From Know-Nothingism to Do-Nothingism in the U.S. Senate

The "I am not a scientist" era in the U.S. Senate may be starting to wane. But the "I am opposed to doing anything about climate change" era is still going strong.

In votes Wedneday on amendments to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline bill, some Republican Senators finally went on record acknowledging that man-made climate change is real. But it is clear that the Republican leadership and most members of their caucus still have no plans to do something about it.

Five Republican Senators agreed that "climate change is real" and "human activity contributes significantly to climate change." Sens. Lamar Alexander (TN), Kelly Ayotte (NH), Susan Collins (ME), Lindsay Graham (SC), and Mark Kirk (IL) joined 45 Democrats voting for a climate science amendment offered by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI).

Ten additional Republicans could bring themselves to support those two simple propositions only after striking out a rather key word, to wit: "human activity contributes significantly to climate change." Sens. Bob Corker (TN), Jeff Flake (AZ), Orrin Hatch (UT), Dean Heller (NV), John McCain (AZ), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Rand Paul (KY), Rob Portman (OH), Mike Rounds (SD), and Pat Toomey (PA) voted for this watered-down version offered by North Dakota's John Hoeven. The omitted word matters. The heart of the scientific consensus is that the changes in the climate we're seeing are actually driven by human activity and cannot be limited without reducing carbon pollution. If you take out "significantly," you are still taking issue with that central scientific finding.

And 39 Republicans, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, stubbornly stuck with unadulterated climate denial by voting "no" on both amendments.

Neither measure passed, as even the minimal version fell short of 60 votes. Hoeven even voted against his own amendment to assure that result.

(A third amendment declaring that "climate change is real and not a hoax" passed 98-1, but only after the Senate's leading climate denier, James Inhofe (OK), insisted it is a hoax to claim humans could have any effect on the climate. The Lord, he has said, would never allow that.)

What's clear is that almost all of the Senate Republicans still are not for anything. They're following the Big Polluter Agenda to block every step President Obama is taking to begin cutting dangerous carbon pollution, using the Clean Air Act and other existing laws. Senate Majority Leader McConnell, who could not bring himself to vote for even Hoeven's weak tea, is pledging future votes to block EPA's first steps on power plants, the nation's biggest carbon polluters.

And yesterday, with the notable exception of Kelly Ayotte and Susan Collins, every Senate Republican voted to condemn the President's success in leveraging climate action by China - something they've been demanding for 20 years - and to put new obstacles in the way of reaching a global climate deal in Paris this December. Fortunately, this effort to throttle global action fell well short of 60 votes.

So while some members of the Senate majority have taken the first step to recover from the drunkenness of climate denial, there are still a lot more steps before they achieve sobriety. They need to back solutions - or at least stop trying to block the President from acting under the laws Congress has already passed.

Contrast today's efforts with the last time Republicans held the Senate majority. Ten years ago, by a vote of 53-44 and with 10 Republicans in support, the Senate backed a resolution firmly endorsing climate science and calling for mandatory measures to curb U.S. emissions and lead other countries to action. The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), opened with three crisp findings:

(1) greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere are causing average temperatures to rise at a rate outside the range of natural variability and are posing a substantial risk of rising sea-levels, altered patterns of atmospheric and oceanic circulation, and increased frequency and severity of floods and droughts;

(2) there is a growing scientific consensus that human activity is a substantial cause of greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere; and

(3) mandatory steps will be required to slow or stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

It then resolved:

It is the sense of the Senate that Congress should enact a comprehensive and effective national program of mandatory, market-based limits and incentives on emissions of greenhouse gases that slow, stop, and reverse the growth of such emissions at a rate and in a manner that--

(1) will not significantly harm the United States economy; and

(2) will encourage comparable action by other nations that are major trading partners and key contributors to global emissions.

Of the 18 current Republican Senators who served in 2005, four backed the Bingaman resolution (Alexander, Collins, Graham, and McCain).

But Sen. McCain, once a climate action champion, voted "no" on both the Schatz and Hoeven amendments. How the mighty have backslid.

Our hopes for the Senate 10 years ago were ambitious: to step up and enact positive legislation to solve our climate crisis. Our hopes for Senate Republicans today are decidedly more modest: Stop trying to block the only positive game in town. Until you back solutions, you are the problem.

About the Authors

David Doniger

Director, Climate & Clean Air program

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