A little over a year ago, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, stood on the Senate floor looking exuberant. To his right was his trademark green sign — a picture of the Earth and "TIME TO WAKE UP" in large capital letters. The senator, a longtime climate activist, was celebrating what he thought would be a milestone: his 279th and final speech urging the country to take action on global warming. President Joe Biden, who had campaigned aggressively on the subject of climate change, was in the White House and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. The United States, Whitehouse was sure, was poised to pass significant legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
"A new dawn is breaking," the senator said grandly. "And when it's dawn, there's no need for my little candle against the darkness." It was time to put away his well-worn sign.
That announcement turned out to have been premature. On Wednesday, with Congress's landmark climate legislation still stalled, Whitehouse returned to the Senate floor for his 280th speech, carrying the battered green sign. "I am not very happy to be back," he said. "We just aren't making progress."
Prior to last year, Whitehouse had been making the "Time to Wake Up" speeches for 9 years. He began the practice in 2012, after the Obama administration failed to pass a bill that would have capped carbon emissions across the country. Nearly every week, the senator and his aides would carry the green sign in and he would expound, often to a mostly empty Senate, on the problem of global warming.
Early on, the speeches just explained the basics of climate change and its consequences — warming oceans, rising temperatures, and increasingly dangerous weather events. But over time Whitehouse began to refine his views on climate change and its villains. He started calling out dark money in politics, corporate America's anti-climate lobbying efforts, and government subsidies for oil and gas. On Wednesday, the senator pulled no punches. "The fossil fuel industry controls the Republican Party the way a ventriloquist controls a painted wooden dummy," he said.
The return of the "Time to Wake Up" speech is a grim reminder of the U.S.'s holding pattern on climate change. The Build Back Better Act — which would have spent half a trillion dollars boosting clean energy, electric vehicles, and technologies to pull carbon dioxide out of the air — is frozen in Congress, thanks to opposition from Senator Joe Manchin, the coal-connected Democrat from West Virginia. And, while there is still a possibility to pass a stand-alone climate package with Manchin's support, time is likely running out. Midterm elections are around the corner, and it's unclear whether Democrats will be able to retain both houses of Congress in 2023.
Whitehouse can't say whether his dogged persistence in making the speeches has helped raise awareness of the U.S.'s sluggish progress on climate change. But, he says, one "indisputable consequence" of making them so frequently is that he has learned a lot — and the speeches have given him a platform to critique fossil fuel companies and corporate America for their delay tactics. "And it certainly annoys the hell out of that operation to be called out," he said wryly.
A year ago, when Whitehouse was planning to end the speeches for good, the Smithsonian Institution asked if they could take the old, tattered green sign — they suspected it was the most-used sign ever on the Senate floor. But Whitehouse said something held him back from handing it over: a suspicion that, no matter how promising things looked at the time, his work might not be over yet.
"When we reignite work on a strong climate bill, I'll get this battered poster over to the Smithsonian," the senator said during his speech on Wednesday. "If we cannot, I'll be back here, again and again, to call on this chamber to wake up."