Senate goes on the record on human impact to climate change

By Jean Chemnick, Manuel Quiñones | 01/22/2015 07:33 AM EST

Some Democrats yesterday claimed “victory” when the new Congress came extremely close to handing the minority party a win in the contentious climate debate, as an amendment affirming man-made climate change came only one vote shy of being added to a bill on the Senate floor.

Some Democrats yesterday claimed "victory" when the new Congress came extremely close to handing the minority party a win in the contentious climate debate, as an amendment affirming man-made climate change came only one vote shy of being added to a bill on the Senate floor.

The votes, meanwhile, also raise a new set of questions about the future of Republican climate change policy.

Democrats have been aiming to use the ongoing debate over legislation approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline to get lawmakers on the record about global warming, and yesterday’s votes on three amendments to S. 1 appear to have achieved a symbolic victory, at least.


Democrats can rejoice in an overwhelming endorsement of an amendment by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), one of the Senate’s climate hawks, stating that climate change is not a hoax.

The vote was 98-1, with Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker casting the lone "no" vote. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was not present.

Complicating the situation, however, is the fact that many Republicans who voted for Whitehouse’s amendment continued to say that while climate change is not a hoax, it is also not man-made.

Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) — the Senate’s leading naysayer on climate issues and author of a book titled "The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future" — kicked up yesterday evening’s drama by proclaiming his support for the Whitehouse measure.

Some lawmakers applauded, perhaps thinking Inhofe had changed his mind on climate change. But Inhofe quickly quashed that notion. He said climate change is happening, but the only hoax is humans thinking they could have an impact.

But perhaps more notably, 14 Republicans put themselves on record yesterday as believing that man-made emissions are a driver of global warming.

Five GOP senators backed an amendment by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) that stated human beings are having a significant impact on climate change. These included Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They all have a history of being proactive on climate policy.

Collins and Graham collaborated on carbon legislation in 2009 and 2010, though Graham withdrew his support for a bill he was crafting with former Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) before introducing it.

The same four Republicans joined 10 others in supporting a more limited amendment offered by Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), which stated that man-made emissions have some impact on warming.

Debate over one word

Hoeven’s amendment — with language crafted as lawmakers were preparing to vote — was originally a GOP attempt to go on the record with the party’s views on energy and provide lawmakers with an alternative to Democratic proposals. It then became an assertion that humans are affecting climate change, but not "significantly."

The GOP supporters of Hoeven’s language included some of the chamber’s leaders on climate and energy policy — Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

McCain and Murkowski have also backed carbon dioxide cap-and-trade legislation in the past, though they have distanced themselves from it more recently.

Murkowski still says she believes industrial greenhouse gas emissions are causing some warming but also backs additional access for her state’s petroleum industry and is preparing a comprehensive energy bill that is expected to include pro-fossil-fuels provisions.

Murkowski said there was a "distinct difference" between the Schatz and Hoeven amendments because of the word "significantly." She said of the Schatz language, "That inclusion of that word is sufficient to merit a ‘no’ vote at this time."

The Schatz amendment fell on a 50-49 vote, but the Hoeven amendment drew 59 votes — one shy of the 60-vote supermajority needed for adoption. In the end, Hoeven voted against his own amendment, saying he feared it would scuttle the underlying bill.

Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) poked fun at this turnaround as she celebrated the victory. Speaking to reporters after the vote, she proposed a new word: "Hoevenized."

"When you vote against your own amendment, you’re ‘Hoevenized,’" she said.

‘Small victory’

Boxer said the climate amendments accomplished exactly what environmentalists had envisioned: They put Republicans — and some Democrats — on the record about their views on climate change.

"I would say this is a small victory, but an important one," she said, pointing to recent polls that show that the public — including Republican voters, in some cases — sides more with Democrats than Republicans on climate change.

"They’re losing ground in the face of public opinion," she said.

Schatz called yesterday’s vote series "surprisingly productive." He said, "There is an emerging bipartisan group of people who believe that climate change is real and caused by humans and solvable."

Schatz, who has taken an active role on climate change since coming to the Senate, including as an organizer of last year’s climate change "all-nighter," said the show of bipartisan belief in climate science could help pave the way for an exchange on solutions. American voters want that debate, he said.

"We can have disagreement about what the right policy approach would be, but disagreeing with the facts is, I think, going to be a disqualifier for most people in most states," Schatz said.

Democrats were united in support of both amendments, but their votes hid some dissent. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a sponsor of the KXL bill, has sought to roll back U.S. EPA regulation of greenhouse gases, and some Democrats have even said they are unsure to what extent it is caused by humans.

Environmentalists cheered the unexpectedly close votes on man-made warming but cautioned that they will mean nothing unless they eventually translate into bipartisan support for policies.

Franz Matzner of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the Republican feint on the Whitehouse amendment was "a classic example of pol spin and pol maneuvering and posturing."

"The Republicans who previously have been comfortable saying to the American people, ‘Climate change is a hoax; it’s not happening; it’s not a problem,’ have shifted," he said. "They have to muddy the picture; they have to do a dance of some kind."

But by adopting a new line that warming is happening but unavoidable, many will try to continue to deny that action is needed, he said.

Still, said Matzner, the 14 GOP senators who have said that human emissions are contributing to the crisis give climate activists reason for hope.

Look ahead

The climate discussions within the KXL pipeline debate will continue. Senators may vote as soon as today on an amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to get the Senate on the record about the need to move away from fossil fuels.

Other amendments up for votes include:

  • An amendment by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) to boost offshore drilling.
  • An amendment by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to make sure oil sands producers pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.
  • An amendment by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) to prevent KXL from crossing property of unwilling landowners.
  • An amendment by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Inhofe to oppose the president’s recent climate agreement with China.
  • A reworked amendment by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) to limit federal land protections (see related story). Democrats may push for a rival amendment.
  • An amendment by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to speed up drilling permits.

Reporter Nick Juliano contributed.