It's a question of raising the issue repeatedly so that it makes an impression with a very busy public: wait a minute, something weird is going in Washington. Why are these politicians denying that climate change exists when I see it everywhere I look?

YOU WROTE A LETTER WITH CONGRESSMEN WAXMAN AND MARKEY TO PRESIDENT OBAMA SUGGESTING HE COULD DO A LOT ON HIS OWN. HAS HE RESPONDED? AND WHAT CAN HE DO? I did speak to him about it at the [annual Senate Democrats] retreat. And he assured me that he would not have given this issue the placement, the emphasis that it got in his inaugural speech if he did not intend to be serious about it.

We still need to work through what the administration can do, but two obvious ones are to have [the Environmental Protection Agency] crack down not only on future, but on existing power plants — let me drop in an asterisk there: that makes a really big difference for Rhode Island; if you look at the way the winds blow across the United States, we are downwind of the biggest and dirtiest [plants] in coal country.

The other thing they could do is the US government and US military are the biggest buyers of fuel and carbon in the country, I believe, and could use their purchasing power. That means everything from greening their buildings, to hybriding their car fleets, to continuing to invest in alternative fuels — not from their position as regulators, but from their position as consumers.

NOW THAT HE'S BEEN RE-ELECTED, IS THE PRESIDENT POLITICALLY UNCONSTRAINED WHEN IT COMES TO CLIMATE CHANGE? I think that there are always some constraints on a president, even one who won't stand for re-election again. [But] I think those constraints are dramatically reduced in the second term. And I think that, to the extent the president had his eye on re-election in the first term, he now has his eye on his legacy. His legacy will be a failed one if he does not address permanent solutions [to what ails] our planet.

Forty, 50 years from now, the economic woes that we're experiencing and the Middle Eastern conflicts that are taking place, things like that, will be history — important parts of history, but history nonetheless. [But] people will be living, then, every single day with the effects of what we've done to our atmosphere and oceans.

DO YOU THINK A CARBON TAX IS, ULTIMATELY, THE ANSWER. AND WHAT'S THE VERSION OF THE CARBON TAX YOU'D LIKE TO SEE? I still think that the cap-and-trade system is the most sensible one. Rhode Island is already in [a regional] one. California is running one. A number of other examples exist around the world. It provides the most flexibility, allowing [industry] to innovate to reach the [pollution reduction] goal. I think it has been [damaged] politically by relentless propaganda from polluters. So I'm open, now, to a variety of ways to put a price on carbon.

In effect, fossil fuels are getting an unfair market advantage against their green competitors because we haven't found a way to build in the cost of carbon fuel. That creates a market failure, that in turn creates an incentive to [overuse] carbon fuel.

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Related: A conversation with Joe Citizen and Bob Corporation, Cambridge finds it ain't easy being green, Dropping the ball, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Washington, Sheldon Whitehouse, climate change
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