Earth's atmosphere from the International Space Station.

Earth's atmosphere from the International Space Station.


For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?

The long and tangled history of U.S. climate politics got a new chapter this week, as the U.S. Senate today finished work on a bill that would force the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude from Canada’s oil sands to the United States. Senators voted 62-36 to approve the bill, but that is short of the 67 favorable votes needed to override a promised presidential veto.

The debate over the Keystone XL bill has ranged far and wide. Senators have offered dozens of amendments to the bill, testing a promise by the body’s new Republican leaders to allow all sides to be heard. For many researchers and Washington wonks, however, the highlight was seven votes on climate science and policy measures (see full list below) that the Senate took over the past week. The votes—largely symbolic, to be sure—marked the first time in 5 years that the full Senate had spent substantial time debating climate issues, and the skirmishing included plenty of surprise maneuvers, theatrics, and fierce rhetoric.

Now that the smoke has cleared, onlookers are still debating exactly who accomplished what—if anything.

Here are a few take-homes:

The climate votes were not about creating substantive policy.

President Barack Obama’s veto threat has long made it clear that the underlying bill (S. 1) is headed to oblivion. (The White House argues that the executive branch, not Congress, should have the final say on the pipeline.) The version that the House of Representatives passed on 9 January failed to muster enough votes to override a presidential veto; the same outcome is expected in the Senate.

Another clue: Several of the amendments were framed as “sense of the Senate” or “sense of the Congress” resolutions, which pack no legal punch. So the maneuvering partly reflects the continuing reality that Congress is unlikely to take major action on climate change over the next 2 years—except on Republican-backed measures aimed at limiting the Obama administration’s regulatory powers.

Democrats and their allies succeeded in making Republicans squirm—and Republicans succeeded in limiting the potential political damage.

To evaluate how the votes on the climate amendments played out, it’s worth considering what each side hoped to accomplish.

Some Democratic senators, and independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (an ally of Democrats), had several goals in mind. Overall, they hoped to force Republicans—who control 54 Senate seats—to take a position on three questions: Is climate change real?; Are humans a major contributor?; and Should the government do something about it? In Capitol Hill parlance, votes on such broad questions—and not necessarily specific policies or actions—are “messaging votes,” designed to shape public perception and provide ammunition for election campaigns.

Senator Charles Schumer (D–NY), the third-ranking Senate Democrat, clearly signaled this line of thinking before the climate votes started on 21 January. “We're going to have a vote to find out who the climate change deniers in the U.S. Senate really are,” he said during a Capitol Hill press conference. “Do they deny that human activity has helped create climate change? Stay tuned. We'll see.”

Senator John Thune, the chamber's third-ranking Republican, was similarly blunt. "Obviously, it's a very politically motivated vote," he told Bloomberg Politics. "They would love to get a bunch of Republicans voting against those amendments."

More specifically, the Democrats’ amendments effectively forced seven Republican senators who will be running for re-election in 2016 in states that voted for Democrat Barack Obama to take potentially perilous votes. Some Democratic strategists believe public opinion is moving in their favor on all three questions. And although climate change is unlikely to be a top-tier issue in most 2016 election campaigns, some analysts believe it is a second- or third-tier issue that could move crucial votes in a tight contest. Strategists even saw a possible win-win: Republicans who supported Democratic amendments risked alienating a core constituency—conservative voters who tend to reject climate science—while those who voted against the measures handed Democrats a clear way to highlight an ideological contrast during a campaign.

The votes could also have complicated life for four Republican senators mulling a bid for presidency in 2016: Rand Paul (KY), Marco Rubio (FL), Lindsey Graham (SC) and Ted Cruz (TX). Conventional wisdom holds that Republican candidates will have to cater to conservative voters to win the nomination—and hence avoid embracing the positions that climate change is caused by humans and that government should do something about it. At the same time, a Republican candidate holding those views could be at a disadvantage after emerging from the nomination process; the nominee would have to compete in a general election in which conservatives are a much smaller segment of the electorate.

