Senate Keystone votes: Republicans gave Democrats and the climate an even bigger beating than expected.

Democrats Assumed They Could Embarrass the GOP With Climate Science. Democrats Were Wrong.

Democrats Assumed They Could Embarrass the GOP With Climate Science. Democrats Were Wrong.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 25 2015 9:39 PM

Pipeline Blowout

The Senate’s Keystone debate was downright miserable for Democrats and people who believe in climate science.

Sen. Harry Reid following Senate Democratic weekly policy lunche,Sen. Harry Reid following Senate Democratic weekly policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Jan. 20, 2015. Sen. Reid returned to work after being injured during a New Years Day exercise accident, which caused broken bones and temporary loss of vision in his right eye.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Since the Senate began debate on fast-tracking the Keystone XL pipeline earlier this month, things have gone from bad to worse to downright miserable for anyone who believes in the reality of man-made climate change.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in northeast Ohio.

President Obama has promised to veto the Keystone legislation once it arrives at his desk, so the political maneuvering on the floor, not unlike the bill itself, is largely symbolic. But messages matter in this fight—particularly ahead of this year’s U.N. climate conference in Paris, where the president will have to convince the rest of the world that the United States is serious about combatting global warming. That was always going to be a tough sales pitch with the GOP forcing the Keystone issue at home, but what happened in the Senate last week will make it all the more difficult. The upper chamber voted not once, but four separate times to reject amendments acknowledging that humans are contributing to climate change. Bonne chance in France, Mr. President!

Adding insult to considerable injury for the climate crowd was how the whole thing played out. Heading into the floor debate, there was a popular line of thinking in Washington that Democrats could scratch out a handful of small but significant political points by shaming Republicans over their unscientific opinions about climate science. The problem with that logic, as last week made painfully clear, is that it’s all but impossible to embarrass someone about something they’re publicly proud of. Even the Democrats’ small political victories look a whole lot more like large, soul-crushing defeats.

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For proof, look no farther than the chief target of Democrats’ shame game: James Inhofe, the Senate’s most vocal denier of climate science and, not incidentally, the new chairman of the powerful Environment and Public Works Committee. In a not-so-veiled dig at the 2012 book Inhofe wrote about his climate views—title: The Greatest Hoax—Democrats offered an amendment to the Keystone bill that declared simply, “Climate change is real and not a hoax.” Not only did Inhofe vote in favor of the amendment, he even signed on as a co-sponsor.

“Climate is changing, and climate has always changed,” the Oklahoma Republican said, alluding to the bible. “The hoax is that there are some people who are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful they can change climate. Man can’t change climate.” The amendment passed 98 to 1, handing Democrats a victory so empty that it was an embarrassment even without the climate science-rejecting votes that followed, in which the Democrats put up a trio of amendments that declared man-made climate change to be real and devastating, to which Republicans, to varying degrees, said no.

Making matters worse still on a global scale was a separate resolution, penned by Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and co-sponsored by Inhofe, that took direct aim at the historic climate deal that the United States and China struck this past November, an agreement seen as a crucial precursor to a larger international deal. The Blunt amendment garnered 51 votes, less than the 60 it needed but more than enough to remind U.N. negotiators why they’ll have to aim for a nonbinding climate agreement and not a binding treaty that the Senate would need to ratify. The Senate opposition to an international deal—with China in specific or the world at large—is hardly a surprise; since the institution is now on record that it doesn’t think man is contributing to climate change, it has little reason to act to slow it. (Also: Saubhāgya in India this week, Mr. President!)

Senate Republicans are on pace to send the underlying Keystone bill to the president’s desk later this week. While Obama’s veto will soothe liberals’ wounds, it won’t repair all of the damage inflicted by Republicans this month. The president also appears unwilling to do everything he can to help: To date he’s been careful to make his opposition about the process of Congress approving the pipeline, not to the pipeline itself. If the president keeps taking bureaucratic cover, he’ll miss a golden opportunity for a climate victory of his own.

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Climate advocates willing to squint can find a silver lining in the president’s veto and in the individual vote tallies for the failed climate science amendments. Five GOP senators—Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, Lamar Alexander, Kelly Ayotte, and Mark Kirk—voted for an amendment that declared “human activity contributes significantly to climate change,” and another ten—including Rand Paul—were willing to do so for a second, watered-down version authored by Republicans that said the same thing minus the word significantly. There wasn’t enough bipartisan support for either amendment to reach the 60 votes needed for approval, but it was promising news nonetheless, particularly paired with recent comments from Republican presidential hopefuls outside of the Senate acknowledging the reality of climate change.

Still, those developments can only be viewed as long-term progress through a narrow lens. Less than a decade ago—the last time Republicans controlled the Senate—Sen. John McCain was vowing to do everything he could to combat climate change. As David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out last week, McCain and nine of his Republican colleagues crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats in 2005 on a resolution that acknowledged not only mankind’s role in climate change but also called for the government to actually do something about it. Flash-forward to last week: McCain cast a vote for the most watered-down climate amendment—but not the stronger version that included the word significantly—and also backed Blunt’s effort to derail the China deal.

Democrats hope that putting Senate Republicans on the record now as rejecting climate science will pay political dividends in 2016 and beyond. Climate advocates, meanwhile, must hope that those political victories will then turn into legislative gains in short order. Both of those things may very well happen—but certainly not during the remainder of this GOP-controlled Congress. Republicans are more than willing to keep arguing against the science, since doing so frees them from the responsibility of finding a solution.