Sheldon Whitehouse Just Delivered His 150th Senate Speech on Climate Action

Sheldon Whitehouse in the Senate.

At a time when the planet is set to see its hottest year on record (a now sadly regular phenomenon), the United States has elected to its highest office a man who denies the science of climate change and seeks to dismantle progress on the issue at home and abroad

As the rest of the world prepares to push the U.S. aside on the global climate stage and President-elect Donald Trump stocks his team of advisers with climate deniers, now more than ever the U.S. needs voices speaking up for the overwhelming science supporting strong action on climate change. 

This week, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D) was that voice, speaking up for the climate on the floor of the Senate for the 150th time.

Every week the Senate has been in session since April 2012, Senator Whitehouse has delivered his “Time to Wake Up” speech, calling on his colleagues to take swift and decisive action to deal with the climate crisis. 

Solutions to climate change need be neither Republican nor Democratic. They do need to be based in sound science and healthy and open debate,” said Sen. Whitehouse in his address to the Senate. “And we will be a stronger and more respected country if they are American solutions.”

Another notable moment in Sen. Whitehouse’s climate leadership in the Senate was this past July when he led a group of 19 Senators in calling out the tangled and moneyed campaign to discredit climate science — a resolution and speech blitz they dubbed the #WebofDenial.

As Graham Readfearn detailed in The Guardian at the time: “The Senate heard how fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy and the billionaire oil brothers Charles and David Koch had funnelled millions into groups that had spread doubt about the causes of climate change.”

Sen. Whitehouse reiterated many of these messages in his address this week. He also outlined Republican reversals on climate science and action, the many impacts the ocean has been suffering from human-caused climate change, and the threat posed by climate denier Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who is leading Trump’s transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.   

Watch Sen. Whitehouse's entire speech and read the transcript below:

Madam President, I started my weekly series of speeches about the dangers of climate change in the Spring of 2012.  While my sign here is showing signs of wear and tear, I’m as determined as ever to get us to act on climate, before it’s too late. 

It is long past time to wake up to the industry-controlled campaign of calculated misinformation on the dangers of carbon pollution.  Opponents of climate action relish operating in the dark.  Their slimiest work, to undermine science and deny the harmful effects of our carbon on human health, natural systems, and the economy, is done by hidden hands, through front groups.  If anything is to change, we first need to acknowledge peer-reviewed science, the expert assessments of our military and national security communities, and the business case for climate action iconic American companies are making.  But if anything is really going to change, we need to shine a light on the sophisticated scheme of denial being foisted on the American people. 

President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”  We in Congress have the chance to do this worthy work.  But big special interests don’t want that to happen, so Congress keeps drifting toward climate catastrophe.  And I keep delivering my weekly remarks; today for the 150th time.

Thankfully, I am not a lone voice on this matter.  Many colleagues have been speaking out, particularly our Ranking Member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Senator Boxer, and one of the Democratic Party’s presidential contenders, Senator Sanders.  Senator Markey has been speaking on climate longer than I’ve been in the Senate.  Senators Schumer, Nelson, Blumenthal, Schatz, King, Baldwin, Brown, and Coons have each joined me to speak of the effects of carbon pollution on their home states and economies.  Our Democratic Leader, Senator Reid, has pressed the Senate to face up to the challenge.  And 18 fellow Democratic colleagues, including climate champs Merkley, Warren, and Schumer, joined me in calling out the industry-controlled, many-tentacled apparatus deliberately polluting our discourse with climate science denial. 

The climate science that deniers try to undermine dates back to the 1800s, predating Henry Ford’s first production Model T [1908], Thomas Edison’s first light bulb demonstration [1879], and the first commercial oil well in the United States [1859].  In 1824, around the time President Monroe added the South Portico to the White House, French scientist Joseph Fourier explained that Earth’s temperature would be much lower if the planet lacked an atmosphere, providing one of the first descriptions of the greenhouse effect.  In 1861, the same year President Lincoln took office, Irish physicist John Tyndall described the trace components of the atmosphere that were responsible for the greenhouse effect, including carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor.  In 1896, the year Utah joined the Union, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius published the first calculation of global warming due to the addition of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.  

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at that time was 295 parts per million.  Today, it’s 400 ppm and rising, indeed rising at a pace not seen for 66 million years.  Scientific research continues to demonstrate evidence of planetary warming and the changes that come with it. 

