Does Science Get a Vote?

The Senate’s debate on climate change yesterday was farcical.

January 22, 2015

There have been a lot of great lines delivered in the U.S. Congress. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln said: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve.” Here’s Lyndon Johnson, speaking about African-American disenfranchisement in 1965: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”

Those were great moments. But to my mind, one of the greatest Capitol quotes of this century is from Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, who delivered it at the 2008 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hearing as defenders of an outdated discriminatory policy made their last desperate arguments to keep gays out of the military. (Jon Stewart skewered the event brilliantly, but be warned, it's NSFW.) Shea-Porter's take:

"I think 10, 15 years from now, we’re going to look at this hearing, and we’re all going to be embarrassed that we actually sat here and talked about this. I’m embarrassed right now."

So much in Congress seems farcical to outside observers that it’s refreshing when politicians like Shea-Porter admit that, sometimes at least, members of Congress feel that way, too. Unfortunately, yesterday’s Senate floor debate on the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline brought us back into the realm of the absurd.

As part of the debate and amendment process for the bill forcing approval of the pipeline, Democratic senators maneuvered the chamber into voting on a series of nonbinding resolutions concerning climate change. The first, from Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, was simple: to express the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax. It passed 98-1, with only Roger Wicker of Mississippi voting nay.

But wait, aren’t many GOP senators climate skeptics? Here’s where it gets really embarrassing. Many of them, such as arch denier James Inhofe of Oklahoma, voted for the bill—but only because it doesn’t say that humans are causing the change.

Let me translate those tweets for you: "Nanny nanny boo-boo, you forgot to say anthropogenic."

Republican John Hoeven of North Dakota offered a second amendment, which said “human activity contributes to climate change.” It failed 59-40 (60 votes were required for passage), with Hoeven voting against his own amendment. At this point, C-SPAN should have played the hearing on fast-forward over the Benny Hill theme song.

Finally, Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, presented an amendment saying climate change was real, and human activity “significantly contributes” to it. The word significantly scared off a few more Republicans, like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.

Where does this leave us? It is the sense of the Senate that the climate is changing, but half of them don’t know (or won’t admit) why. Kate Sheppard of The Huffington Post summed it up with this tweet:

Meanwhile, the sense of scientists is that climate change is happening, the burning of fossil fuels is causing it, and we better do something about it quick.

Yesterday was embarrassing. Where is Carol Shea-Porter when you need her?

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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