Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
KINGSTON, R.I. — With all of the doom and gloom coming from Washington, D.C., about cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and subsequently to state environmental programs, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., says not to fret.
“I'm here to tell you that it is just not going to happen,” he said.
Any spending cuts must be approved through the budget process and Whitehouse is confident that Democrats in Congress will keep the funds intact.
“The budget that the president is putting out is nonsense, nobody really cares,” Whitehouse said during opening remarks March 11 at the annual Land & Water Conservation Summit at the University of Rhode Island.
In Rhode Island, the Department of Environmental Management receives 30 percent of its funding from the EPA. The Coast Resources Management Council receives 60 percent of its budget from the Department of Commerce, via the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. The national Sea Grant program, with an affiliate at URI, is one 33 research-based programs getting the axe in Trump's budget.
“Do not be dissuaded or dismayed by the cuts to EPA, the elimination of Sea Grant and other such efforts,” Whitehouse said. “It is an act of political theater; it is not an act of budgeting.”
The proposed cuts face too many road blocks, according to Whitehouse. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, will block spending reductions for environmental programs, Whitehouse said.
Congress already agreed to many budget items last fall. Thus, attempting to gut environmental programs and making ultimatums will lead to a prolonged stalemate and a potential government shutdown, something Republicans want to avoid for fear of public backlash.
Democrats also won't be trying to force budget items that Whitehouse called “smelly riders” or controversial special projects such as funding for a border wall or to de-fund Planned Parenthood.
Whitehouse sees signs of hope for action on climate change. First, many Republicans in D.C. privately support addressing the problem. This group may in fact include President Trump.
Whitehouse noted that Trump and his family signed a 2009 letter published in The New York Times that said the science behind climate change was irrefutable and the consequences would be catastrophic and irreversible.
Many Republican senators tell Whitehouse in secret that they support taking action on climate change but won’t speak up for fear of losing an election. Many were silenced, Whitehouse said, after 2010 when the Supreme Court upheld the Citizens United case and fossil-fuel companies began spending unlimited sums of money unseating Republican climate hawks.
Whitehouse hailed the three Republican treasury secretaries for crafting a carbon-tax proposal.
“There's a lot of good sense in the Republican Party happening on this issue,” he said.
Big corporations are on board, too. The Paris Agreement has support from 170 big businesses. Unfortunately, business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce actively lobby against climate action.
“There are really good corporate friends out their. Here's their dirty secret, they don't show up on this issue in Congress — at all,” Whitehouse said. “Their net lobbying presence in Washington is powerfully hostile to their own stated position.”
Whitehouse said not to believe statements from ExxonMobil that it supports a carbon tax. “That is a complete phony statement," he said.
The fossil-fuel industry has infiltrated the federal government, according to Whitehouse. At the top is former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who is now secretary of state. He’s followed by EPA director Scott Pruitt, whom Whitehouse called “a little functionary from Oklahoma” who represents oil and natural drillers.
“For all the raft of climate deniers who crawl through the Oval Office and through the agencies in non-confirmed positions, this is a really, really bizarre group of people. And they have really bizarre views about climate change. They're on a mission; they're determined,” Whitehouse said.
He called for grassroots activism and support for groups taking legal action on climate change.
“We are going to have to push back," he said. "The simple matter of fact is that the government of the United States under this administration has now been occupied by the fossil-fuel industry. So you need to be active and support the programs you support. You need to be active in support of those programs but do not give up hope. Just know this is a time to be heard.”
He encouraged everyone to attend the April 29 People's Climate March in Washington, D.C., or local marches.