In the 1980s, Sheldon Whitehouse developed a sudden interest in the disappearance of the flounder from Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay. In the dead of winter, he would regularly board a small motorboat to drag a trawl along the freezing coastal waterways.
The young lawyer also had a bigger catch in mind. Her name was Sandra. He heaved nets, dug through clods of seaweed and helped his future wife count growing numbers of shrimp.
These "voyages," as Whitehouse describes them, helped the future Rhode Island senator understand how a little warming can have major environmental impacts. They also established Sandra Whitehouse as an early contributor to the research behind the flounder's decline, which many scientists believe is driven, in part, by temperature upticks in the bay.
The flounder release their eggs during the coldest months, when predators either migrate away to warmer waters or are too cold to move. But a small rise in winter water temperatures, about 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1960, brought in a predator: the sand shrimp.
"Little guys, but huge predators," Candace Oviatt, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, said of the shrimp. "They wouldn't be active if we had normal winter temperatures."
Oviatt, who advised Sandra Whitehouse on her dissertation, remembers the future senator as a "real trooper" with a noticeable crush on her doctoral student. Sandra Whitehouse's research, which earned her a Ph.D. in marine biology, established that the sand shrimp were causing a decline in the flounder population.
Oviatt didn't notice the young lawyer's curiosity about climate change. "I think he was more interested in Sandra," she recalled. Seven years or so later, Sheldon Whitehouse was named U.S. attorney of Rhode Island. Now he is emerging as one of the U.S. Senate's most visible sponsors of aggressive action on climate change.
Senate seminars on climate
He pushes his colleagues in weekly floor speeches to "wake up!" by speaking in the often unattended chamber and giving the ever-present C-SPAN cameras a barrage of facts and data points from the latest climate studies.
It's a strategy that some observers describe as back to basics. Whitehouse, a Democrat, believes that the continued presentation of scientific findings by an arc of experts and advocates will eventually make inaction indefensible -- not just morally and legally, but also politically.
He is talking, mainly, about Republicans from states exposed to rising seas, melting permafrost, stormier seasons and other recent impacts -- which includes most of them, in his eyes.
Whitehouse doesn't sound, necessarily, like an eco-evangelist. His approach weaves facts with political strategy, as he describes it. Like the prosecutor he was, Whitehouse is trying to build a case establishing the facts of climate change, so the unconvinced and professional deniers alike can see that, as he puts it, there's "no game" in rejecting the effects of warming.
"And the second [effort] is to try to work this issue into the position that gay rights and immigration have worked into," Whitehouse said recently in his office, "which is Republicans may hate gay rights, and Republicans may hate the immigration issue. But they look out and they see the demographics and they know it's coming. And they know they are doomed as a party if they don't get out of the way of those issues.
"I think it's our job to try to put climate change into that same category," he added. "They may hate to have to wean themselves off of their polluters. But they have to see that there's no political choice for them if they want to remain a viable party."
Whitehouse's approach to climate comes as the Senate has no clear leader on the issue and no consensus on how to tackle it. One former climate aide to a Republican senator, who supports action, described that as being the result of earlier Senate leaders on the issue, like John Kerry, failing to sell Congress on earlier initiatives, such as cap and trade.
"So there's an opportunity for new leaders to come up and pick up new things and move in different directions. And that's what seems to be happening to some extent," said the aide, who did not want to be named.
Another way to make headway?
Another former Senate climate aide sees Whitehouse's science focus as a natural fit for a wonky second-termer who's looking for maneuvering room on a competitive Environment and Public Works Committee headed by a veteran of the climate wars, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
"Maybe it's a safe spot for him to be and he doesn't have to get crosswise with his committee members," the aide said. "There's a lot of people [on the committee] talking about it, and there's plenty of people that take up other parts of the climate space."
It was Whitehouse and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) who pitched the idea of holding weekly climate meetings, according to Brad Crowell, who joined Whitehouse as an energy aide soon after he first took office in 2007. The idea stuck, and regular Tuesday meetings were convened.
"Really how that happened, Sheldon Whitehouse and Ben Cardin went to Boxer and Kerry and said, 'Hey, we need to start organizing on this and get people in the room and talking about it,'" said Crowell, now a principal deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Energy. "They were behind the scenes saying: 'We're not making the progress that we need because we're not coordinated as a caucus. We need to find a way to rally everyone together.'"
Now, at the start of his second term, Whitehouse is moving more aggressively. Early this year, he and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) launched a task force on climate change to urge the president to quickly use his executive authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions at existing power plants.
Executive action is "the fastest way, and it will also provoke legislative action," Whitehouse said in the recent interview. "As long as the Republicans are convinced that they can fend off serious regulatory action, they have zero motivation to engage legislatively."
He added, "The problem is, time's not on our side on this issue. So speeding it forward the way regulatory action does, I think, is very advantageous."
Rounding up companies that want action
Unlike Boxer, who introduced a carbon tax bill seen as a liberal marker with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) last month, Whitehouse has yet to drop a comprehensive piece of climate legislation.
Unlike Kerry, who distanced himself from Boxer and the Senate's liberal wing in 2010 to strike deals with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Whitehouse seems to lack the spectrum of industry contacts, and others, that his Massachusetts colleague used to forge alliances to back his carbon plan.
Indeed, one of Whitehouse's cornerstone arguments is that polluters are actively obscuring the scientific facts behind climate change with political donations and other doubt-raising methods. He describes them as having a ring of protection around the capitol, manned by lobbyists and sympathetic lawmakers.
"The Republicans would like to convince people that this is an idea that emerges from a small clique of extremist environmental Democrats. It's not. It just isn't. That's just outright false," Whitehouse said. "What they're saying is the opposite of true. What's true is there is a small fortress of polluters that has got Congress surrounded [and] is using its leverage to try to hold the people of America at bay."
He sees pressure as a cure for that leverage. Coordinating a coalition of utilities, insurers and others that want action on climate change, Whitehouse says, will encourage stubborn industries to rethink their political decisions.
He might be talking about the fishing industry in Rhode Island, long resistant to catch limits until it saw winter flounder go from an economically prized, dominant catch to a floundering species. Sandra Whitehouse says the climate issue is not restricted to their professional lives. It also comes home.
"I think you're irresponsible in this day and age if you aren't discussing it on a fairly regular basis, and what you can do to get on the oar and pull to help mitigate our impending future if we don't do anything," she said.
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