We can look at the oceans to see the devastating effects of climate change.  Of course, the great, corrupt denial machine the fossil fuel industry supports rarely talks about oceans.  Remember: the machine doesn’t care about evidence.  It just wants to create phony doubt.  But there’s not much room for doubt in measurements of warming, rising, and acidifying seas, measured with everyday thermometers, yardsticks, and pH tests, so they don’t go there. 

Our unfettered burning of fossil fuels has made our oceans warmer.  The oceans have absorbed the vast majority of the heat trapped in our atmosphere by our carbon pollution: the heat equivalent to several Hiroshima atomic bombs being set off in the sea every second for the last 20 years.  One result is the calamity now taking place in the world’s coral reefs. 

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral ecosystem on Earth.  Severe bleaching has hit between 60 and 100 percent of corals on the Great Barrier Reef, according to Dr. Terry Hughes of James Cook University in Queensland, Australia.  Research led by Dr. Andrew King at the University of Melbourne determined that the ocean warming that led to widespread and devastating coral bleaching was made 175 times more likely by human-caused climate change.  As one researcher put it, climate change “is the smoking gun.”

Because carbon dioxide forms carbonic acid when it dissolves in water, the seas are acidifying at the fastest rate in 50 million years.  On America’s Northwest coast, oyster hatcheries have already experienced significant losses when their new hatches were unable to grow their shells in the acidified seawater.  Off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California, 50 percent of tiny sea snails called pteropods were measured to have “severe shell damage,” mostly from acidified seas.  A NOAA study released just last week detailed for the first time the extent to which that damage was caused by human carbon pollution.  If that species collapses, the bottom falls out of the oceanic food chain. 

In Rhode Island, Narragansett Bay’s mean winter water temperature is up nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit.  Our Rhode Island lobster fishery is crashing, and our winter flounder fishery is practically gone.  Rhode Island’s clammers, lobstermen, fish farmers, and shellfish growers are watching with real alarm the damage acidified seas are doing. 

This is the cost of climate change in the oceans. Madam President, we’re approaching a point of no return.  The UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report, released earlier this month, warned that unless reductions in carbon pollution from the energy sector are taken swiftly, it will be nearly impossible to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius and avoid widespread catastrophe.  The report says the next three years are “likely the last chance” to limit global warming to safe limits in this century.  Likely the last chance to make a difference.  But Republicans in this Senate want to do nothing about it. 

Once upon a time, Madam President, Republicans joined Democrats in pushing for action on climate.  Senator McCain ran for President on a strong climate change platform, and was the lead cosponsor of the Climate Stewardship Act, which would have created a market-based emissions cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants from the biggest U.S. sources.  Here is what Senator McCain said at the time:

While we cannot say with 100 percent confidence what will happen in the future, we do know the emission of greenhouse gases is not healthy for the environment.  As many of the top scientists through the world have stated, the sooner we start to reduce these emissions, the better off we will be in the future.

Other Republicans got behind cap-and-trade proposals: Senator Carper’s “Clean Air Planning Act,” at one time or another, counted Senators Alexander, Graham, and Collins among its supporters.  Senator Collins later coauthored an important cap-and-trade bill with Senator Cantwell. 

Senator Kirk voted for the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in the House and Senator Flake, then representing Arizona in the House, was an original cosponsor of the “Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act,” to reduce payroll taxes for employers and employees in exchange for equal revenue from a carbon tax. 

So what happened?  Why did this steady heartbeat of Republican climate action suddenly flat-line?  Something happened, right around 2010. 

What happened was the Supreme Court’s disgraceful 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission where, in a nutshell, the court ruled: corporations are people; money is speech; so there can be no limit to corporate money influencing American elections.  When Citizens United uncorked all that big, dark money, and allowed it to cast its bullying shadow over Congress, Republicans walked back from any major climate legislation.  Rather than freeing up open debate, Citizens United effectively ended any honest debate in Congress on the climate crisis. 

Unlimited corporate spending in politics can indeed corrupt, and not just through floods of anonymous attack advertisements.  It can corrupt, secretly and more dangerously, through the mere threat of that spending, through private threats and promises.  And sometimes, the fossil fuel industry threat to politicians who don’t toe their line is not so subtle.  The Koch brothers-backed political juggernaut, Americans for Prosperity, has openly promised to punish candidates who support curbs on carbon pollution, and openly take credit for the “political peril” it created for Republicans on climate change. 

