WASHINGTON — Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who believes climate change is a hoax, rose from his chair on the Senate floor this year with a sly smile. Then he glanced across the chamber at his longtime nemesis, Senator Edward Markey.
“It’s nice to look over and see, probably, the most articulate and knowledgeable of all the alarmists,” Inhofe said, as he laid out the case by climate change doubters that the real alarm is that so many environmentalists are peddling gloom and doom.
The dart delivered by Inhofe — coated as it was in genteel Senate-speak — followed a quarter-century of congressional battles between him and Markey over the environment. Starting in January, Inhofe, the bane of climate scientists, is in line to become one of the world’s most powerful voices on climate change, when he is expected to chair the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works.
In his new role, the 80-year-old Oklahoman has pledged to use every lever of his power to block President Obama’s climate agenda, a major focus of the president’s final two years in office and a core international goal for Secretary of State John F. Kerry. Inhofe began his campaign this month, arguing in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency that Obama’s proposed power plant emissions rule is illegal.
“That’s the biggest job killer in history, is what the president’s trying to do with the greenhouse gas regulations. Some are arguing the ozone is even a bigger one,” Inhofe said in an interview last week. “I will do everything I can to keep that from being a reality.”
During a walk through a Senate corridor to his office, he asserted that “we know the United Nations is what’s behind this whole thing,” referring to what he calls the global warming conspiracy.
Inhofe works two doors away from Markey, coauthor of the only comprehensive climate change legislation to ever pass the House of Representatives.
After Markey’s bill passed the House in 2009, Inhofe traveled to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen as a self-described “one-man truth squad.” Markey, who was also at the summit along with Obama, said Inhofe proudly spread the word there that he would do everything in his power to kill the bill in the Senate.
Inhofe’s side won that battle, with help of his party and some coal-state Democrats, when the climate bill died before reaching Obama’s desk. Obama has since abandoned hope of passing a climate law and is instead trying to push a series of new emissions and ozone standards through the Environmental Protection Agency, while also pursuing several international agreements.
Markey said he and Inhofe genuinely like each other, but their view on science is “a pretty wide gulf between us.”
Inhofe has said that humans are arrogant to believe anyone but God can affect the climate, and he has excoriated those who think humankind is causing the earth to warm in a book titled “The Greatest Hoax, How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”
Inhofe held the chairmanship of his committee once before, from January 2003 through January 2007. But his megaphone was not as large then. He had not yet written his book, and fellow Republican George W. Bush was then occupying the White House, setting environmental policy for the party.
Now, the lines are more clearly drawn.
Environmentalist are bracing for two years of all-out defense. Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club, said she is expecting not only votes to remove clean water and clean power rules, but also a “witch hunt” against EPA regulators who come before the committee.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, said she is worried about Inhofe’s influence in trying to scuttle international climate talks. Last month, after Obama agreed with China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Inhofe lampooned the pact as a “non-binding charade.”
“Having a committee chairman hold hearings to deny science on climate change is not just waste of time, but counterproductive,” Warren said, escalating her rhetoric in the middle of an interview: “I’ll go to dangerous. I’ll go all the way. I’ll use all the big words here.”
The oil and gas industry has long been the senator’s largest source of campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, donating more than $400,000 for his recent election, which he won easily.
People and political committees associated with Koch Industries, the energy company, have been his largest individual contributor over the course of his career.
Inhofe takes even the most challenging questions with a smile. When an aide tried to cut off an interview with him, he invited a reporter into his office, keeping a newly elected senator waiting so he could answer a few more questions.
Later in the day, he laughed about a public fight he picked with Barbra Streisand by telling Mother Jones several years ago that she was the source of the global warming conspiracy. The comments were published only last week and prompted Streisand to respond “God help us!” on Twitter.
Senator Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who will hand the gavel to Inhofe, said that Democrats will be able to work well with Inhofe on a new transportation bill, a far less controversial issue that Inhofe says will be his committee’s first major task.
“We fight like cats and dogs on the environment,” she said. “But we work together on the infrastructure.”
Many Republicans support Inhofe’s effort to roll back environmental rules even if they don’t agree with his claim that climate change is a hoax.
“Just like the Democrats, the Republicans have different viewpoints, so I don’t think that any one senator represents the party,” said Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who said she believes there is evidence of human impact on the environment.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has said he wants to find a middle ground to deal with climate change, said his party’s lack of an environmental policy is “one of our biggest flaws right now.”
“We know that big government solutions to climate change do more harm than good,” Graham said. “But at the end of the day, what is our environmental policy as a party?”