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Senate Says Climate Change Real, But Not Really Our Fault

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., was the only senator to vote against an amendment calling climate change "real and not a hoax."
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., was the only senator to vote against an amendment calling climate change "real and not a hoax."

Breathtakingly broad as its jurisdiction may be, the U.S. Senate does not usually vote on the validity of scientific theories.

This week, it did. And science won. The Senate voted that climate change is real, and not a hoax. The vote was 98-1.

The vote was about an amendment to the bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline. The near-unanimity of the climate change judgment was notable, because so many senators have cast doubt on ideas of "global warming."

Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, a former mayor of Tulsa and longtime friend to the oil industry, even has a book out entitled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. But, to the surprise of many, Inhofe actually voted for the "not a hoax" amendment offered by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island.

Of course, Inhofe could do that and then vote against another, later amendment attributing climate change to human activity. (Relax, Tulsa: Sen. Inhofe has not changed his stripes.)

"The hoax is that there are some people who are so arrogant [as] to think they are so powerful that they can change climate," Inhofe said in a speech on the Senate floor. "Man cannot change climate."

As it turned out, the only vote against the "real and not a hoax" language was cast by Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Wicker's is not a major energy-producing state, but Wicker could have been thinking of a gusher of another kind.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, oil and gas interests in the most recent election cycle (2013-14) gave about $56 million to the campaigns of parties, candidates and outside interest groups. The overwhelming preponderance of this money went to Republicans and outside interest groups favoring Republicans.

As the brand-new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Wicker might not have wanted to offend the oil and gas people in his first month on the job.

While Wicker stood alone against the mere admission of climate change, he had lots more company in his party when he voted against an amendment that recognized some human contribution to the problem. On this amendment, Wicker and Inhofe were joined by three dozen other Republicans in rejecting any attribution of human responsibility — even one that was gently alleged in compromise language offered by Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota.

Hoeven's amendment managed to clear the 60-vote threshold for approval because the Democrats voted for it and because there were 15 Republicans willing to say that, yes, people are contributing to climate change. The 15 included Rand Paul of Kentucky, a 2016 prospective presidential candidate, and also John McCain of Arizona, the GOP's 2008 nominee.

Other major committee chairs backing the Hoeven language were Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, both of Tennessee, Orrin Hatch of Utah and yes, even Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the great energy-producing wonder states.

They were joined by GOP colleagues Rob Portman of Ohio, Dean Heller of Nevada, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Mark Kirk of Illinois.

Most of these 15 represent states that are net consumers rather than producers of energy. And five of them are facing re-election next year in states that have been voting Democratic lately in presidential years: Portman, Toomey, Collins, Ayotte and Kirk.

Five of the 15 who were willing to acknowledge some human contribution were also willing to say that human activity "significantly" contributed to climate change. This stronger language, offered by Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, failed the 60-vote threshold. But this hard core of five Republicans were willing to endorse it, including two New Englanders (Collins and Ayotte), Kirk from deep blue Illinois and sometime mavericks Graham and Alexander.

Perhaps only Kirk and Ayotte of this group have any real political worries in 2016. But the presence of even a few GOP apostates on any issue so close to the heart of the party's ethos and fundraising base was enough to give satisfaction — grim or otherwise — to some on the other side of the aisle.

Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, a left-leaning independent, was swift to predict that the center of gravity in the GOP would continue to move away from fossil fuels. Perhaps. But this week, a Sanders amendment explicitly describing that as the future trend was soundly defeated on the Senate floor.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.