10.28.14

Sen. Whitehouse Speech at NYU Institute for Policy Integrity fall conference

As Prepared for Delivery

I’m happy to be with you today, here in New York City.  Just a few weeks ago, four hundred thousand people marched in this great city to demand action on climate change.  I was honored to be among them.   

The world has just set some dubious records.  Five of the past six calendar months—April, May, June, August, and September—were each the hottest ever recorded.  (July came in at fourth hottest.)  2014 is on pace to tie or become the hottest year on record.  This decade was warmer than the last, which was warmer than the one before that, which was warmer than the one before that.  This is what climate change looks like. 

The reason is clear.  Scientists tell us with near certainty that the flood of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is changing the atmosphere and the oceans. 

Look at what carbon pollution is doing in our oceans.  We know that the oceans are warming.  That’s not a theory, that’s a measurement.  It’s done with thermometers.  We know that as polar ice melts and as ocean water warms and expands, sea level is rising.  That’s another measurement.  You can do it with a yard stick.  We know that as the oceans absorb more carbon, they are becoming more acidic.  Every American with an aquarium can measure acidity with litmus paper.  Again, simple measurements, proven facts. 

We everywhere see the harm carbon pollution is causing.  We see it all around us, in storm-damaged homes and flooded cities; in drought-stricken farms and raging wildfires; in fish disappearing from warming, acidifying waters; in shifting habitats and migrating contagions.  These changes carry real economic costs to homeowners, business owners, and taxpayers.  And they come as a result of carbon pollution.

Pollution-driven climate change hurts our economy, damages our infrastructure, and harms public health.  However, none of these costs are factored into the price of the coal or oil that’s burned to release this carbon.  The big oil and coal companies have offloaded those costs onto society.  Economics 101 tells us that’s a market failure; in the jargon, that negative externalities are inefficient.  If a company participates in an activity that causes harm, it should have to compensate those harmed.

Torts 101 tells us the same thing.  Seventy years ago, a soda bottle exploded and injured the hand of a waitress named Gladys Escola.  In a famous concurrence in the case of Escola v Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Justice Traynor said that economic common sense made the bottler responsible for the exploding bottle, to create the incentive not to make exploding bottles.  As the judge said it, “public policy demands that responsibility be fixed wherever it will most effectively reduce the hazards.”  So this idea that you shouldn’t be able to offload your costs—and in this case have Ms. Escola pay the price—is not new or unusual.  It’s really Fairness 101. 

If we expect any measure of integrity in energy policy, we must incorporate these climate change costs into the price of fossil fuels to correct the market failure. 

The financial burden borne by people living in a changing climate is known as the “social cost of carbon.”  It is the sum total of costs like property loss from sea level rise, the increased cost of treating mosquito-borne diseases, and loss from heat waves, drought, and other extreme weather.  A recent study of the economic risks posed by climate change showed that sea level rise, for instance, will inundate up to $100 billion of U.S. real estate by mid-century.  That is part of the social cost of carbon. 

Scientists and economists will tell you that some costs of climate change are hard to quantify.  How do you calculate the cost of an extinct species?  What does it cost to leave future generations with warmer, more acidic, less bio-diverse oceans?  It is hard to price it all out, but the costs are still real. 

U.S. government estimates of the social cost of carbon are just over forty dollars per ton of carbon dioxide emitted today.  The current price on carbon pollution is effectively zero. 

By making carbon pollution free, we subsidize fossil fuel companies to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars annually.  By making carbon pollution free, we fix the game, favoring polluters over newer and cleaner technologies that harvest the wind, sun, and waves.  Corporate polluters, not bearing the costs of their products, are in effect cheating their competitors. 

As University of Chicago Economics Professor Michael Greenstone recently explained, this concept is widely accepted in his field:

"The media always reports that there’s near consensus amongst scientists about the fact that human activity impacts climate change.  What does not receive as much attention is that there’s even greater consensus amongst economists, starting from Milton Friedman and moving into the most left-wing economists that you could find, that the obvious correct public policy solution to this is to put a price on carbon.  It’s not controversial."

Once upon a time, climate change wasn’t so controversial in Washington either.  Not long ago, Republicans joined Democrats in pushing for action on climate.  Leading Republican voices agreed that the dangers of climate change were real. Leading Republican voices agreed that carbon emissions were the culprit. And leading Republican voices agreed that Congress had the responsibility to act.  I have Republican colleagues in the Senate who introduced, cosponsored, or voted for climate legislation in the past.  Some of the proposals were market-based, revenue-neutral, tools, aligned with Republican free-market values.  Some called for a fee on carbon pollution to cut income taxes.  There was a steady pulse of activity—an exchange of ideas and real debate. 

Then, the heartbeat flatlined.  Republican calls for climate action fell silent.  Something happened, right around 2010. 

It was the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—one of the Court’s most disgraceful decisions.

In a nutshell, Citizens United says this: corporations are people; money is speech; so there can be no limit to corporate money influencing American elections.  If that doesn’t seem right, it’s because it’s not.

Improper fact-finding by the five conservative activists on the Supreme Court concluded that corporate spending could not ever corrupt elections—just couldn’t do it.  By some magic, it’s pure. 

