The Climate Campaigner On The Senate Floor: Sheldon Whitehouse’s 50 Climate Speeches In 50 Weeks


Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) went to the floor of the Senate on Wednesday afternoon for the 50th time in 50 weeks to push for congressional action to address climate change.

“I rise today, for the fiftieth time, to urge my colleagues to wake up to what carbon pollution is doing to our atmosphere and oceans,” he said. The senator spoke about to a nearly-empty Senate floor, while spitballs from the back of the classroom (HT: Buzzfeed) flew on Twitter.

“Once a week. Fifty weeks. Every week. Why? Why do I do this? Well, first, because it’s real. It’s happening.”

Senator Whitehouse ticked through the basics: the planet’s temperature is steadily increasing, carbon dioxide levels are increasing, and science that has held up since 1861 makes clear the link between the two. That leads to things that are real, and measurable:

At the Newport tide gauge, sea level is up almost ten inches since the 1930s, when we had our catastrophic ‘38 hurricane in Rhode Island. You measure that. It takes, basically, a ruler.

We are about three to four degrees warmer in the winter in Narragansett Bay than we were fifty years ago when my wife’s URI mentor was doing his doctoral thesis. Three to four degrees. You measure that. It takes a thermometer.

And the ocean is acidifying at the fastest rate recorded in 50 million years. You measure that with a litmus test, which anybody with an aquarium does.

It’s one thing to be against science; it’s another to be the party against measurement. So the polluters and front groups don’t talk much about the oceans. But that doesn’t change the fact. This is real. And it is past denying.

He summarized the motivations of those who deny this basic science and the fossil fuel profits that often drive them to continue to advocate pollution. “We are a great country, but not when we’re lying and denying what’s real,” he said. “The atmosphere is warming; ice is melting; seas are warming, rising, and acidifying. It is time for the misleading fantasies to end.”

Senator Whitehouse outlined some solutions. One way to cut carbon pollution is to put a price on it, which Whitehouse and other climate hawks in the House have proposed. Another way is to regulate them through existing laws. The EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act will soon limit carbon pollution from power plants, just as it enabled stricter fuel economy standards for cars and trucks. Whitehouse said this might lead to polluters taking “a second look at an economy-wide carbon fee.” This could start to thaw congressional recalcitrance on climate policy.

In the meantime, a lone senator goes to the floor to talk about the dangers of not acting, 50 times, perhaps 50 more. What does this do to change the political conditions? The counter-factual is perhaps more relevant: what would the political conditions be like if no one in the Senate were talking about climate change? While floor speeches will not solve climate change, solving climate change is that much harder without them.

He has had company over the last 50 speeches. Senator Schumer joined him to talk about climate change and Hurricane Sandy on the one-year anniversary of the storm’s landfall. Senators Schatz (D-HI) and Blumenthal (D-CT) spoke about oceans and climate change back in July. Senator King (I-ME) joined him to speak about climate’s impact on fishing.

The whole speech is worth watching:

He finished with a call to snap out of it:

It is time to wake up. It is time to turn back from the misleading propaganda of the polluters, the misguided extremism of the Tea Party, and the mistaken belief that we can ignore without consequence the harm our carbon pollution is causing. It is time to face facts, be adults, and meet our responsibilities.

I give these speeches because climate change is real, because the campaign of denial is as poisonous to our democracy as carbon pollution is to our atmosphere and oceans, and because I am confident. I am confident that we can do this. We can strengthen our economy, we can redirect our future, we can protect our democracy, and we can do our duty to the generations that will follow us. But we have to pay attention. We have to wake up.

Then Senator Whitehouse yielded the floor, presumably until next week.