In a groundbreaking but largely symbolic move, the U.S. Senate has formally acknowledged that global climate change is a real phenomenon and not a hoax.
The Republican-led body, however, remains silent on whether human activity is to blame — a sign that meaningful legislation to cut U.S. carbon emissions is unlikely for the foreseeable future.
For years, scientists have spoken with an increasingly unified voice issuing increasingly dire warnings about global warming. Now, the Senate is on record saying climate change is, in fact, occurring.
One day after President Barack Obama told lawmakers that global warming must be confronted, the Senate affirmed almost unanimously that climate change is real.
Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse hailed the outcome, saying "this vote can be a first little beam of light that will allow us to at least start having an honest conversation about what carbon pollution is doing to our climate and to our oceans.”
The measure was an amendment to a larger bill seeking approval of a pipeline to transport Canadian oil to U.S. gulf states — a project business interests strongly back and environmental groups vehemently decry.
Many Republicans who oppose unilateral U.S. efforts to cut carbon emissions voted for the amendment precisely because it did not assign blame for global warming. Senator James Inhofe, an outspoken skeptic of climate change, explained his ‘yes’ vote this way:
"Climate is changing, and climate has always changed," he said. "The hoax is that there are some people so arrogant to think they can change climate. Man cannot change climate.”
That view held sway moments earlier, when the Senate fell one vote shy of approving a more-expansive amendment that did say human activity impacts the world’s climate.
Even so, the significance of Wednesday’s Senate action was not lost on environmental advocates.
Jeremy Symons, who directs climate policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, says “it is a start.”
“You cannot get too excited about a vote that simply affirms what we all know: that climate change is not only real, but a pressing problem," he said. "But, on the other hand, it really demonstrates that the political pressure and the public pressure has opened up new opportunities in Washington and we are excited about that.”
If lawmakers from both parties agree climate change is real, powerful business interests do not. The American Petroleum Institute represents the U.S. oil industry and takes no official position on climate change or its causes, but donates generously to help elect pro-fossil fuels candidates and defeat those who favor reducing carbon emissions.
Last week, API President Jack Gerard said U.S. carbon emissions have already fallen in recent years thanks to a boom in the production of cleaner burning natural gas. He added that the energy industry is working on its own to address what he termed “the carbon challenge” by investing in low emissions technology.