Nearly all U.S. senators agreed today on a measure affirming that climate change is real and not a hoax—including, to the surprise of many observers, Senator James Inhofe (R–OK), the man who once declared global warming a hoax. Meanwhile, although two other measures stating that humans are contributing to climate change won a majority of votes from the 99 senators present, they failed to garner the 60 votes needed to be adopted by the Senate.
All three measures were offered as amendments to legislation that would approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which could carry crude oil from Canada’s oil sands to the United States.
By a 98 to 1 vote, the U.S. Senate approved Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D–RI) amendment that asked simply whether it is “the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax.” The only senator voting no was Roger Wicker (R–MS).
Whitehouse’s amendment takes an implicit jab at Inhofe for his past statements. Like other Democrats, Whitehouse was seeking a vote that would serve as a first step toward future climate policy action. “I’m hoping that after many years of darkness and blockade that this vote can be a first little beam of light through the wall that will at least allow us to start having an honest conversation about what carbon pollution is doing to our climate and to our oceans,” Whitehouse said just before the vote on his amendment.
Then, courtesy of Inhofe, some political theatrics ensued on the Senate floor. To many observers’ surprise, Inhofe announced he wanted to be a co-sponsor on the Whitehouse amendment, eliciting gasps and scattered applause from the chamber. Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and has promised to try to block many Obama administration environmental initiatives, declared his support for the amendment—but perhaps not in the way climate activists hoped he would. He said that climate change itself is not a hoax, but that “the hoax is that there are some people who are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful to think they can change climate,” Inhofe said. Inhofe then joined 97 of his colleagues in voting yes on the Whitehouse amendment.
Votes on two other measures declaring that humans are changing the climate were much closer.
Senator John Hoeven (R–ND) offered an amendment affirming that climate change is real and humans are contributing to it. But it also included the State Department’s finding that the Keystone XL pipeline wouldn’t significantly worsen climate change, a provision likely meant to entice moderate Republicans into supporting the measure. In the end, the vote was 59 to 40 in favor, one shy of the 60 needed for adoption.
Hoeven’s measure was seeking to serve as a more GOP-friendly alternative to a third climate amendment from Senator Brian Schatz (D–HI). Schatz's measure asked whether it’s the “sense of Congress” that “climate change is real” and that “human activity significantly contributes to climate change.” It also failed to reach the 60 vote threshold, on a vote of 50 to 49.
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R–AK), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that she backed Hoeven’s amendment but would vote against Schatz’s amendment because its wording—that humans are “significantly” changing the climate—was stronger than the wording in Hoeven’s.
Meanwhile, many Democrats supported Hoeven’s amendment despite its inclusion of the Keystone XL language. Senator Barbara Boxer (D–CA), top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said a yes vote on Hoeven’s measure didn’t necessarily mean endorsing the State Department’s findings about the pipeline’s climate impact. She urged a yes vote on the amendment because an acknowledgment by the Senate that humans are changing the climate would have served as “breakthrough in the climate debate. … What a breath of fresh air this amendment is,” Boxer said.
Even though the two amendments that clarified that the Senate agrees humans are changing the climate fell short of adoption, Senator Bernie Sanders (I–VT) still sees the votes as a victory. "I think this is a significant step forward, and I think in the months and years to come more and more Republicans will accept that position," Sanders said after the vote.
Sanders is sponsoring a climate amendment of his own, which would specify not only that humans are changing the climate but also that climate change is already having major impacts and that society should take steps to clean up its energy supply. It’s unclear whether that amendment will get a vote.
Inhofe, meanwhile, indicated after the vote that he would unleash a “truth squad” to examine the science of humanmade climate change, which he says liberals want to use to justify tax increases. “We’re going to have hearings with prominent scientists to come in and talk about this thing,” he said, “because all they say now is, ‘Oh, the science is settled.’ ”