You know climate change advocates are having a tough time when they invoke the Know-Nothing Party as a sign of hope for the future. For the past year, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has been making a weekly speech about global warming on the Senate floor, mostly to an empty chamber and a handful of C-SPAN viewers. But even if Washington isn’t necessarily paying attention to the issue right now, Whitehouse claims his efforts aren’t in vain.
“We’ve been through dysfunction before. Rhode Island was run by the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse explained cheerfully during at interview at the Washington Ideas Forum on Thursday. He and Delaware Governor Jack Markell took the stage to persuade viewers and PBS correspondent Gwen Ifill that climate change is an important, politically pressing issue. But Ifill seemed dubious about their approach.
“I guess my question isn’t about the seriousness of the issue, but the futility of coming to the United States Senate and arguing it when nobody is listening,” she said.
And indeed, futility—albeit a rather noble futility—was the lingering impression as Markell and Whitehouse exited the stage. Throughout their discussion, they railed against Washington’s dysfunctionality, criticizing the special interests and partisanship that they believe have crippled climate reform efforts. And again and again, they admitted the important role the federal government must play in saving the environment, pointing to FEMA guidelines, cap and trade proposals, and emissions standards that need to be revised at the federal level.