Since 2010, the fossil fuel industry’s strategy has been to crush Republican opposition, to prohibit Republicans from working with Democrats on climate change, so that the industry can disguise its special-interest pleading as a partisan issue in America’s culture wars.  Do you remember the alien in the movie “Men in Black” who climbed into the skin and clothing of the farmer?  That’s what the fossil fuel industry has done to the Republican Party since Citizens United. 

The industry has a lot at stake.  The International Monetary Fund has reported the American subsidy for the United States’ fossil fuel industry at nearly $700 billion a year.  How much trouble would an industry go to protect a $700-billion-per-year subsidy?

A growing body of scholarship is examining the science denial apparatus protecting the fossil fuel industry—how it is funded, how it communicates, and how it propagates the denial message.  That research includes work by Harvard’s Naomi Oreskes, Michigan State’s Aaron McCright, Oklahoma State’s Riley Dunlap, Yale’s Justin Farrell, Drexel’s Robert Brulle, and others. 

Industrial powers fighting to obscure the harms their products cause isn’t new.  They operate from a well-worn playbook.  It was used for industrial contaminants and health hazards like DDT, CFCs, and of course tobacco.  It’s the ultimate special-interest lobbying.

President-elect Trump campaigned on a pledge of draining the swamp of big special interests controlling Washington.  Yet leading the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency for the Trump administration is Myron Ebell, the poster child of industry-backed climate denial.  Mr. Ebell is the Director of Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a corporate front group that has specialized in undermining tobacco, climate, and other science.  CEI received millions of dollars from ExxonMobil, from the Koch family, from coal companies Murray and Massey, and from the identity-laundering groups Donors Trust and Donors Capital.  CEI and Ebell are the quintessential DC swamp creatures. 

Politico reports Ebell as a veteran of the tobacco regulation wars.  Jeremy Symons of the Environmental Defense Fund credits Ebell with “taking the tobacco playbook and applying it to climate change.”  On climate, Jerry Taylor of the libertarian Niskanen Center says Ebell was “involved in marshalling allies, building a skeptic movement and enforcing that political orthodoxy as best he could in the Republican Party.”

Ebell criticizes scientists for working outside their degreed fields, but it turns out, he isn’t a scientist himself.  After college, he studied political theory at the London School of Economics and history at Cambridge. 

He’s even criticized Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, calling it “scientifically ill informed, economically illiterate, intellectually incoherent and morally obtuse.”  That’s rich, an outspoken climate contrarian, whose organization receives fossil fuel money, calling Pope Francis “morally obtuse.”

While the President-elect mocked Republican politicians groveling before the Koch brothers at their “beg-a-thon,” as he called it, he is busy filling his staff with Koch operatives.  Donald Trump may have won the presidency.  But with operatives like Myron Ebell, the Koch brothers are moving in to run it. 

The new President will hear from our military, our national labs, and NASA (who with a rover driving around on Mars may actually know a little science) that this is deadly serious.  I encourage President-elect Trump to listen to these voices of reason and expertise, not to the Swamp Things.  Don’t be taken in by industry lobbyists and front groups, scratching and clawing to protect a $700 billion conflict of interest. 

Consider listening to your children, who joined you just seven years ago in saying climate science was “irrefutable,” and portends “catastrophic and irreversible” consequences.

Madam President, let’s assume that all our national labs, NASA and NOAA, our military leaders, our home-state universities, hundreds of major American companies, and the more than 190 nations that signed the Paris climate agreement are actually not deluded about climate change, and not part of a hoax.  If that’s so, then the fossil fuel industry’s science denial operation is a fraud.  As a fraud, it is a particularly evil one because in order to achieve its goal, the industry has to drag down the government of the United States—or at least the Congress of the United States—to its level.  The fossil fuel industry maintains a science denial operation and a political influence operation designed and intended to willfully sabotage the proper operation of a branch of the government of the United States.  We all have a problem when a powerful special interest is willing to damage our experiment in democracy to achieve its selfish ends.  

As a Senator, John F. Kennedy once said, “Let us not despair but act.  Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.  Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past—let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

Solutions to climate change need be neither Republican nor Democratic.  They do need to be based in sound science and healthy and open debate.  And we will be a stronger and more respected country if they are American solutions.  For a country that claims to stand as an example—as a city on a hill—and benefits from the power of that example, this horrible example of out-of-control special interest influence will have lasting consequences.  We have a role to play in this world, we Americans, and it’s time we got about it. 

I yield the floor.”