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Senator Whitehouse on the climate crisis: “You can’t believe the fossil fuel CEOs when they say they want a solution.”

Rhode Island Senator talks to RI about climate change, corporate lobbying and US investors

For the past eight years, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has made a speech on climate change every week the US Senate has been in session.

At the start of his campaign in 2012, he felt “hollow” and “disconcerted” giving his “Time to Wake Up” speech on the climate crisis to a largely unengaged audience.

Whitehouse has now given some 270 such speeches, during which time the US Democratic Party has woken up to the climate crisis, with the House Democrats recently launching a wide-ranging climate change plan – a move he welcomes as a step forward from “the dark days when no-one was talking about climate”, but warns it does not go far enough. 

“It’s obviously better with a Democratic House that will take climate change seriously,” he tells RI. “But with a Republican-controlled Senate, that’s only half of the bi-cameral battle. The fossil fuel industry infrastructure that has kept climate legislation from passing is still very much alive and well and still casts influence over the Republicans. 

“So while it is better to have a Democratic House that is ready to legislate. It’s important to recognise that the Senate remains a problem area and the forces that make it a problem area are still very much in play.”

“Dark Money” obstructing climate change action

Whitehouse has been talking about corporate influence in American politics for years. In 2017, he published a book on the issue called Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy. It talks about “dark money” in politics paralysing climate action in the Senate, exacerbated by a 2010 landmark decision by the US Supreme Court, prohibiting the government from restricting political spending by corporations. 

"Most people simply don't understand how little interest corporate America has shown in this issue in Congress. They see the website. They see the sustainability policies. They see the stated goals for energy efficiency and all these other things that are that are all fine and good. But from my cockpit in Congress, I can see that the fossil fuel guys have not gone away."

“In the past maybe 30 years, there has been a massive increase in corporate political power,” says Whitehouse “And yet there has not been an accompanying sense of morality and propriety about the use of that power.” 

The issue is finally hitting public consciousness, with Lobby for Climate, a new youth-led campaign calling out corporations for supporting pro-fossil fuel industry lobbying groups. 

This year, Whitehouse also turned his attention to investor complicity in the issue. He co-wrote a letter to BlackRock, JPMorgan Chase, State Street and Vanguard about tackling “anti-climate” lobbying by oil and gas giant Marathon Petroleum in light of their stated commitments to support climate action.

He hasn’t had a response from the asset managers, who collectively roughly own 25% of S&P 500 Marathon Petroleum – and he doesn’t expect to. 

“I don’t think they have a good story to tell. The dirty secret of almost all of corporate America is that, when it comes to Congress, its interest in climate change completely evaporates. So there is no corporate effort on climate change in Congress.” 

He says that agencies like the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are “completely in sync with the fossil fuel industry” and will not disclose the funding they receive from such companies. 

“If you’re an American company, it’s very likely that two things are true no matter what your public statements are and no matter what your sustainability policies are. One is that you don’t make any effort in Congress on climate, and the second is that the trade associations and big lobby groups you support are climate obstructers.” 

In Captured, Whitehouse says: “America is full of responsible corporate leaders as horrified as you and I are by this vision of America. This agenda reflects the view of a minority of CEOs, but it is the loudest, strongest and most persistent corporate voice in my world, in Congress. It is the voice we hear.” 

He tells RI that the majority of CEOs “have a powerful responsibility to speak up more” while recognising “politics for big corporations can be a very ugly and selfish game”. 

“I think they don’t want to burn their bridges with big lobbying groups because they may need them someday. Even though they [lobby groups] are now doing the fossil fuel industry’s dirty work, you may want them someday to be doing your dirty work. So calling out that they’re doing the fossil fuel industry’s dirty work gets a lot of pushback.” 

US finance industry waking up to climate crisis 

Whitehouse’s attention on investors and anti-climate lobbying comes as European investors step up on the issue, working on a framework to help them identify when it is happening. 

He says US investors are starting to look at the issue too, but: “My impression is that in the European sphere, because political power is more diffuse, corporations have been much more amenable to change and leadership on climate, ocean plastics – a whole variety of issues – than their American counterparts who know they can go to Congress and get their way.”

“Investors have had a much more open door from European companies to improve their practice,” he says. “Whereas in the US it really hasn’t moved until now the financial services industry and banks have come to realise that their business models are at risk in a climate catastrophe. Now they have a self-interest, as opposed to a public interest, in a solution. So now they are pushing a bit in Congress, but there is more talk than action so far.”

Attracting bi-partisan support for climate change action

Last month, Whitehouse tabled two climate change bills in partnership with Republican senators – a very rare occurrence for such a polarised issue in the US. 

The proposed Growing Climate Solutions Act would help the US agriculture sector gain access to revenue from greenhouse gas offset credit markets through activity like reforestation to sequestering carbon in soil. 

And the Blue Carbon for Our Planet Act, introduced by Whitehouse and Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, focuses on protecting and utilising “blue carbon” – carbon dioxide that is naturally captured and stored by the world’s ocean and coastal ecosystems. 

On concluding the interview with RI, Whitehouse wants to add a message for responsible investors on the intentions of the Oil & Gas industry: 

“It says one thing publicly about wanting to solve the climate crisis, but it has built an enormous political apparatus of obstruction, and that apparatus is still operating full tilt. So you can’t believe the fossil fuel CEOs when they say they want a solution, because their apparatus is still fully operational, blocking the solution they claim they want. 

“And on the other side of the spectrum, the good companies in America are the people who have no vested interest in fossil fuels and have really good sustainability policies, and they have completely abandoned their climate interests when it comes to Congress. 

“Most people simply don't understand how little interest corporate America has shown in this issue in Congress. They see the website. They see the sustainability policies. They see the stated goals for energy efficiency and all these other things that are that are all fine and good. But from my cockpit in Congress, I can see that the fossil fuel guys have not gone away. They're just as bad as ever. And the good guys are not showing up at the game.

“If people knew how weak the presence of corporate America was in a positive way on climate in Congress and how much they'd allowed their own trade associations to become the agents of the fossil fuel industry, they would be stunned.”