Republicans sought to foil the Democrats’ plan without taking the problematic tack of simply preventing the votes (and appearing obstructionist) or having to vote against seemingly reasonable statements, such as “climate change is real.” At worst, they wanted to muddle the message the Democrats were trying to deliver.

In the end, both sides appear to have achieved at least some of their goals. Democrats succeeded in exposing divisions within the Republican caucus that may be useful come election time, but Republicans succeeded in avoiding some punches.

Senator James Inhofe is one cagey politician.

One successful Republican strategy was to simply embrace—and then try to redefine—the climate amendment that attracted the most attention (and the only one the Senate adopted): Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D–RI) 21 January sense of the Senate resolution that climate change “is real and not a hoax.” The wording represented a dig at Inhofe (R–OK), famous for declaring that climate change “a hoax,” but sidestepped the question of whether humans were to blame.

In a last-minute surprise, Inhofe announced he was co-sponsoring the amendment, which was the first to come to a vote. He then gave a floor statement explaining that by “hoax,” he didn’t mean the mere existence of climate change: “There is archaeological evidence of that, there is biblical evidence, and there is historical evidence. It will always change.” Instead, he suggested, “the hoax is that there are some people who are so arrogant, who think that they are so powerful that they can change the climate.”

Inhofe’s redefinition made it easier for Republicans to vote for the measure, which was adopted 98 to 1. The lone holdout was Senator Roger Wicker (R–MS), who later said he cast his no vote to protest what he considered a political stunt.

Some analysts quickly gave Republicans the win. “Republicans outfox Democrats on climate votes,” read a headline in Politico Pro. “With Inhofe's re-framing the question, the Democrats, trying to engineer a gotcha moment, ended up empty-handed,” wrote Philip Bump on The Fix, a column of The Washington Post.

The Democrats succeeded in exposing Republican divisions on climate.

Others thought that the outcome was less clear-cut, however, especially when combined with the two votes that followed. Inhofe’s maneuver highlighted the nervousness that some Republicans felt about denying the existence of climate change, they note—mild angst that was on clear display when it came time to vote on the second and third climate amendments.

The second measure, from Senator John Hoeven (R–ND), was designed to give Republicans an alternative to a very similar third measure, offered by Senator Brian Schatz (D–HI). Both said climate change “is real” and that “human activity” contributes. But whereas Schatz’s said humans “significantly” contribute, Hoeven’s left out that qualifier.

Hoeven’s amendment ended up with 59 yes votes, including 15 Republicans. Among them were three of the potentially most vulnerable incumbents—senators Kelly Ayotte (R–NH), Mark Kirk (R–IL), and Pat Toomey (R–PA)—and two potential presidential candidates, senators Paul (R–KY) and Graham (R–SC).

And, in a minor embarrassment, Hoeven had to vote against his own amendment to prevent it from reaching the 60-vote threshold needed for adoption. Hoeven’s spokesman Don Canton later suggested that the senator was worried that, if his amendment was adopted, it would have prompted some Republicans to vote against the underlying bill. “Their confusion was evident from our perspective,” one Senate Democratic aide told Politico Pro.

Schatz’s amendment, which came up 20 minutes later, got 50 votes. Five Republicans supported it, including Ayotte, Kirk, and Graham. (Paul voted against it.)

Graham, who in the past has helped negotiate ultimately unsuccessful legislation to address greenhouse gas emissions, told E&E Daily after the vote: "I think that people on my side are really reluctant to embrace how much human activity is causing climate change because our friends on the other side have made it a religion.”

Graham even cited the Keystone XL bill as an example. He castigated Democrats for using climate change as justification to oppose the pipeline, which he has argued (and the State Department has found) wouldn’t by itself significantly worsen carbon emissions. “You made climate change a religion rather than a problem,” he said on the Senate floor 21 January. “It is a problem, but you are taking a draconian approach to the problem.”

