January 27, 2021

TODAY: Whitehouse to Deliver Final ‘Time to Wake Up’ Speech

Rhode Island Senator will give his last weekly climate address as Washington sees renewed push for climate action; Whitehouse stops at #279—nearly 9 years of speeches


Washington, DC – Today, at ~4 p.m. on the Senate floor, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) will deliver his final “Time to Wake Up” speech on the urgent need for climate action. Alongside his trademark green poster, Whitehouse has delivered his climate speeches virtually every week the Senate has been in session for nearly nine years. Now, with a new administration committed to climate action and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Whitehouse will draw his tradition to a close after 279 speeches.

“The conditions are at last in place for a real solution. A new dawn is breaking, and there’s no need for my little candle against the darkness,” read Whitehouse’s prepared remarks. “[I]nstead of urging that it’s time to wake up, I close this long run by saying it’s now time to get to work. Whitehouse Time To Wake Up run, farewell.”

Whitehouse has used the speeches to draw attention to the clear, measureable, and devastating effects of climate change across the country. During the course of his Time to Wake Up effort, he visited 18 states to chronicle America’s changing landscape and reported his findings to colleagues through his speeches. He highlighted the work of advocates, local communities, and faith leaders who are calling for action. And he elevated the best available climate science.

Whitehouse also used the speeches to call out the secretive fossil-fuel industry forces obscuring climate science and blocking federal action on climate change, as well as inaction on the part of corporate America despite clear economic risks to American business.

A theme throughout Whitehouse’s speeches has been carbon pollution’s effects on our oceans. He has discussed the science behind shifting fisheries and rising sea levels, as well as lessons from the people living and working along Rhode Island’s shores. Whitehouse even performed a science experiment on the Senate floor to illustrate the effects of carbon pollution on ocean waters.

Whitehouse has used his weekly speeches to encourage colleagues of both parties to join him in speaking out on climate change. In 2014, he led 30 colleagues in holding the Senate floor all night to emphasize the threat of climate change, and in 2016 and 2018 he organized series of speeches by senators to call out the web of denial blocking action on climate change.

With the exception of emergencies like the COVID-19 crisis, Whitehouse has come to the Senate floor for the speeches every week the Senate was in session since April 2012.

Whitehouse’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below.


Mr./Mdm. President. Well, at last it’s time to say farewell, to my battered TTWU image board here, and to a run of more than 275 climate speeches. It’s been one of the Senate’s longer runs, but I think it’s time to say farewell.

This long run began in the dark days of 2012, after Speaker Pelosi had passed a serious climate bill, when the Senate refused to take up anything; not even a blank bill to go to conference with, and see what could be done in conference. Remember: when Pelosi passed that bill in 2009, we had in the Senate then a filibuster-proof Democratic majority, and this was climate change, and we just . . . walked away.

I was told that was because the Obama White House told Leader Reid to pull the plug; that the White House 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.”

Think about that. Think of history’s great battles and contests, legislative or otherwise, and consider in how many of those battles either side was sure it would win. 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.

The fossil fuel industry sure enough knew it won this one, once it saw the Obama administration walk off the field, abandoning Speaker Pelosi’s hard-fought victory. Years went by, in which you could scarcely get a Democratic administration to put the words “climate” and “change” into the same paragraph; in which we fussed idiotically about whether to call it climate change or global warming; in which the bully pulpit — the great presidential megaphone in the hands of one of our most articulate presidents — stood mute. We quavered about polling showing climate as issue eight or issue ten, ignoring that we had a say in that outcome. When we wouldn’t even use the phrase, let alone make the case, no wonder the public didn’t see climate change as a priority.

Those were dark days. So I made a commitment to speak about climate every week we were in session, no matter what. The kitchen was dark, the oven was cold, but maybe somehow one little pilot light clicking on every week would help.

Six years after the Waxman-Markey climate bill passed the House, the Obama EPA finalized its marquee climate regulation, which was quickly killed dead in the starting block by the five Republicans on the Supreme Court. The Clean Power Plan never even went into effect. It had no regulatory core or backstop that was indisputably within EPA authority, so when the Clean Power Plan’s novelties got smacked down, nothing was left.

John Kerry, bless him, led us into the Paris Agreement, signed in the last year of eight years of that administration. But, it being so late, the fossil fuel interests behind Trump hauled us right back out of it. So after eight years, in which Democrats sometimes controlled both Houses of Congress as well as the White House, we had at the end of the day no law, no regulation, no treaty. I’m going to trust we bring more spirit and determination to the climate crisis this time, and President Biden has promised that we will. His opening day executive order is a fine start, and I appreciate particularly the restoration of the social cost of carbon.

Then came the Trump years, when sins of omission became sins of commission, and questions of commitment became questions of corruption. I am confident that evidence will reveal that the Trump administration was in fact corrupt on climate issues; not just corrupt in the meaning of the Founding Fathers, but corrupt in the meaning of the United States Criminal Code. And I will do my level best to make sure we find out. Thank goodness we can put that dark period behind us.

What did I learn along the way? I traveled to many of my Republican colleagues’ home states on climate trips to help me understand the climate change problem there. There’s no state whose big state universities deny climate change. Most all of them teach it. So I knew it wasn’t lack of knowledge blocking progress.

