Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island gave his 20-minute pilot floor speech on climate change in October 2011. But he began his weekly series with a climate change speech in April 2012. Since then, he has, with only a couple of exceptions, given another speech on the subject every week Congress has been in session. Monday, as you can see above, he gave his 100th speech.
He has approached his subject from many different angles, speaking usually to a sparsely filled chamber. He has called out colleagues, many of them senators who deny publicly that humans are the cause of the current climate crisis. Whitehouse should get a standing ovation for his efforts. Not because what he proposes is in any way radical. Katie Valentine has written about the highlights of a few of those 100 speeches here.
A lot more senators should be standing up each week and speaking as he does. Whitehouse notes that there are several others—whom he names—who also speak on the subject. But there are 45 Senate Democrats (including Bernie Sanders who just became one) and the independent Angus King of Maine. And most of them don't have much to say about climate change in the Senate or anywhere else. Every single one of them ought to be at the Senate microphones about climate change frequently, relentlessly challenging the forces that are holding us back from taking the necessary aggressive action to keep climate change from being worse. They should also be taking their floor speeches to the home turf during Senate recesses. And they should be backing existing climate-related legislation from Whitehouse, Sanders, Sen. Barbara Boxer, Sen. Ed Markey and others.
Huzzah and hurrah to Whitehouse for his persistence. Perhaps one day, say for his 150th speech, he'll get to talk to a full Senate chamber and everyone there will actually listen to the important message he keeps delivering. And do something about it.
I am not a lone voice on this subject. Many colleagues have been speaking out, particularly our Ranking Member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Senator Boxer. Senator Markey has been speaking on climate longer than I’ve been in the Senate. Senators Schumer, Nelson, Blumenthal, Schatz, King, and Baldwin each joined me to speak of the effects of carbon pollution on their home states and economies.
Senator Manchin and I, from different perspectives, spoke here about our shared belief that climate change is real and must be addressed. More than thirty fellow Democratic colleagues held the floor overnight to bring attention to climate change. Our Democratic Leader, Senator Reid, has pressed the Senate to face up to the challenge.
And thousands of people in Rhode Island and across the country have shown their support.
Sometimes people ask me, “How do you keep coming up with new things to say?” It’s easy. There are at least 100 reasons to act on climate. Hundreds of Americans have sent me their reasons to act on climate, through my website, and on Facebook, and on Twitter using the hashtag #100Reasons. I’ll highlight some of their reasons in this speech.
What’s my #1 reason? Easy. Rhode Island. The consequences of carbon pollution for the Ocean State are undeniable. The tide gauge at Naval Station Newport is up nearly ten inches since the 1930s. The water in Narragansett Bay is 3-4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the winter than just fifty years ago.
Lori from West Kingston, RI, said that’s her top reason too. “We stand to lose the best part of Rhode Island,” she wrote, “the 400 miles of coastline, which will be severely impacted, environmentally and economically.”
Even Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has warned—get this—that sea level rise and increased storms along our Eastern Seaboard could get so bad that it would trigger “unprecedented” population migration from the coast to Kentucky.
Mr./Madam President, Winston Churchill talked about “sharp agate points upon which the ponderous balance of destiny turns.” What if we now stand at a hinge of history? Will we awaken to the duty and responsibility of our time? Or will we sleepwalk through it? That is the test we face.
I have laid out in these speeches the mounting effects of carbon pollution. The evidence abounds:
This March, for the first time in human history, the monthly average carbon dioxide in our atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million. The range had been 170-300 parts per million for hundreds of thousands of years.
2014 was the hottest year ever measured. Fourteen of the warmest fifteen years on record have been in this century.
Our oceans warm as they absorb more than 90 percent of the heat captured by greenhouse gases. You measure their warming with a thermometer.
As seawater warms, it expands, and sea levels rise. Global average sea level rose about an inch just from 2005-2013. You measure that with a yardstick.
Ocean water absorbed roughly a quarter of all of our carbon emissions, making the water more acidic and upsetting the very chemistry of ocean life. You measure this, too, with a simple pH test, like a third grade class would use for its fish tank.
It is virtually universal in peer-reviewed science that carbon pollution is causing these climate and oceanic changes. Every major scientific society in our country has said so. Our brightest scientists at NOAA and NASA are unequivocal.
But time and again we hear, “I’m not a scientist” from politicians refusing to acknowledge the evidence. We’re not elected to be scientists. We are elected to listen to them.
Don’t believe scientists? How about generals? Our defense and intelligence leaders have repeatedly warned of the threats posed by climate change to national security and international stability.
How about faith leaders? Religious leaders of many faiths appeal to our moral duty to conserve God’s creation and to protect those most vulnerable to catastrophe, imploring us to act.
How about the titans of industry? Leaders like Apple and Google, Coke and Pepsi, Wal-Mart and Target, Nestle and Mars are greening their operations and supply chains, and calling on policymakers to act.
How about our constituents? I’ve talked with community and business groups across the United States. Local officials—many of them Republican—don’t have the luxury of ignoring the changes they see. State scientific agencies and state universities are doing much of the leading research on climate change. If you’re a senator who isn’t sure climate change is real, manmade and urgent, ask your home state university.
Even in Kentucky.
Even in Oklahoma.
Flooding puts mayors in kayaks on South Florida streets; New Hampshire and Utah ski resorts struggle with shorter and warmer winters; and Alaskan villages are falling into the sea. And yet, no Republican from these states supports serious climate legislation.
This resistance to plain evidence is vexing to many Americans. Elizabeth from Riverside, RI, says her grandchildren are her top reason for action. “I fail to understand,” she wrote, “the Republican opposition to what is clearly factual scientific information about climate change. Are they not educated? Can they not read? Do they not have children and grandchildren to be concerned about the future they leave? Or is it money that clouds their vision?”
