Whitehouse to Give 200th 'Wake Up' Speech

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., is scheduled to deliver his 200th Time To Wake Up climate speech March 13. To mark the event, ecoRI News recently spoke with Whitehouse about the failure of Congress to confront climate change. We also look back on nearly six years of sounding the alarm about the past, current and future threats facing a warming planet.

If there is a single point of blame for the nation’s climate crisis, it’s the U.S. Supreme Court. The 2010 Citizens United decision allowed fossil-fuel companies and the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases to effectively buy the votes of politicians, halt climate legislation and demoralize those who advocate for it.

Prior to Citizens United, climate legislation had bipartisan support in the Senate. Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., even included a plan to cut greenhouse gases in his platform back in 2008.

Since then, the political atmosphere has become so hostile toward addressing climate change that Republicans and corporations that believe in taking action are afraid to speak up.

Opponents to climate legislation, Whitehouse said, “have huge political clubs they are threatening to bash your head in with if you dare mess around on climate. You see a whole army of them. So it's a very, very unbalanced political equation for Republicans right now.”

Corporations such as Microsoft, Google and Coca-Cola publicly support renewable energy and the Paris climate agreement, but won’t ask their trade groups like the American Beverage Association and TechNet to lobby Congress on the issue. Even solar companies such as Solar City and Sun Run fear crossing more powerful anti-climate groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufactures.

“So if (companies) are not willing to come to Congress and say that climate change or even clean energy is important to them. It's a pretty strong signal,” Whitehouse said.

Old-school Republicans from the Reagan and Bush administrations such as James Baker and George Shultz have scaled back their advocacy for a carbon-tax proposal because of the entrenched climate denialism in Congress and the White House.

“They have come to the recognition that the pro-climate business community doesn’t look like it has any pants on, let alone sidearms, six-shooters, shotguns and repeating rifles like the other guys,” Whitehouse said. “They are not making much of an impression in coming to the defense of a Republican who wants to get something done.”

Established media outlets haven't helped matters by giving the issue meager ink and airtime, even as temperature records are broken, extreme weather disasters increase and carbon dioxide levels exceed the 400 parts-per-million threshold. For as long as humans have been around, atmospheric CO2 has been between 170 and 300 parts per million (ppm). It was 397 ppm when Whitehouse began his speeches in 2012.

The anti-climate movement “has done a very good job of framing this as more or less of a static contest between polar bears and jobs and ‘nothing new here folks just move along,’” Whitehouse said. “The coverage of this issue in the media, for whatever reason, is nothing short of appalling.”

In 2012, Whitehouse launched the “Time to Wake Up” speeches, delivering one 15-minute talk each week Congress is in session. Accompanied by charts and photos, the speeches include the latest research, scientific findings and investigative journalism on climate change. There is plenty of criticism of fossil fuel companies, special interests groups, wealthy businessmen and politicians stoking climate denial. 

“So part of my work here is to try to redefine the story a little bit,” Whitehouse said. “This isn't polar bears vs jobs, that is a phony equation created by the fossil fuel companies. What this really is, is the largest special interest, special pleading effort in the history of the country that very powerful corporate special interests with hundreds of billion of dollars of subsidies to protect.”

Environmentalists should not give up hope and be ready when the momentum shifts and political leadership changes, Whitehouse said. In the meantime, opposing offshore drilling and advocating for a regional carbon tax are important initiatives for climate activists to support. 

Despite having a climate denier running the Environmental Protection Agency, Congress controls the agency's budget so funding for state environmental efforts won’t disappear. 

Whitehouse plans to continue his “Time to Wake Up” monologues until there is a meaningful bipartisan bill in the Senate, preferably his legislation that puts a fee on carbon. Despite eight years of backsliding on the issue, he said, Congress will reverse course someday. When it does, the momentum will be strong and sudden. Until then, Whitehouse intends to deliver the speeches just as he always has from the Senate floor.

The 200th speech is a notable milestone but one he wished he didn’t have to celebrate.

“It would be nice if we didn't have to get this far,” Whitehouse said.