PROVIDENCE — US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on Wednesday delivered his 279th and final speech about climate change on the Senate floor.
The Rhode Island Democrat has come to the Senate floor for the speeches every week the Senate has been in session since April 2012, except for emergencies such as the COVID-19 crisis.
But now, as President Joe Biden is vowing to combat climate change, calling it “the existential threat of our time,” and Democrats hold power in both the House and Senate, Whitehouse says the conditions are in place for “a real solution,” he said.
“A new dawn is breaking, and there’s no need for my little candle against the darkness — my little pilot light can now go out,” Whitehouse said. “So instead of urging that it’s time to wake up, I close this long run by saying it’s now time to get to work.”
Hours after taking office on Jan. 20, Biden signed an order to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and one to begin the process of overturning environmental policies put in place by the Trump administration, including revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and re-establishing a working group on the social costs of greenhouse gases.
Whitehouse called that executive order “a fine start,” saying, “I appreciate particularly the restoration of the social cost of carbon.”
On Wednesday, Biden signed a series of executive orders that aim to “confront the existential threat of climate change” throughout the federal government.
In a separate statement, Whitehouse applauded those executive orders, saying, “I’m particularly encouraged by the Biden administration’s push to end the public subsidies that provide an enormous advantage to the fossil fuel industry, and his push to expand renewables like offshore wind.”
In his speech, Whitehouse said he is hoping for bipartisan support for climate legislation. Since he’s no longer the majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, cannot block bipartisan climate bills from coming to the Senate floor, he noted. “So there’s a point to legislating, and a point to advocates showing up,” he said.
“All of this can break the right way,” Whitehouse said. “The dark Castle of Denial can fall, and Congress can rise in bipartisan force to stop the harm and cure the damage.”
For years, Whitehouse has been Congress’ leading advocate for addressing climate change. Last year, researchers found that between 1996 and 2015, he delivered more speeches on climate change (139 at that time) than any other senator.
“His efforts alone represent 5 percent of the entire corpus and 12 percent of all Democratic speeches in the US Senate since he began his career in 2007,” the study said. “That proportion swells to 32 percent in the time since he began his ‘Time to Wake Up’ addresses in April 2012.”
During his floor speeches, Whitehouse has focused attention on carbon pollution’s impact on oceans. He has talked about the science behind shifting fisheries and rising sea levels, citing the toll taken on those who live and work on Rhode Island’s shores.
On Wednesday, Whitehouse said he began writing his “Time to Wake Up” speech in 2012, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had passed a significant climate bill but the Senate refused to take up the legislation even though Democrats held a filibuster-proof majority at the time.
He said he was told the Senate failed to act because President Barack Obama’s administration “was tired of conflict, didn’t want another battle, and wasn’t going to take on any fights it ‘wasn’t sure it could win.’”
Whitehouse challenged that rationale, saying, “If you limit yourself to battles you’re sure you can win, you will miss the important battles. And we lost this one, for that most lamentable of reasons: failure to try.”
He suggested that Obama should have spoken out more on the issue. “Years went by,” he said, “in which the bully pulpit — the great presidential megaphone in the hands of one of our most articulate presidents — stood mute.”
Whitehouse said he traveled to 18 states to see the impact of climate change there and report his findings in his “Time to Wake Up” speeches.
“I learned that oceans are at the heart of the climate threat,” he said. “First, they bear incontrovertible testimony to the dangers. Try arguing with thermometers that measure ocean warming. Try arguing with tide gauges that measure sea level rise.”
Whitehouse said he also learned that businesses were alarmed by climate change and its impact on wildfires, flooding, fisheries, and crops. But he said the fossil fuel industry “spread climate denial,” and while many corporations put “happy green talk” on their websites, few put political muscle into action on climate change.
For years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce served as his “nemesis,” fighting against climate change initiatives in the legislative, executive and judicial branches, Whitehouse said.
But last week, the US Chamber of Commerce backed tougher action to combat climate change through carbon taxes, emissions caps, or other “market-based” policies — the latest shift by the nation’s biggest business lobbying group as it pivots to a Washington dominated by Democrats.
“That’s a big shift, and if they fight for climate action anywhere near as forcefully as they fought against it, it could make a big difference,” Whitehouse said. “TBD, but a tentative big thumbs up!”
Still, passage of significant climate legislation is by no means guaranteed, he said.
“We can still screw this up – no doubt about it,” Whitehouse said. “So let’s not. Let’s do our duty.”
As he concluded his speech, he said, “Whitehouse, at least on ‘Time To Wake Up’ – out.” And with that, he dropped the mic.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.