Sheldon Whitehouse traveling to Iowa to talk climate

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse walks through the Capitol on Feb. 25, 2014. (photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse walks through the Capitol on Feb. 25, 2014. (photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is making a campaign swing through Iowa later this month – not because he’s running for president, but to call attention to climate change.

Whitehouse’s office confirmed Wednesday the senator will visit Iowa and Nebraska for three days starting March 17 to talk with local activists about global warming as the Hawkeye State prepares to once again play its key role in choosing the 2016 Democratic and Republican nominees for president.

Anytime a prominent politician visits Iowa in the years leading up to a presidential election it sparks speculation that he or she is running for president. But in an interview, Whitehouse adamantly ruled that out.

“There’s no possibility I’ll run,” Whitehouse told WPRI.com. The senator reiterated that he plans to support former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton if she runs again, adding that he expects her to do so. “I think she’ll be a great candidate,” he said.

Whitehouse is heading to Iowa at the invitation of state Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, who is active on climate change, and with the encouragement of U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. He’ll also visit a plant owned by BioProcess Algae, a Middletown-based company that makes commercial-scale bioreactors, in Shenandoah, Iowa.

Whitehouse said he hopes he can help Iowans put pressure on both parties’ eventual presidential contenders to support steps to curb climate change. “It’s a state that’s associated with the presidential race, and I want to do whatever I can to build a good network there so that when the presidential candidates do come, the climate issue is high-profile,” he said.

It’s unclear at this point how much of a contested primary there will be on the Democratic side, considering the strong support for Clinton shown in early polls. But, Whitehouse said, “I think it’s important even if the Democratic primary is just a victory march for Hillary, just as a reminder that this is an issue and also to make sure that we go at this issue with confidence – again, to take it off the back burner and move it up front.”

Whitehouse said he also has his eye on the Republican primary, which is expected to be a much fiercer fight.

“If their party tries to nominate a denier for an election that’s going to be held in November of 2016, when we’ll have two-and-a-half more years of built-up evidence and experience of climate change, they’re doomed,” he argued. “It would be stupid. It would be self-destructive. And so I think to raise that issue increases the likelihood that you get a Republican candidate who’s willing to take it on.”

Whitehouse’s swing through the Midwest is another sign of his rising profile as one of the most prominent opponents of climate change on the national political stage.

Since winning a landslide re-election victory in 2012, Whitehouse has spent considerable energy trying to break the Washington logjam on climate change that’s existed since a proposed cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate in 2010. He joined other lawmakers in creating a Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change and more recently a Senate Climate Action Task Force, and was recently named chairman of the Senate’s Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee. Closer to home, he joined Gov. Lincoln Chafee in announcing the creation of a new Rhode Island Executive Climate Change Council.

Whitehouse has taken to the Senate floor once a week for more than a year to deliver a series of 60 speeches calling for action on climate change. That effort has won him admiring press coverage from outlets including Bloomberg View, The Huffington Post (twice), The Hill and BuzzFeed, where he also contributed a climate-themed “listicle.”

In the interview Whitehouse pushed back against the conventional wisdom that there’s little likelihood of Congress taking any action on climate change in the near term, particularly with Republicans’ rising hopes that they’ll win control of the U.S. Senate in November. “I think the core is that the American people really get it,” he said.

Whitehouse said polling shows a wide variety of Americans, including younger Republicans, support some sort of action to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, as do a number of major corporations and non-governmental groups such as the big sports leagues and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“I’m much more optimistic than most people are about the ability to get something seriously done in Congress on carbon pollution,” he said.

Whitehouse also expressed high enthusiasm for President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the heart of which is a set of new regulations that would limit carbon emissions from existing power plants. “The worst 50 of our existing plants pollute more carbon than all of Korea or all of Canada,” he said.

One setback for Whitehouse and his allies in recent months has been what appears to be growing momentum in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline, which climate activists have lobbied hard to block. Warren Buffett and the AFL-CIO, among others, have expressed support for Keystone in the wake of a U.S. State Department report that suggested approving the pipeline would have a limited impact on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Whitehouse said that while he disagrees with the State Department’s findings, as well as Buffett and the AFL-CIO, “I respect honest disagreement. What I don’t respect is the cynical, planned lies and propaganda of the polluting machinery that tries to masquerade for something that it’s not.”

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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