“Number of House members who voted in 2011 that climate change was a ‘hoax’: 240”

— text of a new video by Obama political arm, Organizing for Action


President Obama’s new political group, Organizing for Action, last week released a new video that mocks Republican lawmakers for appearing to play down or dismiss concerns about climate change. Some of the clips are fairly interesting — or amusing, depending on your perspective. It has already been viewed more than 225,000 times on You Tube.

We’ve written before about the growing consensus among climate researchers that climate change is the result of human activity; there’s little debate about that among scientists, though surveys show increasing skepticism among the American public. But we were intrigued by the video’s claim that 240 House lawmakers had declared climate change to be a “hoax.”

Officials at OFA did not respond to repeated queries about the video, but our colleagues at FactCheck.Org report that the “240” number refers to a vote on an amendment offered by House Democrats, which failed 184 to 240,  to a Republican-crafted bill on regulating greenhouse gases. So let’s dig into what actually happened.


The Facts

 The underlying bill, known as the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, was intended to thwart an effort by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate gases believed to affect climate change. It would have amended the Clean Air Act to prevent the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide, methane and at least five other gases, instead leaving such policy decisions in the hands of Congress.

The bill, which passed the House 255 to 172 but did not advance in the Senate, danced gingerly around the question of whether humans have a role in climate change. The bill language included a “sense of the Congress” that stated climate change was a problem without giving the reasons: 

(1) there is established scientific concern over warming of the climate system based upon evidence from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level;

(2) addressing climate change is an international issue, involving complex scientific and economic considerations;

(3) the United States has a role to play in resolving global climate change matters on an international basis; and

4) Congress should fulfill that role by developing policies that do not adversely affect the American economy, energy supplies, and employment.


Nevertheless, at the start of the debate on the bill, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.),  had declared that the premise of the underlying bill “is that climate change is a hoax and carbon pollution does not endanger health and welfare.”

The Democratic amendment, offered by Waxman, sought to marry a reference to the EPA with language that reflected the scientific consensus: “Congress accepts the scientific findings of the Environmental Protection Agency that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.”

The second part of the amendment comes almost straight out of the conclusions of the National Research Council in 2010: “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems.”

But of course, mentioning EPA’s similar conclusions was also intended as a poison pill in a bill designed to clip the EPA’s wings. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) complained that “this is an amendment that attempts to reverse the entire thrust of this legislation.”

Sensenbrenner added that “this is not a debate on the underlying science of climate change.”

Another lawmaker who spoke against the amendment, then-Rep. Robert J. Dold (R-Ill.), echoed that:  


“I believe that human activity is also playing a role. The question is how big a role. This amendment would have Congress adopt intentionally vague language on human involvement and the risks associated with climate change without defining the size and scope of human behavior and the risk to the environment.” 

Waxman’s amendment was a classic legislative gambit, goading the other side to reject language that — on its face — appears reasonable. To that extent, even in failure the amendment was a success. The Hill newspaper headlined its article on the vote: “Amendment that says climate change is occurring fails in House.”

The Organizing for Action video then gilds the lily by immediately following a reference to the vote with a clip of a speech by Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.): “The idea of human-induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community.” As FactCheck.Org noted, that speech was given in 2009 — not during the debate over the 2011 amendment.  

Moreover, nowhere in the amendment does the word “hoax” appear.

As Dold’s comments make clear, there is a wide range of views in Congress on the role of human activity in fostering climate change. Indeed, four GOP lawmakers who voted against the Waxman amendment in 2011, for instance, in 2009 had voted for Waxman’s climate-change legislation to create a cap and trade system to reduce greenhouse gases.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the committee, “and other members voted against the amendment because the purpose of the bill is not to debate, confirm, or question climate change, but to reiterate the authority of the Clean Air Act, which is an important law with a decades-long history regulating pollutants,” a spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee said. “If lawmakers were listing the factors that pose risks for public health and welfare, they could just as well have identified the fact that high energy prices disproportionately harm the most vulnerable in our society.” 

Meanwhile, Republicans were not alone in rejecting the Waxman amendment; three Democrats voted against it. One is no longer in Congress, but Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.V.) was quoted in 2010 as saying “we can’t put our heads under the blanket and pretend climate change doesn’t exist.”

The third, Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), is a noted skeptic. He once made the scientifically dubious observation that if climate change results in higher temperatures, “my farmers are going to say that’s a good thing since they’ll be able to grow more corn.”


The Pinocchio Test 

Readers should always be skeptical when political ads attach a particular meaning to a congressional vote. In this case, the Obama group has twisted the meaning of a relatively minor amendment — which was clearly intended to become fodder for future campaign ads.

There’s little evidence that a vote against this amendment meant that a lawmaker was affirming that climate change was a “hoax.” There are clearly lawmakers who voted against the amendment who believe that human activity contributes in some way to climate change — and the underlying bill actually states that there is “established scientific concern” that climate change exists. 

Certainly there’s a strong strain of skepticism about the impact of human activity on climate change among Republican lawmakers, as demonstrated by a number of clips in the video. Indeed, a significant majority appear to deny a connection. So initially we were tempted to conclude that this claim did not quite rise to Four Pinocchios. But the video seriously undercuts its credibility with the phony accounting on the amendment — and this sort of gamesmanship with congressional votes is simply not acceptable. 

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