Under the general rationale that his home state and Georgia both are on the Atlantic Ocean and threatened by rising seas and other climate-related dangers, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) in the days before Thanksgiving and again after Christmas toured from Pin Point to St. Mary’s, trying to better understand how people in Coastal Georgia view the issue.
Whitehouse met with more than 20 organizations and dozens of individuals and hosted two Zoom events. It was no coincidence that he chose a state with two seats for the U.S. Senate up for grabs next week. Predictably, Sen. Whitehouse blames Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for the lack of action in Washington on coastal issues. If the Democrats prevail, Whitehouse believes conditions will be better for a dramatic course change in U.S. policy toward climate as well as a move to strengthen the capacity of coastal communities to manage the challenges of rising sea and violent weather.
In the event that both Republican incumbents win, the three-term senator has a “Plan B” designed to navigate a Republican majority in the Senate. In any case, he considers the threat to the U.S. coast immediate and potentially catastrophic if more isn’t done. He spoke via Zoom on New Year’s Eve with Bert Roughton, a St. Simons-based contributor to The Current and the retired senior managing editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bert Roughton: What did you leave Coastal Georgia understanding better than you may have understood before?
Sen. Whitehouse: That the concern over Georgia’s coast is very widespread, whether it’s scientists, mayors, conservationists, community leaders. I think (hurricanes) Matthew and Irma sent a powerful signal of what’s to come, and everybody is having to have to start dealing with it now. What I felt from seven or eight days there was a very strong, common sense of the peril, from very different perspectives in some cases, but still looking at the same beast and really bearing witness to it. The second was a strong sense that nobody’s listening. That their voices seem to evaporate somehow between the Georgia coast and the halls of Congress.
BR: Is there some truth to that? This doesn’t seem to be anyone’s high priority?
SW: Not only is it not a high priority; actually for Mitch McConnell doing nothing about it and blocking any serious debate on what’s going on is the high priority.
BR: I’m willing to bet that you believe that a change in representation for Georgia in the Senate would help that conversation.
SW: Something would have to change, because the record is of doing nothing.
BR: What would you recommend as an approach to addressing the complex issues here?
SW: Our statehouse (in Rhode Island) is quite attentive to these coastal concerns. I don’t get the sense that the Georgia statehouse is as attentive to coastal concerns. (The solutions) come in two buckets: One is how do you help coastal communities and coastal individuals deal with what is coming at them? How do you support them, figuring out what to prepare for? How do you improve the flood mapping? How do you get them the resources to even know what are the right questions to ask?
At the moment, you have Freddie Mac (the federal home loan agency) warning about a coastal properties value crash everywhere, not just in Georgia. And you have Moody’s, the bond rating agency, starting to knock on municipalities’ doors and ask what happens to your tax base when this goes down. What’s your plan for preparing for flooding and for both physical erosion and the erosion at your tax base.
Luckily (Coastal Georgia) has Georgia Tech and and its effort at measuring sea level rise, probably the most densely measured place on Earth right now because of the good work of Georgia Tech. They are starting to resolve the information deficit there, but that still doesn’t help with the infrastructure that has to be adjusted. The second bucket (of issues is); This threat on the horizon is man-made. When are we going to do something about it? It’s one thing to lose your coastline in a more organized fashion, but the better thing is not to lose your coastline at all. That’s going to mean action, quickly, soon. Because time is not on our side.
BR: But isn’t making the coast more resilient the first priority because you can do things like improve infrastructure, while reversing climate trends is a much longer game?
SW. We’ve baked in enough harm already that you’ve got to work both buckets. You can’t ignore what people need because of the damage we’ve already baked in. And we still have the ability to influence how bad the damage gets, and we’ve got a responsibility to take on minimizing the damage in the future. It’s not and or, it’s both and.
BR: What solutions do you see on doing what can be done now?
SW: A lot of it is just going to be funding for coastal communities to help with the infrastructure and information that they need. I set up a coastal fund (the Coastal Resilience Fund established in 2017) to help with this, but it’s been very hard to get support for giving it any real money. So it gets $35 million up against coastal calamity. That’s at best a very small beachhead om fixing the problem. (Whitehouse favors establishing a dedicated funding source for the Coastal Resilience Fund from revenue that could be generated from offshore energy generating wind farms.)
Then there’s infrastructure spending, and we got the coastal infrastructure measure into the highway bill – probably the best coastal infrastructure measure ever. Leader McConnell wouldn’t bring it to the floor. Wouldn’t let there be a vote on it. There are tools out there that can either be implemented or expanded to make sure coastal communities get the support they need, but there’s been this inexplicable partisan opposition, particularly from the Senate floor.
BR: What about the federal flood insurance program?
SW: At some point we’re going to have to address it, because it’s very badly designed for the problem that we face. But that seems to be another one of those issues where until there’s a real crisis nobody is going to respond to the warnings. (Whitehouse faults the insurance program for requiring that people apply their payments to rebuilding rather than considering other options, such as moving away from the coast.) You’ve got to spend your insurance money building. Because of the potential for abuse of the program, they set on a general standard that you had to rebuild what you had before. You could see the reason for that back in the day before sea level rise was ubiquitous. Now that makes a lot less sense. The program has to be updated to the fact that a lot of the property isn’t going to be there in a while.
BR: On the matter of what you consider partisan opposition to these changes: There’s a 50/50 chance that you will still have a Republican Senate after the Georgia election, do you have a plan for that reality?
SW: The short answer is that Republicans tend to listen to and serve corporate America. And at the moment the message on sea level rise and climate change from corporate America is not a good one in Congress. The fossil fuel corporations are still venomously active to prevent anything getting done. OK, that’s them fighting for their interests, but how about the banks? How about the coastal economy? How about the Realtors? How about the groups that get hurt when the carbon bubble bursts and there’s what bankers call systemic economic collapse? And what happens to everyone who’s in harm’s way when the coastal property values crash that Freddie Mac warns about comes to pass? Where is the political counterpressure from all of those interests? The answer is they have not showed up yet to make their case, or to argue that something needs to be done. The good news is you can kind of hear them suiting up on the sidelines and getting ready to get in the game.
BR: And if the Democrats win?
SW: If you have Democratic control of the Senate what changes is that we can then force the issues of coastal and climate on the Senate floor. Now you have to have a conversation, a debate, you have to have the negotiation. You’re going to have to find a bipartisan solution and you’ll have to smoke out Republicans who, once they have to be on the record, will support a solution. At the moment they’re protected. But that’s a fight really worth having. I think you’ll find very quickly that once the hard choice is forced on them, a lot of Republicans will feel compelled to do the right thing. Right now I’m probably talking to 10 or 12 Republican Senators who’d be interested in doing something and know that where they are is horrible for the Republican party particularly for young voters. But it’s like talking to prisoners about escape — a lot of these conversations have to be secret; they don’t want their leadership to know about it; they don’t want their big donors to know about it. They don’t want to be punished for plotting escape. A lot of those fences come down when you have a Democratic majority.
BR: Finally, I asked the senator to reflect on his most memorable moment during his visit to Coastal Georgia. He replied with an emailed photograph with the viewer looking down a straight, sandy road passing under a canopy of live oaks draped with Spanish moss. It could have been shot on Sapelo Island or a million other places. “We don’t see this in RI,” he wrote.
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