With Climate Bill Stalled, Whitehouse Delivers 280th ‘Time to Wake Up’ Speech
Climate speech series returns after year-long hiatus
Washington, D.C. – With Build Back Better’s historic climate provisions stalled in the Senate, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) this afternoon dusted off his ragged Time to Wake Up poster and delivered his 280th climate speech on the Senate floor. Whitehouse’s remarks ended a year-long hiatus from delivering weekly speeches calling on Congress to pass a legislative solution to climate change.
Whitehouse detailed the lack of momentum behind emissions-reducing legislation one year into the Biden administration, took the corporate world to task for failing to mobilize on climate, and pushed for an offensive strategy to take on the fossil fuel industry and its dark money allies working to obstruct any major climate bill.
“After I stopped these speeches, the Smithsonian asked me if they could have this old poster — it’s the most-used poster in Senate history — and I came this close to handing it over; but something made me hesitate. Well, here it is, back again,” said Whitehouse.
Whitehouse delivered his 279th Time to Wake Up speech just over a year ago in hopes it would be the last in the series, citing a new administration committed to climate action and Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. The Senator anticipates this speech will be the first in a significantly shorter run.
Full text of the remarks is below and video is available here.
Thank you very much, Mr. President. Well, I am not very happy to be back with my trusty and somewhat battered Time To Wake Up poster. Almost exactly a year ago, I delivered what I hoped would be my last Time to Wake Up speech, and took the poster off the Floor.
Things looked good then. The conditions for climate progress were in place. Voters had elected a Democratic president and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, so the malicious grip of the fossil fuel industry on the Republican Party was no longer a stopper.
President Biden ran on a fact-based, uncorrupted climate agenda, and many in our congressional majorities campaigned on climate action. We had reconciliation to work with, and work began, on a serious climate bill.
Actually, after I stopped these speeches, the Smithsonian asked me if they could have this old poster — it’s the most-used poster in Senate history, it turns out — and I came pretty close to handing it over to them; but something made me hesitate and, well, here it is, back again.
We just aren’t making progress, not by the only measurement that matters: greenhouse gas emissions. We are one year in, with no bill, no carbon regulation, and no litigation — and look at the climate havoc.
Scientists reported that global temperatures registered between 1.1 and 1.2 degrees Celsius above average in 2021. That’s among the hottest years ever observed by human beings, and it is dangerously close to our safety ceiling of 1.5 degrees Celsius. And we’re here despite 2021 being a La Niña year, when cold Pacific water usually cools global temperatures. The last seven years are the seven hottest years in recorded history.
Republicans may mock and disparage this, but they’re paid agents of the polluters causing this, and they are wrong.
In past speeches, I’ve described how our oceans absorb a massive amount of the heat that is trapped by greenhouse gas pollution; the heat equivalent of multiple Hiroshima- sized nuclear bombs being set off in the ocean every second. Multiple Hiroshima-sized nuclear devices worth of heat per second we’re adding to the ocean. In the last three decades, our oceans warmed eight times faster than preceding decades, and it is so massive, it has its own measurement term: the Zettajoule. The top 2,000 meters of ocean absorbed a record 227 excess zettajoules of energy between 1981 and 2010.
So, what’s a zettajoule? Well, a half-zettajoule, a half-zettajoule, is the total annual energy consumption of the planet. That little line right down there represents a half-zettajoule – the total energy consumption of planet Earth. All humans. And here, is the heat that that loaded into the oceans because of the amplification of greenhouse gases. 227. One-half. So about 500 times as much heat gone into the oceans as our entire energy heat spend as a species. And ocean temperatures are, of course, now the hottest ever recorded.
The excess heat means dying coral reefs and lost fisheries, with acidified seas. It means higher sea levels, as heated water expands; and more severe storms, as heated waters supercharge storm systems, including the sort of thunderstorm complexes that spawned Midwestern tornados in December.
Republicans may mock and disparage this, but remember: they’re paid agents of the polluters causing this, and they’re wrong.
This costs lives and dollars. The U.S. suffered 20 separate billion-dollar weather disasters in 2021 — almost 700 deaths, and $100 billion of damage. The year before, we had hit 22 billion-dollar disasters: tropical cyclones; coastal floods; western wildfires. The most spectacular fire didn’t even actually make it onto this list, because it ripped through more than a thousand homes and businesses in suburban Denver – in December. That fire didn’t even make it onto this top disasters list.
