A senator in a hostile climate

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It must be very lonely being the last flat-earther.

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, committed climate-change denier, found himself in just such a position Tuesday morning as the Senate environment committee, on which he is the ranking Republican, took up legislation on global warming. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was in talks with Democrats over a compromise bill -- the traitor! And as Inhofe listened, fellow Republicans on the committee -- turncoats! -- made it clear that they no longer share, if they ever did, Inhofe's view that man-made global warming is the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

"Eleven academies in industrialized countries say that climate change is real; humans have caused most of the recent warming," admitted Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). "If fire chiefs of the same reputation told me my house was about to burn down, I'd buy some fire insurance."

An oil-state senator, David Vitter (R-La), said that he, too, wants to "get us beyond high-carbon fuels" and "focus on conservation, nuclear, natural gas and new technologies like electric cars." And an industrial-state senator, George Voinovich (R-Ohio), acknowledged that climate change "is a serious and complex issue that deserves our full attention."

Then there was poor Inhofe. "The science is more definitive than ever? You keep saying that because you want to believe it so much," he said bitterly. He offered to furnish a list of scientists who once believed in climate change but "who are solidly on the other side right now." The science, he said, "already has shifted" against global-warming theory. "Science is not settled! Everyone knows it's not settled!"

Inhofe called for more oil drilling. His aides tried to debunk the other senators' points by passing around papers titled "Rapid Response." Mid-hearing, Inhofe's former spokesman, now in the private sector, sent out an e-mail -- "Prominent Russian Scientist: 'We should fear a deep temperature drop -- not catastrophic global warming.' "

The climate of the hearing itself seemed designed to burn Inhofe. Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), sponsor of the climate bill, insisted on having it in a too-small hearing room, causing the place to overheat from all the bodies. Though none of the committee Republicans are supporting her cap-and-trade plan for carbon emissions so far, Boxer made it clear that her primary grievance is with one Republican. "Since John Warner retired, I don't have a Republican partner on the committee, but I am appreciative for the productive conversations I've had with Senator Alexander, about nuclear energy, and for the wide-ranging conversations and meetings I had with Senator Voinovich," Boxer said, pointedly omitting Inhofe.

Inhofe began by expressing surprise that Boxer would even use the term "global warming," asserting that "people have been running from that term ever since we went out of that natural warming cycle about nine years ago." And he turned with a fury on Graham, his fellow Republican, for an "apparent compromise will also entail a massive expansion of government bureaucracy."

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the first witness, turned up the temperature further on Inhofe. He gave a Gore-like tour of climate catastrophe: "the science is screaming at us to take action . . . pine beetles have destroyed 6.5 million acres of forestland . . . 180 Alaskan villages are losing permafrost . . . we have columns of methane rising now in the ocean."

Kerry went on like this for an extraordinary 26 1/2 minutes that included the phrase, uttered with no apparent self-consciousness, "we invented wind." At various points, Kerry signaled an end with "I'll just close" or "I'll just end on this note" but continued on. This infuriated nobody as much as Inhofe, whom Kerry repeatedly singled out for a lecture. "Senator Inhofe, you just talked about the costs of doing some of this," he said. But "the cost of doing nothing," Kerry countered, "is far more expensive for your folks in Oklahoma."

Inhofe, who glared back at Kerry, still seethed a few minutes later when he interrupted the chairman. "You know, I sat here for 25 minutes listening to Senator Kerry talk about me, and I didn't have a chance to respond," he complained. "I will, however."

"I so appreciate it," Boxer said.

Inhofe molested the majority by having committee staffers put up on the dais a series of 3-by-5-foot posters with messages such as "Congressional Budget Chief Says Climate Bill Would Cost Jobs" and "U.S. Unemployment High/Why Kill More Jobs With Cap & Trade?" But this failed to cool Inhofe's temper, and by the time his turn came to question the administration witnesses, Inhofe was so steamed that he used his entire five minutes to vent.

He described the Democrats' proposal as "the largest tax increase in -- in history!" Agitated, his utterances disjointed, Inhofe went on: "Now, I also was -- was kind of -- I don't want any of the media to think just because I had to sit here and listen to our good friend Senator Kerry for 28 minutes, that I don't have responses to everything he said."

Nobody doubted that Inhofe had a response. The doubt was whether the response would make any sense.

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