Every week the Senate has been in session since April 2012, one lonely Democratic senator from Rhode Island, Sheldon Whitehouse, has taken to the Senate floor to speak about global warming. On March 13, Senator Whitehouse gave his 200th “It’s Time to Wake Up” speech on climate change.
The speech was atypical for Whitehouse, who has grown accustomed to the unsettling feeling of standing virtually alone on the Senate floor while speaking about a topic that he believes is of the utmost importance.
“It’s a very hollow feeling. If you believe that this is a matter of such consequence and that it’s going to hit your home state so hard that you are going to put in this kind of an effort, then to have it be in an empty chamber, it’s a little disconcerting,” he said in an interview, regarding most of his climate speeches.
This time, though, to mark the anniversary, 19 of his Democratic colleagues joined him to discuss the issue.
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Whitehouse’s speech was the culmination of years of research and determination on his part, focused on a combination of disturbing new scientific results as well as what he described in an interview as the “creepy mold growth” of dark money groups spending millions to stop climate action and convince the American public that climate science is uncertain.
“The fact that stands out for me, here at number 200, is the persistent failure of Congress to even take up the issue of climate change,” Whitehouse said. “One party won’t even talk about it! One party is gagging America’s scientists and civil servants, and striking even the term ‘climate change’ off government websites.”
“In the real world, in actual reality, we are long past any question as to the reality of climate change,” Whitehouse said. “The fact of that forces us to confront the question: What stymies Congress from legislating, or even having hearings, about climate change? What impels certain executive agencies to forbid even the words?”
Sheldon Whitehouse is the closest the current Senate has to former senator and vice president Al Gore. He’s bookish to the point of being a geek, is obsessed with environmental issues, and is not content to just scratch the surface of a problem — he delves deep, traveling the country in order to understand the science and politics of global warming. He’s also a bit quirky.
For example, at the start of the interview in his office, I commented that the senator comes from a beautiful state, mentioning Rhode Island’s beaches and coastal vistas. What followed was unexpected, and revealing. It made me realize the senator might not be the person you’d want to sit next to on a long distance flight, but he is definitely someone you want fighting for you in the Senate or in court, given his experience as the U.S. attorney for Rhode Island and subsequently as the state's attorney general.
“We’re kind of just emerging from the least beautiful season,” Whitehouse said in response to my comment. “And then, yeah, we’ll be through that, and we’ll get into the spring and spirits rise, and then summer comes and tourists come and money flows and people are happy, and then you hit September and October which are the golden months, when it’s just beyond gorgeous everywhere. And then you slide back into the darkness of winter again.”
Whitehouse began his weekly speeches soon after the Obama White House gave up on pushing a climate bill through Congress, despite one having already passed the House in 2009.
“I think it has been an often lonely undertaking but it started at a particularly bleak period when we Democrats had walked away from the climate change issue after the House had passed Cap and Trade,” he said, referring to a bill that would have put a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and allowed companies trade emissions allowances to ensure they met their obligations under the new law.
“Democrats in the House had put their careers on the line to pass that bill, and the Senate and the White House completely collapsed after that. Just fell apart,” he said.
“You couldn’t get the Obama White House to use the words climate and change in the same paragraph, and it just seemed really, really bleak,” Whitehouse said. “So, I figured, let’s start talking about this on a regular basis.”
In some ways, the senator provides a good lesson in sticking to a routine, considering he put a climate speech on his schedule every week to prevent some other issue of the moment from crowding it out.
He also has the benefit of having a sharp legal mind, which will help amplify his voice as the wave of climate-related litigation builds during the next few years. Whitehouse contributed to disqualifying President Donald Trump's first nominee to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Kathleen Hartnett White. His questions showed that she didn't just hold views about climate science that were outside the mainstream, but that she had no idea what her own views were.
Whitehouse says he’s learned a lot about the science preparing for these speeches, and also has come to investigate why the politics of this issue are so intractable. This has turned his gaze squarely on the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed for unlimited corporate money and so-called “dark money” to flow into politics.
“Climate failure and dark money are two sides of the same coin,” Whitehouse said. Dark money is flowing to groups that promote the view that climate change is not real, and also punish Republicans that contemplate acting to reduce the severity of the problem.
Despite these well-funded interest groups, though, Whitehouse is hopeful that the tide is turning on this issue. First of all, he thinks the public understands the reality of the science, which is born out in polling, though far fewer Republicans think there is a scientific consensus on global warming compared to Democrats.
Second, he says the economics increasingly favor renewable energy sources, as more and more coal plants are shutting down simply because it’s cheaper to use either cleaner natural gas or carbon-free renewable sources such as solar and wind power.
Lastly, he said the combination of shareholder pressure and legal pressure is going to bring the fossil fuel industry to the table faster than many others think. He described oil companies as “spooked” by the reality of having to present evidence of what they knew, and when they knew it, in a courtroom, as they may have to do in several pending cases nationwide.
“... Courts over and over again in our history have been places where big ideas have been thought through because the political system was incapable of dealing with them,” Whitehouse said, mentioning the case in Oregon in which 21 young Americans are suing the federal government for depriving them of the right to a stable climate.
Clearly, 200 speeches have not resulted in climate action at the federal level, at least not yet. But Whitehouse says his work has been successful in other ways. He compares his efforts to serving as the pilot light of an oven, keeping it ready to turn on as soon as the conditions align and “it comes time to start cooking.”
He said he has “very intentionally wanted to be the witness on the ground” to tell future generations exactly why Congress has not acted. In his view, it’s not because of partisanship or the failure of the Democratic system, but rather special interest money flowing unfettered into campaigns, squelching any potential bipartsian compromises on climate legislation.
“There’s a story that needs to be told, because when some coastal farmer in Malaysia or Madagascar or Sri Lanka has lost their farm and their village has had to go and there’s fighting for resources, all the things the Defense Department talks about at the policy level, all that stuff happens to somebody, to some kid, to some tribe, to some village, that stuff happens, and they’re mad and they want answers,” Whitehouse said.
“And here we are sitting on a hill, with our lamp up to the world, and right now we are providing a disgusting example of corruption of government by a huge special interest. And we’ve got to be able to fix that.”
Whitehouse has no plans to stop the lecture series, which you can watch online via Youtube. He may lack the star power of Gore, but he’s every bit as serious, knowledgeable, and determined to make a difference.
So stay tuned for speech 201. Oh and also 202, 203, 204...