WASHINGTON -– Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has been on a one-man quest to get the Senate to talk about climate change. And talking is exactly what he's been doing, delivering a floor speech on climate change every week the Senate is in session. On Wednesday afternoon, he delivered his 50th speech.
"There's literally no way to exhaust this topic," Whitehouse told The Huffington Post Wednesday before his speech. "I can exhaust my staff doing the research, but there's no way I can exhaust this topic."
Whitehouse said on the floor that he keeps the speeches coming in order "to urge my colleagues to wake up to what carbon pollution is doing to our atmosphere and oceans."
"We are a great country, but not when we’re lying and denying what’s real," he said. "The atmosphere is warming; ice is melting; seas are warming, rising and acidifying. It is time for the misleading fantasies to end."
Whitehouse started delivering the speeches in April 2012, after hearing from many proponents of climate action who were frustrated by the Senate's apparent avoidance of the issue. "I think some of the folks who really get this, who have passion on this, felt like Congress had written it off," Whitehouse told HuffPost. "By helping give them a voice, they feel more empowered."
A group of senators has also been meeting regularly since last December to discuss climate change, holding briefings on Thursdays at noon that feature updates from a variety of experts and administration officials. Whitehouse said attendance at those meetings has grown, with as many as 23 senators attending at one point. He thinks his speeches and the meetings are helping draw more attention to the subject among his colleagues.
"I think the profile of the issue has climbed considerably in our caucus, and perhaps the best measure of that is some of the things Harry Reid has been saying about the importance of addressing climate change, which was an issue he had not spoken about in such a way before," Whitehouse said, referring to the majority leader's remark that "we have no more important issue in the world than this issue, period."
So far, no Republicans have attended the Thursday meetings. "But we have interesting conversations going on with more than just a few Republicans who I think are looking for a moment to rescue their party from the climate change denial ditch that it has driven itself into," Whitehouse said.
He pointed to recent polling that found a significant number of young voters said they would classify a political candidate who denied climate change as "ignorant," "out of touch," or "crazy."
"That's a pretty strong signal that the party doesn't have a future in climate denial," said Whitehouse. "I think the wiser, more level-headed members of the party see that coming and want to make that transition."
Even after 50 speeches and years of congressional inaction, Whitehouse said he remains optimistic about the prospect of addressing climate change.
"If we'd simply be positive-minded and plan and strategize, we can get this problem solved," he said. "The political will is there, we just haven't marshaled it yet."