mat­ter of time. “The fu­ture is on our side, in­ev­it­ab­il­ity is on our side, the eco­nom­ics are on our side, the facts are on our side, sci­ence is on our side and the frus­tra­tion is, why am I alone now when this is a battle if we simply joined it, we’d win?”

There’s a stick­er on the com­puter on White­house’s desk that quotes Win­ston Churchill: “Nev­er, nev­er, nev­er give up.” Corny, maybe, but apt.

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