Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has been a familiar sight the past few years, standing on the Senate floor beside a "Time To Wake Up" placard and talking to a nearly empty chamber.
It's set to happen again Monday evening, when the Rhode Island Democrat delivers his 100th weekly floor speech on climate change. Since April 2012, Whitehouse has devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to the practice. He said the repetition helps him keep his facts straight — so he's ready to throw down and debate the issue at any moment.
“I’m pre-prepared for climate change debate,” Whitehouse said in an interview with CQ Roll Call.
Throughout the Capitol campus, floor speeches often appear to serve as little more than background noise from wall-mounted TVs. But Whitehouse said his efforts are not about immediate action as much as keeping climate change — once a policy afterthought — in the Senate discussion.
"Mr. President, I am here today for the 99th time to remind us that we are sleepwalking our way to a climate catastrophe, and that it is time to wake up,” Whitehouse said May 13.
"I do this every week we are in session," Whitehouse said Nov. 25 in his 75th speech, "hoping someday a spark will hit tinder."
The second-term senator generally writes the speeches himself and focuses the rest of his preparation on the delivery.
“Mine may not be the biggest voice in town," he said in the interview, "but I figured you work with what you’ve got, and maybe persistence would make up for what not having a very big megaphone left me with."
Whitehouse started his speech series while reeling from a bitter defeat of cap-and-trade legislation and discouraged by silence on the subject from the White House. (He's since been pleased by the Obama administration's actions related to climate change.)
Another climate cohort, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., joined Whitehouse in late 2013 in pushing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to keep the issue front and center.
“Our leader was so great about it,” Boxer said, recalling that Reid allowed for a climate change presentation at every party lunch thereafter. Boxer pointed to two climate change working groups that have helped keep the discussion going. “And I think Sheldon’s reminders on the floor are really helpful as well,” she added.
While his persistence is notable among sitting senators, the Senate's floor speech heavyweight was Wisconsin Democrat William Proxmire, who also holds the record for most consecutive roll call votes cast.
According to the Senate Historical Office, Proxmire announced in 1967 his intention to speak every day the Senate was in session about the country's failure to ratify a genocide treaty. The Senate voted for ratification in 1986 after more than 3,000 speeches by Proxmire, who retired two years later.
In a statement to CQ Roll Call, former Vice President Al Gore, a top climate-change advocate, said Whitehouse's leadership and consistent speeches come "at an important time for our planet when the need for urgent climate action has never been clearer. We need more leaders like Senator Whitehouse to help chart a course forward toward a sustainable future."
Whitehouse recently took his "Time To Wake Up" show on the road, speaking in presidential proving grounds such as Iowa and New Hampshire. He also gained some attention just ahead of the 2014 elections when he and Sen. Joe Manchin III agreed to visit each other's states to discuss their respective perspectives on environmental policy.
He’s optimistic climate change will become a significant issue in the 2016 elections, both congressional and presidential. He said public opinion and science have stacked the deck so much in favor of the existence of climate change that it's now impossible to deny.
“That game is over,” Whitehouse said. “It’s going to be harder to say, ‘I’m not a scientist, I don’t know whether we should do anything.’ That’s just irresponsible, that’s a ludicrous argument.”
Among the Democrats running for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton has spoken heavily about climate change in the past. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., told CQ Roll Call he "absolutely" planned to make the issue a huge part of his campaign and applauded Whitehouse’s oratorical accomplishment.
Whitehouse noted recent comments from some of the prospective Republican candidates, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, suggest climate change could play some role in the primaries — though the Environmental Protection Agency remains a political target, particularly in coal-producing states.
For all of Whitehouse’s optimism, his top Senate rival on climate change, Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., sees the debate shifting in favor of those who see the science as clearly divided.
“I’ve been involved in the center of this debate [since 2002], and it’s been very unpopular with some people,” Inhofe told CQ Roll Call. “The people have had a wake-up call and they understand now what the cost of the thing would be and that the science is clearly divided. So I think [proponents] are losing the argument."
Whitehouse and Inhofe are actually complimentary of each other, but on this issue the difference is stark. Their defining interaction came in February , when Inhofe brought a snowball onto the Senate floor and threw it toward the presiding officer — sailing symbolically through what he perceives as a hole in climate science.
Speaking just after, Whitehouse quoted different scientific sources and said, “You can believe every major scientific society, or you can believe the senator with the snowball.”
In his 100th speech, Whitehouse was expected to touch on elements from other speeches, arguing for climate action, outlining motives for Republican opposition and the path forward, which would likely include a resurrection of the carbon tax.
According to Whitehouse, the proposed tax has been strongly opposed by the fossil-fuel industry but would “set forces in motion to solve the [climate change] problem” by discouraging carbon emissions and allowing for non-fossil fuel energy producers to catch up.
He believes circumstances such as significant weather events, public opinion, politics and even the vote this year that got 98 senators to agree climate change was occurring will lead to legislation by the end of 2016.
Until then, he'll be on the floor every week.
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