Policy

Whitehouse Preps 200th Climate Speech, Hoping Senate Will Stir

“It is an indicator of the extent [to] which the fossil fuel industry owns the joint”

Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse speaks with Roll Call in his office on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Every week of every Senate session for the last six years, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has taken to the floor to urge his colleagues to “wake up” to the dire consequences of their inaction on climate change.

But the slumbering chamber keeps hitting the snooze button.

That cycle — a weekly call to action followed by inaction — will almost certainly be repeated on Tuesday when the Rhode Island Democrat rises to deliver the 200th “Time to Wake Up!” floor speech, a kind of feedback loop that even climate change skeptics can appreciate for its durability. 

Still, it won’t be a celebratory occasion with polar bear costumes or biodegradable confetti when Whitehouse takes the floor on Tuesday. Instead, the speech will reflect how, despite incremental progress, climate change policy remains polarizing to the point of paralysis.

Watch — ‘I’m Serious, I’m Persistent, I’m Determined’: Whitehouse Talks Climate Change Ahead of 200th Floor Speech

Ahead of that milestone speech, Whitehouse reflected on its origins and what would precipitate the end of the long-running series. The conversation also touched on climate policy in the age of President Donald Trump — and Whitehouse’s belief that consequential action could come sooner than pundits think.

“How sad it is that after 200 weeks of speeches, there is still so little progress on climate change,” Whitehouse said. “It is an indicator of the extent [to] which the fossil fuel industry owns the joint.”

The growing influence of the fossil fuel industry was in part Whitehouse’s motivation for commencing the speeches, he said. Following the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision — paving the way for corporations and other groups to make unlimited donations to super PACs — any bipartisan climate action talks went “silent,” he said, marking a clear “before and after.”

A lonely place

With cap-and-trade legislation stalling in the Senate in that same year — after the Obama White House decided not to spend more of its political capital on the proposal following its health care slugfest — Capitol Hill was a lonely place for a climate advocate.

“The silence in Washington, both from Republican colleagues who used to be engaged and from the White House, was deafening and extremely frustrating, and environmental communities and scientific folks around the country were horrified that we too had gone basically dark on climate change,” Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse delivering one of the 200 speeches. (CSPAN)
Whitehouse delivering one of the 200 speeches. (Screenshot/C-SPAN)

Representing the Ocean State, where he was once state attorney general, Whitehouse lives in Newport, Rhode Island, an ocean town famous for beachside mansions built with Gilded Age money. Its proximity to the Atlantic means it is ground zero for climate change, and Whitehouse says he sees weekly full-page ads in his local paper for services to protect homes from the rising sea.

Whitehouse’s “speeches have been critically important in drawing attention to the need for climate action,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the League of Conservation Voters’ senior vice president for government affairs. “Demand for climate action is only growing, and certainly we give him credit for his leadership in that effort.”

Whitehouse’s polar opposite on the issue, Sen. James M. Inhofe, who wrote a book calling climate change a hoax and once brought a snowball to the Senate floor to prove it, may admire Whitehouse’s tenacity but says he’s wasting his breath.

“Sen. Whitehouse has gone to the floor 200 times in an attempt to sway our colleagues into believing the global-warming alarmism,” the Oklahoma Republican said in a statement. “Despite his repetition on the nearly-empty Senate floor, it isn’t working.”

When he started in April 2012, Whitehouse used the speeches to explain the science and basic facts behind climate change. They evolved to focus on climate change’s effect on coastal communities, many of which he visited to do his research. The speeches also began incorporating investigations into the so-called dark money lobbying efforts to block policies to slow global temperature increases.

“One side of the coin is we are not doing anything,” Whitehouse said. “The other side of the coin is we are not doing anything for a reason, and the reason is the fossil fuel industry’s relentless efforts to deny the science, disparage the scientists, punish any Republican who makes a move toward a climate bill and in general act like thugs about this issue.”

Whitehouse, whose father worked for the CIA and State Department, experienced from an early age the importance of American leadership in the developing world on consequential global affairs. That lesson, he said, inflames his anger about the influence of his opposition as the United States steps away from global leadership on climate change, with Trump announcing in June 2017 that the country will leave the Paris climate agreement.

‘Fossil-fuel stooges’

The industrialist Koch brothers, ExxonMobil, coal magnate Bob Murray and the American Petroleum Institute, among others, have all earned scorn in Whitehouse speeches. And more recently, a trio he calls the “three fossil-fuel stooges,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, have joined his burn list for their deregulatory actions.

Some of Whitehouse’s villains have publicly softened their climate stances, with ExxonMobil, for example, backing the Paris agreement and tepidly endorsing a carbon tax. More Republicans, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have even begun to dip their toes into some climate interest. A bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus has formed in the House.

“History will be kind to him and recognize him as the person who understood the moral urgency of the moment,” Sen. Brian Schatz said of the “wake up” addresses. The Hawaii Democrat is one of 37 current senators to join the chamber since Whitehouse began the series. “For me, it’s a way to commemorate his leadership.”

At first, as Whitehouse tells it, colleagues responded to the weekly speech — which he always delivers while standing next to a frayed, bright green poster declaring that it’s “Time to Wake Up” — with curiosity. Then, the interest turned into annoyance. Now, he said, the speeches — which, as Inhofe noted, are played to an empty chamber — are generally accepted and grudgingly admired.

“It’s impressive that they have done this. [Whitehouse] and I, as you can probably tell, are not politically aligned on a lot of issues, but I consider him a really good friend,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, who also offers a regular floor speech. For his part, Sullivan highlights a deserving “Alaskan of the Week.”

“I admire him for his energy and tenacity on his Wake Up speech,” the Alaska Republican said. “I just happen to think the Alaskan of the Week is a little more unique.”

The speech demands work, and Whitehouse readily admits he never thought they would go on this long. There have been times when he thought the cycle would end, but now the only endpoint he can see is if Congress actually does something meaningful on climate change.

That may not be so far away, he predicted. The most likely policy is the carbon tax — something he said could happen within the next two years — especially if Democrats take control of one or both chambers in 2018. House Republicans remain publicly skeptical on the issue, voting as recently as 2016 to pass a sense of the House resolution in opposition to a carbon tax.

“This, for me, has to continue until there is serious bipartisan activity underway in the Senate, but that could be as early as later this year or early next year,” Whitehouse said.

When the speeches started, “I was feeling really, really bleak and wanted to make sure that at least somebody had the pilot light going on the Senate floor,” Whitehouse said. “I think there is much, much, much more robust activity now. Now I’m just one voice among many.”

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