But Graham also had a mild warning for his colleagues: "From a Republican Party point of view, if you don't embrace what seems to be an overwhelming body of scientific evidence, you risk the idea that you're kind of anti-science," he told E&E. "Here's what I believe: I believe the Earth is round, I believe that climate change is real, I believe in evolution, and I believe in Jesus."

The political climate around climate change may be shifting again—slowly.

Some advocates for action on climate change saw long-term hope in the trio of votes. They represent a modest step out of the recent “dark ages” of gridlocked U.S. climate politics, former Representative Bob Inglis (R–SC) told ScienceInsider.

The economic troubles generated by the Great Recession dimmed congressional interest in pursuing potentially disruptive climate fixes, believes Inglis, who is a proponent of market-based climate policies. But as the U.S. economy recovers, Inglis sees politicians, including Republicans, becoming more willing to engage. “The renaissance is here and the recovery is here,” said Inglis, who now directs George Mason University’s Energy and Enterprise Initiative in Fairfax, Virginia.

Especially notable, Inglis says, is the fact that Hoeven, a Republican, offered an amendment that recognized humans’ role in climate change: “That means that Republicans felt under pressure to address the topic.” Some Democrats agreed: “What a breath of fresh air this amendment is,” said Senator Barbara Boxer (D–CA), top Democrat on the Senate environment committee, after Hoeven presented his measure.

“I think what we’re seeing is that it’s becoming more politically inconvenient to not accept the science,” said Gretchen Goldman, an analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union for Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. But that won’t be enough to catalyze congressional action in the short term, she told ScienceInsider. “Maybe it could lead to something more productive in the future,” she says, but “we need to move the conversation past arguing about facts and looking at how we’re going to address this problem.”

The questions that won’t be answered until at least 2016, however are whether the climate votes will have any impact at all when voters go to the polls—and, if they do have an impact, what actions policymakers might actually be willing to  take.

Here’s a list of the seven amendments:

  • Offered by Whitehouse: To express the “sense of the Senate” that “climate change is real and not a hoax.” Vote result: Agreed to, 98 to 1 (60 votes required).

  • Offered by Hoeven: To express the “sense of Congress” that climate change is real and that human activities contribute to it, and to affirm that the State Department has found that the Keystone XL pipeline would yield fewer carbon emissions than no pipeline would. Vote result: Not agreed to, 59 to 40 (60 votes required).

  • Offered by Schatz: To express the “sense of Congress” that climate change is real and human activities “significantly contribute” to it. Vote result: Not agreed to, 50 to 49 (60 votes required).

  • Offered by Senator Joe Manchin (D–WV): To express the “sense of Congress” that scientists agree that climate change is real, human-caused, and already creating “devastating problems”; that fossil fuels will remain a major part of the U.S. energy supply for decades; and that the United States should invest in research and development for “clean fossil fuel technology.” Vote result: Tabled, 53 to 46 (simple majority required).

  • Offered by Sanders: To express the “sense of Congress” that scientists agree that climate change is real, human-caused, and already creating devastating problems; that there’s a brief window to act before “irreparable harm” results; and that the United States should shift to cleaner energy sources. Vote result: Tabled, 56 to 42 (simple majority required).

  • Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO): To express the “sense of the Senate” that the Obama administration’s recent climate agreement with China “has no force and effect in the United States”; that such agreements need “advice and consent” of the Senate; that limits on carbon emissions can harm the economy; and that the United States shouldn’t enter any agreements that would cause such harm. Vote result: Not agreed to, 51 to 46 (60 votes required).

  • Senator Chris Coons (D–DE): To express the “sense of Congress” that climate change is “already impacting the safety and reliability of the critical infrastructure systems of the United States,” and that it is “fiscally prudent” for the federal government to take action to mitigate and adapt to these infrastructure threats. Vote result: Not agreed to, 47 to 51 (60 votes required).

Updated, 7:38pm 1/29/2015: This item has been updated to reflect the outcome of the vote on the KeystoneXL bill.

Follow News from Science

Latest News

A 3D plot from a model of the Ebola risk faced at different West African regions over time.
Dancing sneakers on pavement