The Pacific Northwest heatwave of June 2021 smashed all records. A town in normally temperate British Columbia saw 116 degree temperatures, beating the previous Canadian national record by three degrees. The next day, the thermometer hit 118 degrees. The day after that, 121 degrees. And the day after that? A wildfire burned the town to the ground.
In Washington and Oregon, temperatures shot off the charts. These graphs show the maximum daily temperatures in Seattle and Portland. The dots on these charts that form this gray band represent every daily maximum temperature reading over the last 42 years – over 15,000 data points. The red dots here and here reflect – for Seattle and for Portland – those days. Way beyond the norms.
These temperatures aren’t just uncomfortable. They’re lethal. Research shows more than 600 excess deaths during the June heatwave in Washington and Oregon. Those 600 people aren’t even counted in that storm death toll I mentioned before.
So why aren’t we doing something about it? Two primary reasons: fossil fuel obstruction and corporate indifference. To be blunt, the fossil fuel industry controls the Republican Party the way a ventriloquist controls a painted wooden dummy, and the rest of corporate America lets them get away with it.
The fossil fuel obstruction isn’t new; they’ve been at it for decades. Dozens of colleagues have joined me here on the Senate floor, exposing the web of climate denial the industry wove to perpetrate their obstruction. The fossil fuel industry is still at it; they’ve just changed it up a bit.
They can’t debate the science any more, and they can’t argue against the urgency, but they can still write checks. They can fund phony front groups and fill Republican campaign coffers. And though they can’t sell climate denial, they can buy climate delay. They can hire the biggest PR and advertising firms around – like Edelman, IPG, WPP – to pollute our minds with slippery greenwashing, like they pollute our skies and oceans with carbon emissions.
Here’s an example of this stuff in action: Type ‘fossil fuels’ into Google, and this is the slick, phony paid-for result you get – a fossil fuel giant saying it is “already a willing and able player in the energy transition, read more.” The Guardian and watchdog group Influence Map exposed how fossil fuel PR companies cook up these ads, designed to look like Google search results. ‘Don’t do anything, we’ve got this,’ is the Big Lie message of these ads. The watchdogs call this “endemic greenwashing.”
The industry doesn’t just lie, and pay politicians — fossil fuel companies also use trade associations and dark-money front groups to whip up opposition to climate legislation:
— Coal-heavy electric utilities and their dark-money cohort mobilized against the Clean Electricity Performance Plan that would have helped decarbonize the power grid. Republicans did their bidding.
— The American Petroleum Institute and other fossil fuel industry groups fight paying a price on methane emissions from their oil and gas facilities. They want to pollute for free, knowing full well the harm. Republicans do their bidding.
— The CEO of that 800 pound climate-obstructing gorilla, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the group would “do everything [it] can to prevent” Build Back Better and its climate provisions from becoming law. And Republicans do their bidding.
These groups spent millions on political ads. They unleashed a deluge of lobbying and campaign contributions. They’re almost certainly behind big Super PAC spending. They pull out all the stops.
And against them in corporate America, to push back against the polluters, stands who? No one.
Corporate CEOs talk a big game about decarbonizing their supply chains and transitioning to renewables, and they wield enormous influence in Washington. When they want to. But here in this building, where the legislative rubber hits the road, corporate America has been totally, utterly, completely MIA on climate.
One set of lobbyists even told my staff that once the corporate tax stuff they cared about got squared away in Build Back Better and was taken off the table, they didn’t want to “rock the boat” by supporting climate provisions — even though they are provisions the company publicly claims to support.
Not one corporate trade group is lifting a finger here in this building on climate. Not the banks, despite their own warnings of economic crash. Not the insurance companies, despite the huge checks they write for climate disasters. Not Big Tech, not Big Pharma, not anyone.
The fossil fuel industry has its choke chain around the Republican Party so tight that industry folks have told me they’re scared to press for climate measures; that they might be punished, by Republicans working for the fossil fuel industry — punished on the tax and deregulatory and business stuff they really care about. So, they’re not here. They just aren’t.
