03.13.18

Whitehouse Delivers 200th ‘Time to Wake Up’ Climate Speech

For nearly six years, Senator has called on Congress to act on the threat of climate change

Washington, DC – On Tuesday evening, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) delivered his 200th weekly speech imploring the Senate to wake up to the threat of climate change.  Since April 2012, Whitehouse has taken to the Senate floor week after week to deliver in-depth remarks on the science of manmade climate change, its effects felt throughout the country and around the globe, and the political forces that impede climate action in Congress.  Whitehouse was joined Tuesday by 16 Senators, who also discussed the threat climate change poses and the urgent need for a solution.

“As I give my 200th ‘Time To Wake Up’ speech, the most obvious fact standing plainly before me is not the measured sea level rise at Naval Station Newport, is not the 400 ppm carbon dioxide barrier we have broken through in the atmosphere, is not the new flooding maps coastal communities like Rhode Island must face, nor is it the West aflame,” Whitehouse said.  “It is not even the uniform consensus about climate change across universities, national laboratories, scientific societies, and even across our military and intelligence services, who warn us that climate change is fueling economic and social disruption around the world.  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.”

Despite polling that shows an overwhelming majority of Americans favor action to reduce carbon pollution, Congress has failed to pass comprehensive climate legislation.  Whitehouse has used the speeches to call out the secretive fossil-fuel industry forces obscuring climate science and blocking action on climate change. 

“Climate change is real, it is being driven by human activity, it is happening right now and it is harming our planet – and yet President Trump and Republicans in Congress are doing nothing about it.  Unfortunately, EPA administrator Pruitt’s extreme de-regulatory agenda is simply another example of how President Trump and Republicans are putting corporate interests before the health and well-being of the American people.  Senator Whitehouse has been resolute in pointing out the alarming urgency surrounding climate change, and the responsibility of the United States’ to step up and become a leader in green energy and climate change policies,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

Another 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 what he has learned 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.

“For nearly six years, my friend and colleague, Senator Whitehouse, has been coming to the Senate floor reminding us all that it’s long past time to wake up and start seriously addressing the greatest environmental challenge of our time – climate change,” said Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), Ranking Member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “His passion and his unwavering commitment to finding real solutions have been critical to our efforts to protect our oceans and our unique coastal communities – like those across Rhode Island and Delaware – already reeling from the impacts of climate change.  We are lucky to have Senator Whitehouse as a leading voice on the Environment and Public Works Committee and in the Democratic Caucus, and we are grateful to the Ocean State for allowing us the opportunity to continue fighting alongside him for a better, safer world for future generations.”

Since Whitehouse began giving weekly speeches, he has delivered more than 500 hours of remarks 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 he organized a series of speeches by 19 Senators to call out the web of denial blocking action on climate change. 

Joining Whitehouse on the Senate floor Tuesday were Senators Schumer, Carper, Dick Durbin (D-IL), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Angus King (I-ME), Tom Udall (D-NM), Jack Reed (D-RI), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR).

Text of Whitehouse’s 200th “Time To Wake Up” speech, as prepared for delivery, is below.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

Climate Remarks CC

March 13, 2018

By any measure, Mr./Madam President, Americans are dissatisfied.  Opinion surveys tell us that only 35 percent of Americans believe that the country is headed in the right direction. 

Why this alarming dissatisfaction?  We don’t have to guess:  popular opinion tells us quite plainly.  In a survey taken after the 2016 election, 85 percent of voters agreed that the wealthy and big corporations are the ones really running the country.  That includes 80 percent of voters who supported Trump. 

It’s not just opinion:  academic studies have looked at Congress and confirmed that the views of the general public have statistically near zero influence here; that we listen to big, corporate special interests, and their various front groups. 

Even the Supreme Court is not immune.  In a 2014 poll, more respondents believed, by 9 to 1, that our Supreme Court favors corporations over individuals, rather than vice versa.  Among self-identified conservative Republicans, it was still a 4-to-1 margin.

So hold that thought:  the wealthy, and powerful corporations, control Congress, and people know it.

As I give my 200th “Time To Wake Up” speech, the most obvious fact standing plainly before me is not the measured sea level rise at Naval Station Newport, is not the 400 ppm carbon dioxide barrier we have broken through in the atmosphere, is not the new flooding maps coastal communities like Rhode Island must face, nor is it the West aflame. 

It is not even the uniform consensus about climate change across universities, national laboratories, scientific societies, and even across our military and intelligence services, who warn us that climate change is fueling economic and social disruption around the world. 

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.  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.  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?

Before the Citizens United decision was delivered up by the five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court—a decision, by the way, that deserves to rot on the trash heap of judicial history—we were actually doing quite a lot in the Senate about climate change. 

There were bipartisan hearings.  There were bipartisan bills.  There were bipartisan negotiations.  Senator McCain campaigned for president under the Republican banner on a strong climate platform. 

What happened? 

Here’s what I saw happen:  the fossil fuel industry went over and importuned the Supreme Court for the Citizens United decision; the five Republican- appointed corporatists on the Court delivered the Citizens United decision; and the fossil fuel industry was ready and set at the mark when that decision came down.