I learned that oceans are at the heart of the climate threat. 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. Try arguing with pH tests that schoolchildren can do that measure the acidification of our oceans. I learned that the oceans are suffering extraordinary injury, from warming (at the rate of multiple nuclear explosions per second) and acidification (at rates unprecedented in human existence), and from the fossil fuel industry’s plastics contaminating our oceans.

In every state I went to there were businesses alarmed by climate change, whether it was wildfire or flooding or the loss of iconic views and species, upheaval of fisheries and growing conditions for crops, or business risk and recreation imperiled. I heard from Western fishermen about warming trout streams and a Glacier National Park with no glacier, and saw ancient forests dying by the square mile to the bark beetle. I heard from coastal states about new pests and poisonous algae and flooding risks and fisheries in upheaval. The Great Lakes faced similar threats as the ocean coasts. I heard of Nordic ski trails made mud because you can’t do artificial snow like on ski slopes, and moose tours that visitors promised never to do again because once you made it down the mud trail the moose were crawling with thousands of ticks eating them alive. One day I wept in the airport reading Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Sii, on Care for our Common Home. Climate effects were everywhere. That wasn’t the problem.

So I began looking at the fossil fuel industry, and studying the dark money apparatus it uses to spread climate denial and to obstruct climate progress. I recalled our bipartisanship before Citizens United, and saw the death of bipartisanship after, when the fossil fuel industry upgraded its weaponry from political muskets to tactical nukes and set about subjugating the Republican Party. I came to like and admire Bob Inglis, a conservative the fossil fuel industry could not subjugate, so they made an example of him for his climate heresy and crushed him politically.

I came with groups of Senators to the Floor to identify and call out this corrupt and corrupting fossil fuel Web of Denial. I came to know and admire the tough band of investigators, writers and academic researchers who document this corrupt apparatus. I saw how this apparatus insinuated itself into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, and turned those groups into America’s two worst climate obstructors. I learned the ways the industry hid the money trail leading to its front groups: through shell corporations, Donors Trust, and 501c4s. And I finally came to the realization that this industry was running a massive covert operation, probably the biggest covert disinformation and political intimidation op in history, and it was running this covert op in and against our own country.

Another thing I learned was how little political effort America’s corporations put into climate action. Some of them put some happy green talk on their websites. They had their consumer relations and public relations and investor relations folks spread the happy green talk around. Then, many hired sustainability officers and where it made them money, some began changing their internal behavior to actually be more sustainable. Sometimes more attention was paid to heralding those sustainability programs than was paid to actually sustaining anything, but sometimes it was sincere. Bravo to those companies who have really changed things within their corporate bounds. And a few took climate change seriously enough to start pushing sustainability requirements out their supply chains.

But none — none — took climate change seriously in Congress. Their trade associations were a nightmare. Every one of them — beverages, insurance, banking, chemical, agriculture, you name it — was silent or worse. Now, at last, that seems to be changing.

Here’s the 2020 lobbying pitch sheet for the Silicon Valley tech giants, maybe a hundred companies including the biggest in the world. Thirteen pages of bulleted priorities they wanted Congress to achieve, and not one mention of climate change. Not one. Not even a mention of renewables, from a trade association that has renewables companies in its membership!

Until just now, when TechNet noticed this omission and has announced that it intends to rectify the error. Change has even come to the biggest and most obstructive lobby group of them all, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It was my nemesis, hostile to climate action across legislative, executive and judicial branches. Well, the Chamber has just announced a dramatic reversal, and that it will now support a serious, market-based climate solution. 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. TBD, but a tentative big thumbs up!

So as I close my run of Time To Wake Ups, where are we?

Well, we again control House, Senate and White House. This time I hope we’ll be serious. The latent bipartisanship that the fossil fuel industry suppressed is still there. I am hopeful for a bipartisan bill. But if we can’t get good faith bipartisanship, we’ve got reconciliation.

Sen. McConnell can’t block bipartisan climate bills from coming to the Floor, so there’s a point to legislating, and a point to advocates showing up. So maybe corporate America will show up and push back on fossil fuel subjugation of the Republican Party.

A good hard look at the fossil fuel climate denial machinery can put that corrupt machine on its heels. It would be dereliction and malpractice to ignore that apparatus and its treacherous role. In trade associations, revolts are already taking place within the Chamber and NAM by members horrified to have been outed as supporting America’s worst climate obstructors. Want real change? Disclose the fossil fuel money that bought the climate obstruction.

The finance and agriculture sectors, and coastal economies, all are looking down the barrel of multiple and serious economic crash warnings. Their climate concerns have moved from their communications shops to their business operations and C-suites. Now they just need to align their political effort with their own stated policies. How hard is that?

All of this can break the right way. The dark Castle of Denial can fall, and Congress can rise in bipartisan force to stop the harm and cure the damage. But it’s not foreordained. We can still screw this up. No doubt about it. So let’s not. Let’s do our duty.

The conditions are at last in place for a real solution. 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.

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. Whitehouse Time To Wake Up run, farewell.

I yield the floor.

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