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At the tipping point on climate change

By Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse

Americans can celebrate and applaud the fact that the country's corporate leaders have taken so many important steps on climate change. Companies like Walmart and Coca-Cola, to pick just two, see the problem clearly and have done great things.

Walmart, for instance, has taken exemplary responsibility for its carbon footprint, not only within its facilities, but beyond the corporate walls out to its international supply chain.

Walmart even has an internal price on carbon, so it can properly evaluate its processes and its own facilities against its climate standards. And it's nothing new for the company. A decade ago, Walmart's then-CEO Lee Scott said, "The science is in and it is overwhelming. We believe every company has a responsibility to reduce greenhouse gases as quickly as it can."

Coca-Cola, the other company I mentioned, has exemplary carbon policies, too. Coca-Cola knows how disruptive climate change can be on the water supply that is the most basic need of its bottling facilities. They too have found the sweet spot of saving money by reducing their carbon output.

Many other major corporations agree. There's Google and Apple. Apparel giants VF Corporation and Nike. Mars and Nestle and Cargill. General Motors and the Ford Motor Company. UPS and FedEx. Unilever and Starbucks. All are, in different ways, clear-eyed and responsible climate champions.

So there is a lot to celebrate from America's corporate leaders.

But there is more to be done. And we are right now at a societal and political tipping point on climate change where corporations that are already good on climate change—corporations that are sensible and responsible on climate change—can make a big difference by taking it up one more step and putting their politics where their policies are.

So what is putting your politics where your policies are?

First, it's making climate change an issue, something you talk about, when you come to Congress.

I actually don't know of one major American corporation that makes climate change a priority when it comes here to Washington and lobbies Congress. Not one. America's corporate leaders can have great carbon reduction policies, but when they come to Congress, that's not on the agenda of their politics. If it were, it would make a difference.

I know it's not easy. Senior corporate leaders in major American companies have told me and others that they fear retribution if they lobby on climate change; that they'll be punished on tax or trade or liability or regulatory or other issues that they have here in Congress. That's how ugly and rough the fossil fuel lobby is around here.

But there's an answer: group up. The fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress can't punish everyone. They can't punish Coke and Pepsi, and Walmart and Target, and VF Corporation and Nike, and Apple and Google, and Ford and GM, and Mars and Nestle and Unilever. They can't punish you all.

So please, I ask our corporate leaders, make an agreement with one another, that you will not abandon your climate principles when you come to Congress.

If good corporations won't speak up, the only corporate force lobbying and politicking Congress on climate change is the fossil fuel industry, and you will get exactly what you have now: a Congress in which members fear to take action on climate, because they know one side—the fossil fuel boys—will punish them, and they don't know any other side that will help them.

I feel we are so close to getting something done, something big done, on climate change. Our corporate sector has shown so much leadership. And the great American corporate leadership on climate change aligns exactly with what America's science leadership is also saying; the great American corporate leadership on climate change aligns exactly with what America's military and national security leaders are also saying; the great American corporate leadership on climate change aligns exactly with what so many of our religious leaders are saying, all the way up to Pope Francis; and of course American corporate leadership on climate change aligns with what Americans—the customers of these corporations—want and expect.

Sheldon Whitehouse is a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, serving since 2007. For the Record is an edited version of a speech Senator Whitehouse made to the House of Representatives in March 2015.