Since the moment of that Citizens United decision, not one Republican in this body has joined one serious piece of legislation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.  Our heartbeat of bipartisan activity was killed dead by the political weaponry unleashed for big special interests by those five judges.

The fossil fuel industry then made a clever play:  they determined to control one party on this question; they determined to silence or punish or remove any dissent in one political party.  This created for the fossil fuel industry two advantages. 

First, they got to use that party as their tool to stop climate legislation.  And they have.  Remember the movie “Men in Black”?  Today’s Republican Party bears the same relation to the fossil fuel industry, as to this issue, that the unfortunate farmer in “Men in Black” bore to the alien who killed him and occupied his skin for the rest of the movie:  complete occupation, with nothing left but the skin.  

The second advantage for the fossil fuel industry is that they could camouflage their own special-interest special pleading as partisanship, and not just the muscle and greed of one very big industry wanting to have its way.

That is why we are where we are.  That is why talking to Republicans about climate change is like talking to prisoners about escape.  They may want out, but they can’t have their fossil-fuel wardens find out. 

Climate change is a prime example of how our institutions are failing in plain view of the public.  Small wonder the public holds Congress in low esteem, and thinks we don’t listen to them.  Frankly, it’s amazing that there is any shred of esteem remaining, given our behavior. 

Congress remains a democratic body on the surface, with all the procedural veneer and trappings of democracy:  we hold votes, and there are caucuses and hearings and voting.  But on the issues that most concern the biggest special interests, Congress no longer provides America a functioning democracy. 

Underneath the illusory democratic surface run subterranean rivers of dark money.  Massive infrastructures have been erected to hide that dark-money flow from the sunlight of public scrutiny, to carve out subterranean caverns through which the dark money flows. 

If you want to understand why we do nothing on climate, you have to look down into those subterranean chambers, understand the dark money, and not be fooled by the surface spectacle. 

It’s not just the dark money spending that’s the problem. 

When you let unlimited money loose in politics, particularly once you let unlimited dark money loose in politics, you empower something even more sinister than massive anonymous political expenditures; you empower the threat of massive anonymous political expenditures—the sinister, whispered threat.  Once you let a special interest spend unlimited dark money, you necessarily let it threaten or promise to spend that money. 

Those sinister threats and promises will be harder to detect even than well-obscured dark-money expenditures.  You may not know who’s behind a big dark-money expenditure, but you’ll at least see the smear ads.  You may not know what’s up, but you’ll know something’s up.

But a threat?  Two people, a back room, and a silent handshake are enough.  Give a thug a big enough club, and he doesn’t even have to use it to get his way.

This is the great, insidious evil of Citizens United.  And this, I believe, is why we are where we are.

The Senate was legendarily corrupt in the Gilded Age.  One writer described senators not as representing states, but “principalities and powers in business.  One Senator represents the Union Pacific Railway system; another the New York Central; still another the insurance interests of New York and New Jersey.”  We cannot pretend it is impossible for the United States Senate to be corrupted; our history refutes that happy thought. 

So we need to keep our guard up, as Americans, against corrupting forces; and this unlimited, dark flow of money into our politics is a corrupting force. 

Congress’s embarrassing and culpable failure to act on climate change is one face of a coin.  Turn it over, and the obverse of that coin is corruption, exactly as the Founding Fathers knew it—the public good ignored, for special interests wielding power; in this case, the power of money.  Climate failure; dark money.  Dark money; climate failure. Two sides of the same evil coin. 

And if that’s not cheerful enough, wait, there’s more!  There’s the phony science operation that gives rhetorical cover to the dark-money political muscle operation. 

This phony science operation is a big effort, with dozens of well-funded front groups participating, supported by bogus think tanks, well described as the “think tank as disguised political weapon.” 

Today’s phony science operation grew out of the early phony science operation run by the tobacco industry, which was set up to create doubt among the public that cigarettes were bad for you. 

How’d that work out? 

Well, I’ll tell you how.  That effort was so false and so evil that it was determined in court to be fraud; a massive, corporate-led fraud.

After the tobacco fraud apparatus was exposed, it didn’t disappear; it morphed into an even more complex apparatus to create false doubt about climate science.  The goal, exactly like the tobacco companies’ fraud, is to create something that looks enough like science to confuse the public, but which has the perverse purpose to defeat and neutralize real science: a science denial apparatus.  

This fossil-fuel-funded science denial apparatus has big advantages over real science. 

First, the science denial apparatus has unlimited money behind it.  The IMF has put the subsidy of the fossil fuel industry at $700 billion per year in the U.S. alone.  To defend a $700 billion annual subsidy, you can spend enormous amounts of money; so money is no object. 

Second, the science denial apparatus doesn’t waste time with peer review, the touchstone of real science.  Slap a lab coat on a hack and send him to the talk shows.  The science denial apparatus is public relations dressed up as science, so it behaves like public relations and goes straight to its market, an inexpert public, to work its mischief.

