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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

GOP Senators Momentarily Pull Heads Out of Sand, Then Ram Them Back In

By Phil Plait

Ah, your government inaction. Yesterday, the Senate voted on whether reality was real. And they voted the wrong way.

The senators were debating the bill to give a go-ahead to the Keystone XL pipeline. As is usual with a bill of this size, there were several amendments attached to it. One, by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D–Rhode Island), was quite simple. It stated:

To express the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax.

That’s it. That’s the whole amendment. The Senate voted, and it went 98-1 in favor (the one nay vote: Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi)). So the Senate voted that climate change is real, and not a hoax.

This may surprise some folks, given the GOP’s majority, and how so many of them are climate change deniers. But it didn’t surprise me at all, because I’m familiar with how deniers weasel their way around an argument … and sure enough, I was proven right.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) is the most vocal science denier in the Senate, literally having written the book on it. You’d expect him to vote nay on the amendment, right?

Ah, here’s where I knew what he was going to do. He voted yea. How? Because as the deniers like to say, “The climate’s always changing.” It’s a cheat, a cop-out. Yes, the climate is always changing, but we know that in the past few decades that change is due almost if not entirely to human activity. The amendment left out that last bit, giving deniers the wiggle room they needed.

And, as I expected, that’s exactly what happened. Inhofe, for example, was able to vote for the amendment because while the climate changes, he thinks that the idea of humans causing it is a hoax. He tweeted as much:

Knowing this, he even went so far as to co-sponsor the amendment!

This really shows just how out of touch Inhofe and his compatriots are with reality. Even his yea vote was nothing more than a craven political ploy. It was simply a dodge.

And his ridiculousness just got worse when he took to the floor to give his speech; he said it was arrogant to think humans can change the environment. Um, Mr. Inhofe, I refer you to the ozone hole, which was caused by humans, and then actually put on the mend by humans, too.

Anyway, things got weirder with another amendment, sponsored by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), saying that the climate is changing and that humans are “significantly responsible.” That amendment, as I expected, was shot down, though interestingly only by a 50 to 49 vote. It needed 60 votes to pass, so 50 votes for it were not enough.*

One particularly brain-twisting bit about this came from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska):”

Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska urged her colleagues to vote down the amendment for one specific reason: the amendment says that human activity “significantly” contributes to climate change. That word was a matter of “degrees,” she said on the floor.

That’s really ironic, given that Murkowski’s understanding of global warming is pretty screwed up. She claims volcanoes spew out more emissions than cars. That’s exactly wrong, for two reasons: 1) Humans generate far more CO2 than volcanoes do annually, and b) volcanoes actually emit a lot of sulfur dioxide, which is an aerosol that acts to cool the climate. Despite aerosol emission, the planet’s getting hotter. Why? Humans.

Anyway, that amendment was Inhofe’s (and the other deniers’) out: They could vote that change is real (essentially with their fingers crossed behind their backs) knowing that they could also vote on the other amendment saying humans aren’t causing it.

I’ll note four GOP senators voted yea on this: Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire), Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), Mark Kirk (Illinois), and (to my surprise) Lindsey Graham (South Carolina). I will have to keep my eye on them; I don’t know if this means headway is being made into the atmosphere of GOP climate change denial or not.

This vote was largely for show anyway, since the resolutions aren’t binding in any way. And President Obama has said he’ll veto the pipeline bill in any case.

So in the end, this vote only shows us what we already knew: Climate change deniers in the Senate are still willing to ignore the overwhelming evidence of science, and are more willing to score cheap political points than take any real action. The real question now is, will they be able to come up with the number of votes needed to override the president’s veto?

*Update, Jan. 22, 2015, at 19:30 UTC: This paragraph has been updated to clarify that the amendment needed 60 votes to pass. 

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