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04/16/2013 06:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2013

Sheldon Whitehouse Says Climate Change Should Be The Next Gay Rights

AP

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Tuesday that if Republicans don't join efforts to combat global warming, they will pay the political consequences.

"I think it's our task to ensure that climate change lines up right behind immigration and gay rights as an issue," said Whitehouse at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference in Washington sponsored by labor unions and environmental groups. If Republicans continue their opposition to measures that confront global warming, Whitehouse said, "they'll run off the cliff like lemmings."

"It's absolutely key that we all put pressure on the White House to take this issue seriously, to not just talk the talk, but to actually get out there an walk the walk as well," Whitehouse said.

President Barack Obama offered strong rhetoric on climate change in his State of the Union address, vowing to take executive action if Congress fails to pass a comprehensive plan to reduce carbon emissions. But carbon tax initiatives have scant political support on Capitol Hill, with many conservatives complaining environmental regulation hurts jobs and others continuing to deny the existence of man-made global warming.

The claims have been largely debunked. "More people in U.S. work in green energy than in petroleum industry," said Whitehouse. "I know," he added, "because I've been Politifact'd on it and it's true!"

Whitehouse has emerged as on of the most outspoken environmental advocates in Congress, taking to the Senate floor each week to lecture his colleagues on the climate, usually to an empty room.

This year, the Rhode Island Democrat, working with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), created a climate change task force with the goal of building political support for climate-related legislation. A number of things will prompt legislative action on climate change, he said Tuesday.

One is for the president to take strong executive action. Another is for congressional Republicans to be made to feel that they are "not just morally, but demographically wrong" about climate change. He said worsening extreme weather would help increase public engagement.

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