That’s a bad enough finding on its face, but they also didn’t get that limitless, untraceable political money doesn’t have to be spent to damage our democracy.  Unlimited corporate spending in politics can corrupt publicly, through the floods of anonymous attack advertisements we all see; it can also corrupt, secretly and more dangerously, through threat of that spending.  What Citizens United gave corporations the power to do, it also gave them the power to threaten to do.

As Senator John McCain and I wrote in an amicus brief in another campaign finance case, “The dominating influence of super PACs makes it all the easier for those seeking legislative favors and results to discreetly threaten such expenditures if Members of Congress do not accede to their demands.”

Bear in mind that since Citizens United, a lot of this special interest money has been used against Republicans.  I’ve had Republican friends ask me, “What are you complaining about?  They’re spending more against us, than against you.”  When the Koch Brothers’ attack machine can come in and bombard you in a small Republican primary election, that’s pretty scary. 

The timing is telling.  Before Citizens United, there was an active heartbeat of Republican activity on climate change.  The evidence of climate change has only mounted, along with sea levels.   But after Citizens United uncorked all that big, dark money, and allowed it to cast its bullying shadow of intimidation over our democracy, Republicans have backed away from any real work on major climate legislation.

I work alongside Republican Senators who represent historic native villages, now washing into the rising sea.  We have Republican Senators who represent great American coastal cities, now overwashed by high tides.  We have Republican Senators representing states swept by drought and wildfire.  We have Republican Senators whose home-state forests—by the hundreds of square miles—are being killed by the marauding pine beetle.  We have Republican Senators whose home states’ glaciers are disappearing.  We have Republican Senators whose states are having to jack up bridges and highways above the reach of intensifying storm surges. 

Yet none will work on a carbon price bill.  Most won’t even utter the words “climate change” on the floor of the Senate at all.  It’s not safe to, ever since Citizens United allowed the bullying, polluting special interests to bombard our elections with their attack ads and their threats. 

Yet, despite the Citizens United debacle, I remain confident—for several reasons—that eventually Republicans will have to turn back toward policy integrity and political integrity. 

The first source of my confidence is the Obama Administration regulations that will for the first time limit carbon pollution from our power plants.  Our fifty worst-emitting power plants alone put out more carbon than all of Canada or Korea.   The new standard will not only reduce those emissions, it will change the way the polluters think. Once it’s no longer free to pollute, the whole equation changes for them.  And I suspect that some new thinking by polluters will be followed in short order by some new thinking on the other side of the aisle in the Senate. 

The second reason is the politics of climate change.  The public is with us—even increasing numbers of Republicans.  Sixty-one percent of Americans agree that climate change is occurring and that action should be taken, and 67 percent of Americans support the Administration’s proposed rule to limit carbon pollution from power plants.  Another poll found that more than half of young Republican voters—53 percent of Republicans under the age of thirty-five—would describe a politician who denies climate change is happening as “ignorant,” “out-of-touch,” or “crazy.”

A modern political party that has built its climate change policy on a theory of denial that its own young voters think is ignorant, out of touch, or crazy—that is a castle built on sand, doomed to fall. 

A third factor is what’s happening with American businesses.  Yes, the fossil fuel polluters control the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, and they are vocal players in the opposition to responsible climate policy.  But look at big brand name American corporations, like Coke and Pepsi, Apple and Google, WalMart and Target, Mars and Nestle, UPS and Federal Express, GM and Ford.  Look at the property casualty insurance industry, or the great bulk of the electric utility industry.  These corporate leaders recognize that climate change is a real problem; they understand the undeniable science of what carbon pollution does to the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans; and they are becoming more active. So, by the way, is the U.S. Military.  That difference will help us tear down the denial castle. 

And when the denial castle falls, a fee on carbon pollution is the answer.  I am preparing a carbon fee bill, which I plan to introduce next month, and I look forward to announcing more details about that in the weeks ahead.   

The Harvard School of Public Health estimates that such a fee could reduce carbon emissions by up to 59 percent from 2005 levels.  The improvements in air quality from the transition away from dirty power would decrease hospitalizations and prevent an estimated 3,200 premature deaths from heart attack, asthma, and respiratory disease every year.  Honestly tallying the costs of carbon pollution on the ledgers will let market forces lead toward more balanced and efficient use of fossil fuels and toward carbon-free renewable energy.

Then there are the financial benefits.  My legislation will generate significant new federal revenue—perhaps as much as two trillion dollars over the first decade.   Every dollar of this revenue should be returned to the American people.  We can do this lots of ways:  cutting personal or corporate taxes, relieving student loan debt, boosting Social Security benefits to seniors, providing transition assistance to workers in fossil-fuel industries, or even paying out direct dividends to families.  The list goes on.   

It’s win-win-win. We can use this revenue to do big things; repair a marketplace failure; and guide the economy toward lower emissions, enhanced productivity, and a sustainable future. 

Despite all the dark money, despite the threats and intimidation, I still believe this can be achieved.  We simply need conscientious Republicans and Democrats to work together, in good faith, on a common platform of fact and common sense.  Congress needs to shed the shackles of corrupting influence and rise to our duty. 

In courageous times, Americans have done far more than stand up to polluters to serve this Great Republic.  We know it can be done, because it’s been done. 

At the end of a speech about the American Revolution, the historian David McCullough was asked why it was that our Founding Fathers had the courage to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause of independence.  He answered simply: “It was a courageous time.”  It only takes courage to make this a courageous time.