Took longer than you thought, didn’t it? And I bet it got a bit tedious. Now imagine that, instead of something as mindless as tapping your finger, you gave a speech. On the floor of the United States Senate. On the existential but oft-ignored threat of climate change.
Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, stood at his desk on the Senate floor, asked to be recognized, and delivered a speech about the threat of climate change and the urgent need to take action 279 times.
It is difficult to be urgent about something for years. I recall a military leader once telling me, “You can’t keep an Army on their tiptoes forever.”
But Whitehouse has been on his tiptoes on climate for years. Nine years, to be specific. Once a week, every week since 2012, when the Senate refused to take up a House-passed climate bill, Whitehouse has delivered what he calls his “Wake Up” speeches, often accompanied by a blown-up photo of the Earth with the words “Time to Wake Up.” A 2020 study cited by the Boston Globe
shows that his “Time to Wake Up” speeches constitute a staggering 32% of all speeches by all Democratic senators since 2012. He is the Cal Ripken
of climate change. Lacing up his verbal spikes each day, chipping away at immortality.
It is noteworthy that Whitehouse has chosen to end his “Wake Up” speeches at the dawn of the Biden administration. He even concluded his final speech with a mic drop
. (Although, since the microphone was a lightweight clip-on, it lacked the full, dramatic effect. Whitehouse is a senator, after all, not Eminem.)
The aggressive approach of President Joe Biden gave Whitehouse the impetus to end his streak, but what, I wondered, motivated him to begin this Ahabian quest in the first place? “Despondency,” he told me. In 2012, Whitehouse felt like the Obama administration abandoned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s climate legislation. “My frustration boiled over, and I decided I would speak every damned week come hell or high water. It was not clear what I’d gotten myself in for, nine years and 279 speeches later.”
President Biden marked his first week in office with a veritable tsunami of executive orders
on climate. He ordered his administration to put climate policy at the heart of national security, to pause leases for oil and gas drilling on federal land; he directed the federal government to purchase electric vehicles, and to reserve nearly a third of federal water and land for conservation.
True to form, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell jumped on his high horse faster than a jockey on Derby Day. He called
the Biden executive orders “a piecemeal Green New Deal.” For McConnell to complain that he prefers legislation to executive orders is a new height of hypocrisy. Executive action is urgently required because, as Whitehouse has said, McConnell has blocked the Senate from even taking up the House-passed climate bill for nine years. It’s as if the house was on fire, McConnell locked up the fire hydrant, then complained when Biden tossed a few buckets of water on the house. If McConnell doesn’t like executive action, he should abandon his commitment to legislative inaction.
Of course, the Biden executive orders are a beginning, not an end. Legislative solutions are essential. Still, after all of those speeches over all those years, Whitehouse told me that he considers this week to be the real start of the fight to save the planet. Rather than merely focus on his Senate colleagues, Whitehouse says he will pursue an outside-in strategy: first, turn up the heat on the fossil fuel lobby. “Attack the rotten, collapsing climate denial operation of the fossil fuel industry; embarrass them, make it hurt, make them sweat; expose, expose, expose.” Then, court the rest of Corporate America, many of whom are already aware that a planet on fire is bad for business. “Challenge them to get out of the locker room and onto the field. Many want to, but they need a prod and catalyst.”
For years, Whitehouse has been the prod. To be sure, he cares about a lot of issues. A former federal prosecutor and state attorney general, he is a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a perch from which he presses judicial nominees on everything from ethics to the destructive influence of dark money to criminal justice reform. He wrote the first major bipartisan law to combat the opioid epidemic: the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act
. Like most Democrats, he cares deeply about expanding health care and rebuilding infrastructure.
But again and again he returns to climate. I asked him why. “Coastal states like mine,” he says, “stand to be clobbered” by rising sea levels caused by climate change. Indeed, Rhode Island is not called the “Ocean State” for nothing. It has 384 miles of coastline, and according to one study
, almost 8% of all the properties in the entire state are at risk from rising sea levels.
With the new Biden administration putting climate change front and center; with Whitehouse’s old colleague John Kerry serving as climate czar; with Democrats now in control of the Senate and House (albeit narrowly), Whitehouse is optimistic, but not irrationally exuberant. “All the present signs suggest optimism is justified,” he said. “But if I have to bring the chart back out I will!”
You can rely on that. In an era when many feel they have accomplished something with a Tweet, or a “Like,” Whitehouse is a throwback: his constancy and commitment remind me of those relentless voices from our history, calling America to abolish slavery, to recognize the full equality of women, to finally acknowledge our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers. None of those fights were won overnight. And Whitehouse knows his long struggle to save our fevered planet has only just begun. So, I just want to salute the man who, day in and day out, raised his voice to save the planet.