No one in Washington has done more to fight for a meaningful response to climate change than Sheldon Whitehouse. For years, he has given speech after speech on the Senate floor about the issue. Every senator has a big, personal issue that they take on and this is Whitehouse’s. Now that Biden has become president, Whitehouse has stopped his speeches because we have a president who is taking this seriously. Elizabeth Kolbert notes both the importance of Whitehouse’s work and what Biden’s early moves mean.
Whether the Biden Administration can make a meaningful difference in the climate’s future remains very much to be seen. As the Washington Post reported recently, before the ink was dry on the President’s orders “the gas, oil and coal industries were already mobilizing on all fronts.” With the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, the Administration will have to be exceedingly careful in crafting new climate rules; otherwise, it could watch the Court sweep away the very basis of such rules. (The Court could revisit a key 5–4 decision, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, which requires the agency to regulate greenhouse gases; Chief Justice John Roberts dissented in that ruling.) There is, unfortunately, no substitute for strong environmental legislation, and Congress hasn’t approved a major environmental bill since 1990. With the slimmest of possible margins in the Senate, Democrats may have trouble getting even a modest climate-change package passed. “The paper-thin majority likely puts sweeping global warming legislation beyond reach,” a recent analysis by Reuters noted.
Still, a critical threshold has been crossed. For decades, politicians in Washington have avoided not just acting on but talking about warming. “Years went by in which you could scarcely get a Democratic Administration to put the words ‘climate’ and ‘change’ into the same paragraph,” Whitehouse observed, before retiring his sign. “We quavered about polling showing climate as issue eight, or issue ten, ignoring that we had a say on that outcome. When we wouldn’t even use the phrase, let alone make the case, no wonder the public didn’t see climate change as a priority.” Credit for changing the conversation—for making sure that there is a conversation—goes to stalwarts such as Whitehouse, and to a new generation of climate activists, and to the voters who watched California burn and southwestern Louisiana flood, and then flood again, and pushed climate change up the agenda. In a recent Morning Consult/Politico survey, “addressing climate change” ranked just behind “stimulating economic recovery from COVID-19” and “health care reform” as a priority.
Talking isn’t going to solve the problem, but it’s a start. “We’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis,” Biden said last week. “It’s time to act.”