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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"We have to face the fact that the deniers are wrong"

By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff

It’s no coincidence Grover Fugate is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s guest at President Obama’s State of the Union address. Fugate, director of the state Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), is one of Rhode Island's most vocal climate hawks. Recently, Fugate declared that sea-level rise in Narragansett Bay could exceed 6 feet by the end of the century. A shocking proclamation given that most of the public is just learning of the 3- to 5-foot increase announced last year.

It’s not a prediction Whitehouse would challenge, however. The Democratic senator is one of the most outspoken climate champions in Congress. In recent months, he has delivered impassioned weekly speeches from the Senate floor, expounding on environmental degradation taking place across a warming planet.

Between 5 and 15 minutes in length, videos of the speeches are candy for YouTube political-policy fans and information-hungry environmentalists. Whitehouse pushes for solutions and calls out the deniers in Congress. 

The off-kilter global ecosystem, he says, portends unknown damage. The price of inaction far outstrips the cost of mitigation. Skeptics, Republicans and their corporate backers are regularly skewered as climate antagonists.

“There is a rear-guard action in this building led by polluters to try to prevent us from taking action on this. But we have to face the fact that the deniers are wrong; they are just plain dead wrong,” Whitehouse said during a Dec. 5 meeting of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

The speeches deliver current and dramatic research not mentioned in the mainstream discussion on climate change. In a Dec. 12, 2012 speech called “We are Sleepwalking Through History,” Whitehouse noted that the planet's carbon dioxide concentration has increased 50 parts per million since 1980, and is now well outside its range from the last 800,000 years. 

Oceans are absorbing a million tons of carbon an hour, resulting in a 30 percent increase in ocean acidity — an increase faster than any time in the past 50 million years.

Whitehouse also describes global and local impacts of climate change, such as during Hurricane Sand the unearthing of vehicles from the 1930s and '40s buried at Misquamicut Beach in Westerly.

His staff explained that Whitehouse gives the speeches because of frustration caused by “the barricade of special interests and climate-change deniers blocking action on this issue in Washington.” Speaking on the Senate floor, spokesman Seth Larson said, allows Whitehouse to keep the climate-change debate alive and “to force deniers to either hide or come to the floor with their extremist views.”

And if they haven’t yet elevated discussion nationally or in D.C., the speeches may have raised Whitehouse's environmental standing, landing him a co-chair position on the Senate and House Task Force on Climate Change with Rep. Henry Waxman, D-New York. 

The committee will seek input from industry on both sides of the issue: oil, coal and gas companies, electric utilities, automakers, defense contractors, insurance companies and universities. The outcomes may result in more recommendations than laws, but Whitehouse is committed to the cause. The speeches on YouTube and C-Span will continue.

As long as it takes to break through that barricade of special interests and get something done,” Whitehouse said.