The frustrating thing is that there actually is a way to get to a safe place — to get to where we can hold warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The key policy is a border-adjustable price on carbon. Now to get to safety, we need to do more than just that, but there is no pathway to safety without that. It is the necessary, but not sufficient, safety measure.
Take a look at this chart. This was prepared in conjunction with the White House, with the Leader’s office. A lot of eyeballs have looked at this. The green line here is business-as-usual – we do nothing and carbon emissions do mostly nothing. This next line down, the orange line, represents our emissions trajectory if we pass the Finance Committee’s clean energy tax credits package. That gets us to here. The gray line below it, the third one down here, is if we could pass a clean electricity standard. And the yellow one here is the emissions trajectory if we do both of those things – both the tax credits and a CES.
This one, light blue, that’s a carbon price alone – and by the way, it’s a modest carbon price that starts at only $15/ton in 2023 and increases to $70/ton in 2032 and doesn’t cover unleaded gasoline at all. And the dark blue line here, the safest line, is all those policies together.
To get to safety, we must deploy all of these policies; the more policies you have, the deeper the emissions reductions, the better the chance of safety. And the center pole in the climate policy tent is a carbon price.
Pricing carbon reaches every corner of the economy, which will be all-important when the power sector has switched to zero-carbon generation and we need to remedy other polluting sectors.
A carbon price fuels innovation — suddenly every carbon reduction strategy has a revenue proposition; no more government-chosen winners and losers.
A carbon price raises investment. Growing the low-carbon economy will take trillions in job-producing investment — maybe about $575 billion a year from now until 2050. Carbon pricing sends an investment market signal and produces revenues to support those billions of dollars in private, job-creating investment.
A carbon price is exportable, through a border adjustment that will keep China and others from cheating.
And last, a carbon price helps to unravel what the International Monetary Fund says is a $660 billion annual subsidy propping up fossil fuels in the United States. You want to know why the fossil fuel industry can so easily corrupt American politics? That’s your answer. That’s 660 billion answers. A $660 billion subsidy every year is one hell of a motive.
Once your policies are assembled, surrounding a carbon price, you then need a battle plan, and the leadership to carry it out. We cannot win legislative victory without setting the conditions for victory. We are up against a fossil-fuel armada of dishonest PR campaigns, phony front groups, co-opted trade associations, fake science, and political dark money. We cannot overcome the corrupting forces of the fossil fuel industry without sound countermeasures.
Step one is what I’m doing here: call out the dark-money mischief of the fossil fuel industry. It’s a compelling story actually, and people – voters – don’t like being lied to, especially not by big, corrupt, polluting interests. They’ve been lied to for decades, and they need to know that.
If we all exposed the fossil fuel industry’s pattern of deception, the way we years ago exposed as fraud the tobacco industry’s pattern of deception, that would open up real political space for the kind of legislative progress the times demand. Over in the House, Representatives Maloney and Khanna are on the case. They’re investigating. Hearings are under way. Let’s support and amplify them.
Next, stop the flow of polluter dark money into our politics. In politics, money corrupts, and dark money corrupts absolutely.
Next, rally the rest of corporate America to the banner. If they’re too chicken to go first, and face the risk of Republican punishment on the stuff they really care about, join together. They can’t punish everyone. Corporate America is actually rich enough, if it wanted to, to buy the damned fossil fuel industry, fire the crooks and the PR firms, shut off the money to the front groups and the trade associations, and clean up the industry from the inside. But corporate America not only doesn’t do that, it does nothing here in Congress.
However we go, Mdm. President, we have got to get going. Either we act now, or we pollute our way to oblivion. Either we summon a serious response, or we ‘meh’ our way to catastrophe. Either we enact a serious, effective climate bill, or we lose our chance at a safe climate pathway, and I will promise you that will earn the merited disgust of future generations. We have a moment here to measure up to, we are failing catastrophically, and we are failing for the worst and smallest and most dishonorable of reasons.
So, when we reignite work on a real climate bill, when we’re starting to see real administration climate progress, I’ll see about getting this battered poster over to the Smithsonian. But if we don’t, I’ll be back here, again, and again, and again to call this chamber to wake up.
I yield the floor.
Meaghan McCabe, (401) 453-5294
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