Third, they have the advantage of Madison Avenue tacticians to shape their phony message into appealing soundbites for the public.  Read a scientific journal lately? 

Fourth, the science denial apparatus doesn’t need to stop lying when it’s caught.  As long as they are getting their propaganda out, the truth doesn’t matter.  This is not a contest for truth, it’s a contest for public opinion; so debunked, zombie arguments rise from the earth and walk again.

And finally, they don’t have to win the argument, they just have to create the illusion, the false illusion, that there is a legitimate argument. 

Then the political muscle those five Justices gave this industry can go to work.

I would like to suggest, 200 speeches in, that it’s time we stopped listening to the industry that comes to us bearing one of the most flagrant conflicts of interest in history.  It’s time we stopped listening to their fraudulent science denial operation.  It’s time we put the light of day on their creepy dark-money operation, and stopped listening to its threats and promises. 

So who should we listen to?  

How about Pope Francis, who called climate change “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” 

How about the scientists whom we pay, hundreds of them across the government, whose salaries our appropriators are funding right now; and who under President Trump released this report, saying there is “no convincing alternative explanation” for “global, long-term, and unambiguous warming” and “record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes” -- it’s our human activity.

How about our intelligence services, whose National Threat Assessment, issued under President Trump, signed by our former colleague Dan Coats, has a chapter titled “Environment and Climate Change.”  Here are the identified consequences: “humanitarian disasters, conflict, water and food shortages, population migration, labor shortfalls, price shocks and power outages,” and, most dangerously, the prospect of “tipping points in climate-linked earth systems” that create “abrupt climate change.”

How about listening to Donald Trump, and Donald Trump, Jr., and Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump and the Trump Organization in 2009, when they took out this full-page ad in the New York Times saying the science of climate change was “irrefutable,” and its consequences would be “catastrophic and irreversible.”  Where’d that guy go . . . ?

How about our own home state universities?  Every one of us can go home to Ole Miss or Ohio State, to the University of Alaska or LSU, to Utah State or West Virginia University or Texas A&M.  We can each go home to our home state’s state university, and they don’t just accept climate change, they teach it.  They teach it.

Or, if you can listen quietly, you can listen to the oceans. 

The oceans are speaking to us, if we will just listen.  They speak to us through thermometers, and they say, “We’re warming.”  And they speak to us through tide gauges, and they say, “We’re rising, along your shores.”  They speak to us through the howl of hurricanes powered up by their warmer sea surfaces.  They speak to us through the quiet flight of fish species from their traditional grounds as the seawater warms beyond their tolerance.

If we know how to listen, through simple pH tests, the oceans will tell us that they are acidifying, and beginning to kill their own corals and oysters and pteropods.  Or we could go out and check, and see the corals and the oysters and the pteropods corrode and die before our eyes.  It’s happening.

The fishermen who plow the oceans’ surface can speak for the oceans:  as one Rhode Islander said to me, “Sheldon, it’s getting weird out there.” 

“This is not my grandfather’s ocean,” said another.  He’d grown up trawling with his granddad on those waters. 

It’s not just oceans: I went out on Lake Erie with seasoned professional fishermen who told me everything they’d learned in a lifetime on the lake was useless, because the lake was changing on them so unknowably fast.

We choose here in Congress to whom we’re going to listen, and it’s time we started to listen to the honest voices and the true voices.  If you don’t like environmentalists or scientists, listen to your ski industry, listen to your fishermen and lumbermen, listen to your gardeners and birders and hunters.  Listen to those who speak for the earth and for the oceans.

It is an evil mess that we are in, and if there is any justice in this world, there will one day be a terrible price to pay if we keep listening to evil voices.

The climate change problems we are causing by failing to act are a sin, as Pope Francis has flatly declared.  But that’s not the only sin.  

To jam Congress up, fossil fuel interests are corrupting American democracy; and to corrupt American democracy is a second and a grave sin. 

The science denial apparatus—to mount a fraudulent challenge to the very enterprise of science, that is a third grave sin. 

And perhaps the worst of all is that the world is watching.  It is watching us as the fossil fuel industry, its creepy billionaires, its front groups, its bogus think tanks, all gang up and debauch our democracy. 

From John Winthrop to Ronald Reagan, we have held America up as a city on a hill, with the eyes of the world upon us.  From Daniel Webster to Bill Clinton, we have spoken of the power of our American example as greater in the world than any example of our power.  Lady Liberty in New York Harbor holds her lamp up to the world, representing our American beacon of truth, justice and democracy. 

I have a distinct memory, traveling with John McCain to Manila, and waking up early to go visit the American military cemetery.  The sun coming up over the rows of white gravestones standing over our dead.  The massive, gleaming marble arcade of names, carved on walls stretching high over my head, of Americans whose bodies were never recovered—over 17,000 in all, remembered in that cemetery. 

After their sacrifice, can we not do better than to sell our democracy to the fossil fuel industry?  What do you suppose a monument to that would look like, I wonder?

America deserves better; and the world is watching us; we, this city on a hill. 

I yield the floor.

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