Climate Change Deniers in the United States Congress

03/11/2015 11:12 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

Almost a decade ago, the film An Inconvenient Truth shocked audiences worldwide to the horrors of global warming. Once considered the realm of alarmist scientists and apocalyptic Hollywood plots, climate change is now viewed as a major international crisis, and quite possibly the defining issue of our time. Climate scientists have made it abundantly clear that our climate is changing, and that it is our own fault. Just this past year, the UN-led Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- an international body of scientists, and arguably the authoritative source on climate science -- released a report stating that warming of the climate is "unequivocal," and that human influence on the climate system is evident. Climate change is very, very real.

Most of the damage has already been done -- even the most optimistic scenarios developed by the IPCC predict drastic and irreversible changes to the Earth's atmospheric conditions, leading to a rise in global temperatures and sea levels. The devastating effects of such changes -- prolonged heat waves, decreased crop yields, increasingly extreme weather events, melting polar ice, the list goes on -- can already be seen worldwide. 2014 was the warmest year on record, and this century has seen 14 out of the 15 warmest years ever. It is no longer a problem of the distant future -- for most of us, the worst of these effects will be felt within our lifetimes.

Yet despite the depressing forecast ahead of us, the greatest danger that we face today is not the future consequences of our actions but the denial of facts. The science of climate change is still being framed as a debate -- a debate in which one side offers an argument for human-caused climate change and the other offers a counterargument against it, both sides presented as equally valid. Never mind that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming has been caused by human activities -- almost one quarter of Americans believe that global warming is not happening. Skepticism regarding the extent or the ultimate effects of climate change is normal; indeed, disagreements on such topics pervade the scientific community. However, to deny the existence of climate warming completely is to deny reality.

The challenge that we face today is to move forward, not backward. Reductions in emissions need to happen now in order to mitigate potentially catastrophic damages to the environment, and recent developments have been made to establish international commitments on emission reductions. Most notable among these is the landmark US-China climate deal Obama announced last year, a major step towards the kind of political cooperation that is necessary to address climate change on the global scale.

But, without skipping a beat, Republican leadership in Congress denounced the deal, threatening to block or reverse climate policies set in place by Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency. With a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, the reversal of these climate policies -- such as methane emission limits on power plants, and carbon caps -- will likely become a reality, pushing the US a few years back on the policy changes necessary to further reduce emissions. The unquestionably backward stance on climate policy taken by the 114th Congress is most evident in the nomination of Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), an ardent climate-change denier, as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the top committee on the environment in Congress. Inhofe published a book in 2012 entitled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future (the title says it all), and has claimed that climate change is an idea invented by the UN and American liberals to destroy the US economy. In 2003, he argued that increasing global temperatures might even benefit human life. This man is not on the fringe, easily dismissed as ignorant or lunatic -- he is the Senate's top man on the environment, with the power to shape US climate policy for years to come.

Unfortunately, Inhofe is not alone. According to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, 70 percent of Republicans in the Senate and 53 percent of Republicans in the House deny the existence of human-caused global warming. Alongside these outright deniers, many members of the GOP feign ignorance as to the actual science behind climate change, or claim neutrality in the ongoing debate. Most notably, during his midterm campaign this past year Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell deflected questions on climate change by claiming that he doesn't know whether or not climate change is a real problem because he's not a scientist.

Republicans cite job losses in the energy sector and higher consumer utility costs as reasons for opposing climate change policy; claims which, while they hold some truth, are often far overblown. Instead, more often the real reason behind such opposition to climate change policies within Congress is to protect the interests of coal, oil, and gas industries. A report released by the CAP Action fund found that, on average, climate change deniers within the Senate received $732,788 from fossil fuel interests in career contributions while other Senators only took $182,902. If there is one thing that remains painfully clear about Congressional politics, it is that money can buy votes in Congress. While it may seem that such deniers in the Senate oppose climate change policy in order to lower electricity bills or create jobs and thereby benefit the average voter, their true incentive is more often to protect the interests of a select few representing the industries that stand to lose the most from the enforcement of such policies.