Rhode Island senator gives 200th climate change floor speech

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse delivered his 200th speech on climate change on March 13, 2018. (Screengrab from video.)

By Ben Trachtenberg

WASHINGTON—Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse delivered his 200th weekly climate change speech on the floor of the Senate on March 13, nearly six years after beginning the series, which he calls “Time to Wake Up.”

In his speech, Whitehouse addressed the unwillingness of Congress to act on climate change and said the fossil fuel industry has used campaign contributions to buy Republicans’ silence on the issue climate change.

The junior senator from Rhode Island paced around the Senate chamber Tuesday evening as 20 of his Democratic colleagues praised his years-long commitment to keeping the issue of climate change in the focus of the Senate.

Maine Sen. Angus King, an Independent, compared Whitehouse’s speeches to Winston Churchill’s warnings to the British Parliament about the rising power of Germany before World War II, and drew parallels between the disinterest both of them faced.

“Senator Whitehouse has talked about climate change in terms of ocean acidification, temperature changes, sea level rise, drought, famine, the effects throughout the world,” King said. “Often this chamber is empty, but his warnings are important and should be heeded nonetheless.”

Other senators joined King in praising Whitehouse’s determination, and relayed accounts of climate change taking place in their home states. Highlighting anecdotes from fishermen about changes in the ocean as well as citing scientific research, Democrats from states across the nation spoke in support of fighting climate change. 

After a string of supporting speeches from Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin and others, Whitehouse finally took the podium, focusing his remarks chiefly on fossil fuel lobbyists who he sayid have bought the compliance of Republicans and stopped any attempt to discuss or legislate about climate change in its tracks.

“Academic studies have looked at congress and confirmed that the views of the general public have statistically near zero influence here,” he said. “The fact that stands out for me 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.”

Whitehouse inveighed against Citizens United v. FEC, the landmark 2012 Supreme Court decision that ruled that corporations have First Amendment free speech rights in political campaigns. The ruling opened the door for unlimited corporate contributions to campaign communications, which Whitehouse said have been used to bribe and threaten politicians.

“Since the moment of that decision, not one Republican in this body has joined one serious piece of legislation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” he said. “Our Senate heartbeat of bipartisan activity was killed dead by the political weaponry unleashed for big special interests.”

Jeremy Symons, vice president of political affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund applauded Whitehouse’s 200th speech, and called for more leaders in the fight against climate change.

“Sen. Whitehouse understands the importance of dealing with climate change. It threatens our economy with trillions in costs, our national security, and our kids’ futures,” Symons said. “We need more leaders who are as committed to this issue as Sen. Whitehouse has been – so we can go back to looking for solutions that cut pollution, encourage clean energy, and boost our economy.”

Whitehouse has regularly introduced legislation to combat climate change, such as a measure introduced last year that would create a working group of government agency heads to conduct research and reform policy in order to combat the effects of climate change on America’s natural resources and wildlife. 

The executive branch, Whitehouse said, is responsible for halting climate research and forbidding government scientists from discussing or even using the term “climate change.” Last year, scientists at the USDA were banned from using several terms related to climate change in their research, and the climate change webpage was taken down from the White House website.

Still, Whitehouse implored the president to reconsider his stance on the issue, pointing to a 2009 full-page ad in The New York Times, imploring President Barack Obama to take action on climate change which was signed by then-businessman Trump and his children Donald Jr. and Eric and Ivanka. 
 

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.