Whitehouse’s ‘wake up’ gets put to sleep after 9-year run

Speech series says farewell on the same day Biden unveils his climate policy

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Posted January 27, 2021 at 3:28pm

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse spoke Wednesday in front of a floor chart emblazoned with a photograph of the Earth and the words “Time to Wake Up” for the 279th and final time.  

The series of speeches from the Rhode Island Democrat, familiar to many Senate floor watchers, is coming to an end after a nine-year run. Whitehouse said the decision was made because those paying attention to his calls for action have finally woken from their slumber. He expressed confidence in President Joe Biden’s commitment to addressing the causes of climate change. 

“The conditions are at last in place for a real solution. A new dawn is breaking, and there’s no need for my little candle against the darkness,” Whitehouse said in prepared remarks, winding down his final climate awareness installment. “Instead of urging that it’s time to wake up, I close this long run by saying it’s now time to get to work. Whitehouse Time to Wake Up run, farewell.”

The pockmarked and tattered green poster, now worn white on its edges as if it were in a narrow frame, will be retired along with his near weekly speeches (when the Senate is in session). Whitehouse’s aides, easily identified by reporters as they carried out the task of transporting the nicked-up sign in the Capitol’s halls, may now be harder to spot. 

Whitehouse ended the “wake up” run on the same day that Biden unveiled his administration’s climate policy, signing executive orders that the White House says will also create jobs and restore scientific integrity.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse shows off his “Time to Wake Up” poster on Wednesday, before retiring it, hopefully for good, he said. (Jessica Wehrman/CQ Roll Call)

The senator from the Ocean State, which has seen the effects of climate change along its shores, has used his weekly speech to draw attention to a variety of environmental challenges. 

It all began in April 2012. Frustrated with the Obama administration’s inaction, he started giving mini-lessons on the science of climate change.

They morphed into talks about the communities affected and drew in investigations into the so-called dark money lobbying efforts that have blocked climate policies designed to slow some of its causes. 

At the outset, his series was greeted with interest, he told CQ Roll Call in 2018 when he celebrated his 200th speech. The interest slowly turned to annoyance. Then the speeches, typically delivered to an empty chamber, became generally accepted and grudgingly admired.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, who delivers his own regularly occurring speech series highlighting an “Alaskan of the Week,” said in December he respects Whitehouse’s dedication. 

“I admire him for having the tenacity and discipline to do that every week on an issue that he obviously finds — he’s very passionate about,” the Republican said. 

On various occasions, Whitehouse has been helped out by his colleagues. He was joined in 2014 by 30 senators as they held the floor open late into the night to emphasize the climate change threat. 

In 2017 Whitehouse brought a science experiment to the floor, blowing into a glass of water treated with a chemical that shows its pH through an aquarium bubbler to demonstrate how ocean acidification works.

“I could do that right here with a breath,” he said, holding the glass of water that had been transformed from a blue color to a greenish hue. “It is happening on a global scale.”

When first designing his iconic poster, Whitehouse had a specific vision. He said it had to be green and had to have a photo of the globe on it. “I wanted it to look like one of those early pictures from the moon when we first got the look at our planet from another celestial body,” he said.

Now the faded poster will probably be stashed in a closet somewhere, he said.

Would he ever bring back the speeches? “Let’s not think negatively,” he said.

Whitehouse ended his final speech with an ultimatum. He said lawmakers can “rise in bipartisan force to stop the harm and cure the damage,” but that it’s not a sure bet.

“We can still screw this up. No doubt about it,” he said. “So let’s not. Let’s do our duty.”

“Whitehouse — at least on ‘Time to Wake Up’ — out,” he said, before raising his hand and dropping the mic.

Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.