Republican senators who believe that climate change is happening appear to have no qualms about Sen. James Inhofe's rise to the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee. He will, however, underscore the party's divisions about the science around warming.
The Oklahoman is coming into power as the Republican Party grapples with subtly shifting positions within its membership that may signal an effort to be more accepting of climate science, if not its solutions, according to some observers. In that, Inhofe may stir controversy if he launches a fervent fight against the Obama administration's positions or if he uses his gavel to reject the science, those observers say.
Five Republican senators indicated in interviews that they disagree with Inhofe's positions on global warming, which he describes as a "hoax" and a charade to raise taxes. But none of them questioned whether he should be elevated to the top perch on the prominent panel, pointing to his experience and respectful demeanor as favorable traits for a chairman with broad jurisdiction.
One even said that alternate views within the party would act to "moderate" Inhofe's unusual positions on the climate. Another believes he'll be "reasonable."
Inhofe, who joined the Senate after a 1994 special election, will assume control of the Environment and Public Works Committee in January based on seniority. His appointment, limited to two years, comes as some Republicans are urging their party to be more sensitive to environmental problems in the hopes of broadening their reach among voters in a presidential election cycle.
"He has his own views on climate change, and they're passionately held," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "But, again, that doesn't preclude me and him and others with coming up with a positive agenda" on the environment.
He noted that energy efficiency legislation and efforts by the federal government to conserve land are two possibilities. Graham seemed to rule out a large climate bill, which he's supported in the past, and is resigned to the idea that a number of Republicans don't believe in climate change, saying that's "fine."
'Strident' views, but 'a reasonable person'
Earlier this month, as the Republican wave was handing Inhofe the reins of the EPW Committee, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was addressing her supporters at an election night celebration. Climate change is among her priorities as incoming chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she said then, stating that it's "something we must address."
Murkowski said in an interview that some people may perceive her as someone who promotes "energy of the past," adding that observers might also be prejudging Inhofe. She called him experienced and respectful.
"I think in an effort to legislate he's going to be a reasonable person," Murkowski said of Inhofe. "I'm sure that Sen. Inhofe has his position [on climate change]. He probably feels very strident about it. But how he is able to work with others is a measure of support that he continues to receive from the people of Oklahoma."
As for her committee, Murkowski said that her environmental detractors will see "in very short order that I have a very, very broad view of what our energy potentials are and how we develop all of those."
Inhofe claims that climate change is a hoax orchestrated by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, U.S. EPA and other "alarmists." He wrote a book in 2012, "The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future," that rejects climate science and says that increased CO2 can be a positive influence.
Asked last week whether his thinking has changed, Inhofe answered no, but he also rejected the idea that climate change is a conspiracy as some conservatives have described it.
"How many times have we heard the science is settled? It's not settled," Inhofe said in an interview. "And there are more and more people opposing that than supporting that right now. ... So the American people have caught on.
"I would say, no, I don't know of any minds that have been changed [to believe in climate change] in let's say the last two years," he added. "There are some Republicans who have bought into it. Not very many."
Asked whether he believes that greenhouse gases cause temperatures to rise, he said researchers such as Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric physicist who rejects catastrophic climate change, say it could have a "minuscule" impact.
"In fact, I can give you their exact quotes of what they say -- we don't think it does, but it could," Inhofe said, paraphrasing Lindzen. "So I leave that part up to the scientists."
Later, he said that carbon dioxide is "a fertilizer."
Republicans may reach more 'moderate' positions
That type of thinking doesn't correspond with the political strategy of Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.).
"The bottom line is the climate's changing. I've noticed that over the last 20 years," Heller said. "If there's any way that we can do a better job of keeping the world great, I'm all for it. I supported alternative sources of energy. It's big in Nevada with solar and wind, so there are more opportunities, and we should take advantage of that."
He's not concerned about Inhofe's chairmanship, saying that the party is beginning to be more sensitive to the issue.
"I'm sure he has his opinions, but I think the conference as a whole has a tendency to moderate some of these positions," Heller said.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) also said they didn't have any apprehension about Inhofe's rise.
Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, believes that Inhofe's leadership could go two ways: quietly or loudly. He suspects the latter and assumes that Inhofe could become the "Darrell Issa of the climate," referring to the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Issa (R-Calif.) is one of President Obama's staunchest critics.
That's especially true as EPA gets closer to releasing its greenhouse gas rules on power plants.
'He'll have opportunities'
"That's likely to set Inhofe on a path to undermine them, discredit them, rail against them in any way he can," Ornstein said. "And he'll have opportunities. If we have a bunch of hearings where he is trying to obliterate EPA officials, or where he brings in a bunch of witnesses who argue that it's all a hoax, or just badgers people, that becomes the visual."
Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist, believes Inhofe could create discomfort for Republican presidential candidates by forcing them to either align with GOP hard-liners who question the science of climate change or with moderate members in their party.
But it really depends on how he acts as chairman. If Inhofe focuses on the climate "hoax," the impact on candidates could be sharper, Trippi said. If he zeros in on other issues, like highway funding and EPA regulations, his leadership could be less nettlesome.
"Does he continue that tact?" Trippi asked of Inhofe's strident positions. "If he does, he's going to put a bunch of their 2016 candidates in tough positions."
Inhofe did not emphasize climate change when asked about his committee priorities last week. He plans to begin the year by reauthorizing a highway bill, which must be completed by May. He also mentioned plans to review several existing regulations affecting farmers on endangered species, fuel storage and waterway navigation.
Inhofe also plans to fulfill an effort he began last spring to short-circuit EPA's upcoming regulations on greenhouse gases by asking leadership to allow a vote on a disapproval resolution.
Beyond that, Inhofe said he was putting together a list of committee actions that he isn't ready to release. He did hint that he plans to hold some bruising hearings on Obama's environmental policies.
"You can make it very, very difficult for him [Obama]," Inhofe said. "I'm not going to tell you who it is, but I have some issues and some witnesses in mind that will, I think, be very helpful in stopping some of the things that have been happening ... from the bureaucracies."
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