The truth, Mr./Madam President, is that Republican cooperation in this area has been shut down by the fossil fuel industry. The polluters have constructed a carefully built apparatus of lies propped up by endless dark money. Dr. Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University calls it the “organized climate-denial machine.” He found that nearly 90 percent of climate-denial books published between 1982 and 2010 had ties to conservative fossil-fuel-funded think tanks like the Heartland Institute. It’s a scam.
Dr. Robert Brulle of Drexel University has documented the intricate propaganda web of climate denial, with over one hundred organizations, from industry trade associations to conservative think tanks to plain old phony front groups. The purpose of this denial beast, to quote Dr. Brulle, is “a deliberate and organized effort to misdirect the public discussion and distort the public’s understanding of climate.”
John from Tucson, AZ, says this is his top reason to act: “These ‘merchants of doubt,’ the professional climate denier campaigners, have lied to us and attacked the people who can help us most; the scientists.”
Sound familiar? It should, because the fossil fuel industry is using a playbook perfected by the tobacco industry. Big tobacco used that playbook for decades to bury the health risks of cigarettes, but ultimately the truth came to light. It ended in a racketeering judgment.
The Supreme Court has handed the polluters a heavy cudgel with its misguided Citizens United decision, allowing big corporations to spend—or more important, threaten to spend—unlimited amounts of undisclosed money in our elections. More than anyone, polluters use that leverage to demand obedience to their denial script.
Jan from Portland, OR, said this kind of corruption is her top reason to act on climate: “It would be beneath our dignity,” she says, “to ruin our planet just for money.” Jan, I hope you’re right.
There has been progress.
The Senate has held votes acknowledging that a majority believes climate change is real, not a hoax—and driven by human activity.
Republican colleagues, like the Chairman of the Energy Committee, and the senior Senator from Georgia, and the senior Senator from South Carolina, have made comments here recognizing the need to do something. Against the relentless pressure of the fossil fuel industry and its front groups, that takes real courage.
The President’s Climate Action Plan is ending the polluters’ long free ride. The Administration has rolled out strong fuel and energy efficiency standards; its Clean Power Plan will for the first time limit carbon emissions from power plants. The U.S. heads an ambitious international climate effort, even engaging China, now the world’s largest producer of carbon pollution.
Perhaps most heartening is the American people. Eighty-three percent of Americans, including six in ten Republicans, want action to reduce carbon emissions. And with young Republican voters, more than half would describe a climate-denying politician as “ignorant,” “out-of-touch,” or “crazy.”
With all this, I think the prospects for comprehensive climate change legislation are actually pretty good, but, as Albert Einstein once said, “politics is more difficult than physics.” That seems to literally be the case here, as Citizens United political gridlock keeps us, for now, from heeding laws of nature.
But when the polluters’ grip slips, I’ll be ready with legislation that many Republicans can support: a fee on carbon emissions. Pricing carbon corrects the market failure that lets polluters push the costs of their pollution onto everybody else. A carbon fee is a market-based tool, aligned with conservative free-market values. Many Republicans, at least those beyond the reach of the Citizens United cudgel, have endorsed the idea.
Let’s have a real debate about it. It’s time, and I’ll be announcing my carbon fee proposal on June 10 during an event at the American Enterprise Institute.
Mr./Madam President, climate change tests us. First, it’s an environmental test, a grave one. We will be graded against the implacable laws of science and nature. No do-overs; no Mulligans—not when you mess with God’s laws of nature.
Behind nature’s test looms a moral test. Do we let the influence of a few wealthy industries compromise other people’s livelihoods, even other people’s lives, all around the planet and off into the future.
It is morally wrong, in our greed and folly, to foist that price on all those others. That’s why Pope Francis is bringing his moral light to bear on climate change. To quote him: “there is a clear, definitive and ineluctable ethical imperative to act.” Our human morality is being tested.
Last, this is a test of American democracy. All democracies face the problem of how well they address not just immediate threats, but looming ones. America’s democracy faces an added responsibility: of example, of being the city on a hill. In a world of competing ideologies, what if we tarnish ours?
This is the top reason for Ralph from Westerly, RI: “Someday,” he wrote, “world leaders will look back on this time that something should have been done to save the planet. . . . We had the chance but let it slip through our fingers.”
Drug addicts ruin their lives because they lose the big picture in their lives pursuing their next fix. In politics, the fix is money. Politicians have become money junkies. And the big interests pouring money into politics have got us hooked. Do what we tell you, the money pushers say, or we cut you off; do what we tell you, or maybe we even bump you off, with a more tractable opponent in your primary.
We’ve all done something wrong in our lives. Some things you do that are wrong don’t cause much harm. But there’s not an odds-maker in Vegas who’d bet against climate change causing a lot of harm.
And some things you do wrong, you get away with. But there’s no way people in the world won’t know why this happened, when that harm hits home.
There is no way the flag we fly so proudly won’t be smudged and blotted by our misdeeds and oversights today.
Think how history regards Neville Chamberlain, when he misjudged the hinge of history in his time. At least Chamberlain’s goal was noble: peace; peace after the bloody massacres of World War One; peace in his time. Our excuse is what, on climate change? Keeping big polluting special interests happy?
Anybody who is paying attention knows those special interests are lying. Anybody paying attention knows they are influence-peddling on a monumental scale. And while the polluters have done their best to hide that their denial tentacles are all part of the same denial beast, people all over who are paying attention have figured it out.
One day there will be a reckoning.
If we wake up, if we get this right, if we turn that ponderous balance of destiny in our time, it can be their reckoning. It does not have to be all of ours. It can be their shame; not the shame of our democracy, not the shame of our beloved country, not the shame of America.
The real prospect of putting America to shame makes it seriously time for us to wake up.