Why anyone would want that mantle, though, is another question.
Gore's rise and fall have been well-documented. In the years since his Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth and subsequent Nobel Peace Prize, the activist group Gore created has waned, and with it, its mission to build a global nonpartisan movement around climate change.
Its struggles began in 2009, when the cap and trade bill failed in the Senate. There's no Second Coming in sight. Any move to push a climate-change bill forward is completely at odds with current political reality: Comprehensive legislation has zero chance of passage in the Republican-controlled House and little chance even in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Whitehouse knows this, and to date has focused his efforts on simply making noise — educated, informed, deliberate noise. Working with Henry Waxman in the House, he formed a bicameral climate task force of a few dozen Democratic lawmakers who give speeches about climate change on the House and Senate floors every day Congress is in session. "Silence is the enemy," Whitehouse said.
He's certainly not the only climate hawk in the Senate. There's Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee; John Kerry, who, before he left to head up the State Department, spent the better part of 2009 and 2010 tucked away in a host of Senate offices, proselytizing on climate change; and Edward Markey, the staunch Massachusetts environmentalist who recently moved over from the House following a special election.
So far Whitehouse, a junior senator who's been trying to find an issue on which to distinguish himself, has been the most vocal on the issue. But it's Waxman, whom Whitehouse listed as among his mentors, who's been the legislative muscle behind the movement. Had Waxman not overreached with the climate bill in 2009, he might have masterminded climate's signature reform.
Now, however, he and Whitehouse are locked in a waiting game. "It took us a decade to get AIDS legislation. It took us 15 years to get tobacco regulations," Waxman told National Journal earlier this year. "Sometimes when you play the long game, you get a stronger result. You put everything in place, you do the work, and you wait for the right moment to arrive."
Climate policy has inched forward in a number of the states most affected by Hurricane Sandy, but the broader U.S. public has shown little interest in extending that conversation at the national level. For Rhode Island, known as the Ocean state, the effects of climate change can have serious implications along its almost 400 miles of coastline and in its coastal rivers, industries, and infrastructure. A change of just a few degrees in the temperature of the water, for instance, can mean the death of an entire fishing industry.