U.S. Senator Says Courts Can Solve Intractability on Climate Change

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse ’82 Delivered the Lillian K. Stone Distinguished Lecture
Sheldon Whitehouse

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is a 1982 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law. He delivered the lecture, “How We Win: The Path Forward in Congress on Climate Change,” in the Law School’s Caplin Pavilion. Photo by Julia Davis

April 5, 2019

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse ’82 sees the path to regaining traction on climate change as similar to the one that brought down the tobacco lobby — and it involves courts. Whitehouse shared his thoughts Friday as part of the annual Lillian K. Stone Distinguished Lecture at the University of Virginia School of Law.

“To me the path to victory is to break the back of the climate denial apparatus,” he said.

Whitehouse began his service as the junior senator from Rhode Island in 2007, a time when there was greater political will to deal with the climate change problem in a bipartisan way, he said. He noted that five different Republican senators were working on solutions to the problem at the time.

That bipartisanship “flatlined,” by his estimation, with U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. The case upended a ban on political spending by corporations and unions.

“Dark money,” or political spending by groups not required to disclose their donors, began to flow on behalf of the oil industry. The spending was so great that effective legislative efforts on climate change essentially shut down, the senator said.

Previously a U.S. attorney under President Bill Clinton and the attorney general of Rhode Island, Whitehouse cited the Justice Department’s success using court discovery to expose the tobacco industry’s “lying about the safety of its products,” and suggested such an approach could be used in similar fashion to expose the oil industry.

The senator said he also hopes the Supreme Court revisits its decision in Citizens United, given the damage that has been caused.

“The Supreme Court is in a tough contest right now, between its desire to serve political interests and its desire to protect its reputation,” he said.

In the meantime, Whitehouse is doing what he can to advance legislation both on climate change, through a carbon pricing strategy, and campaign finance, to require donor disclosures at amounts of $10,000 and greater.

He acknowledged that, even under better-case scenarios, the world will still have to brace for the impact of climate change. He said the problem is largely a national security one. If less developed countries can’t produce food, for example, their resentments might be channeled toward the U.S.

Even in the face of political obstacles and an uncertain future, Whitehouse tries to stay upbeat, he said. He has made more than 200 weekly climate change speeches on the floor of the Senate — often to a largely empty room.

“Some amount of this is strategic,” he said. “If I’m not optimistic, then who else is going to be?”

The Lillian K. Stone Distinguished Lecture focuses on issues of environmental policy and is made possible through a gift from Thatcher Stone ’82 and Frank Kittredge (Arch ’78). The Schools of Law and Architecture host the lecture jointly. Lillian K. Stone served the Department of the Interior for 25 years and was an early advocate for environmental impact assessments.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

Media Contact

Eric Williamson
Associate Director of Communications and Senior Writer

News Highlights