Meet the US Senate's most important anti-environmentalist

James Inhofe believes climate change is a hoax; he even wrote a book saying so. What does Inhofe actually think, and what will it mean for the future?


In 2003, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) and then-chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, took to the Senate floor and asked, “With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people?” More than 10 years of science has been completed since Inhofe first posed his question. Nearly all of it shows climate change is definitely not a hoax. That hasn’t stopped Sen. Inhofe and other conservative politicians from waging a crusade against climate policy and science.

The Senate changes hands

Republicans took back the Senate in the November elections. That means Inhofe is headed back to the EPW chairmanship after a seven-year absence. He’s promised to use his position to stop environmental legislation in its tracks and rein in the Environmental Protection Agency. His tenure comes as the EPA gets ready to implement some of the most sweeping environmental regulations of the past several decades, and as world leaders are gearing up to meet in Paris next year to come to a global agreement to respond to climate change.

Environmental safeguards are difficult to pass even with Democrats controlling the Senate and the Executive Branch. Take the "Cromnibus;" the bill cut EPA spending by $60 million, down to $8.1 billion. It’s the fourth year in a row Congress has cut EPA funding, from a high of $10.2 billion in 2010. As if that weren’t enough, the Cromnibus will prevent restrictions on oil development, which threatens the endangered sage grouse, and contains another provision that could make it harder for the EPA to enforce Clean Water Act on farms.

How bad could the next few years be? Sen. Inhofe lays out exactly what he believes in his 2012 book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. The book makes it clear that the next few years will be challenging ones for people who care about the environment. The gist of Inhofe’s argument is this: Anthropogenic climate change is either not real or greatly exaggerated, and those who insist it’s real are doing so to control American lives.

"Why, when the United Nations IPCC is totally refuted…When Al Gore is totally discredited…When man-made global warming is totally debunked…When passing a global warming cap and trade is totally futile…Why is this book necessary?," Inhofe writes —ellipses his. "Very simple: the environmental activist extremists are not going away."

The global warming conspiracy continues today because, Inhofe writes, "the media is obsessed with resurrecting the Gore mantra, and two,, George Soros, Michael Moore, and the Hollywood elites have the resources to reverse the defeat."

Many of Inhofe’s assertions are not cited — of the book’s 408 citations, only five directly reference scientific journals.  Rather, Inhofe counters scientific research he doesn’t like with his own opinions. In one instance, he attempts to paint climate scientists as bullies who want to silence any critics of global warming science by telling the story of David Deming, an oft-cited climate change-denying geophysicist who believes a brief period of warmer temperatures around 1000 AD, called the Medieval Warm Period (MWP), disproves that the warm temperatures today are caused by humans. Deming has said that bullying climate scientists have tried to force him to "get rid of that Medieval Warm Period."

Deming is wrong about the MWP. A preponderance of evidence suggests the earth was warmer in some places then, but is overall much warmer now. On top of that, proving the earth was slightly warmer doesn’t disprove the climate change happening now. There’s also no evidence to suggest a scientist ever told Deming to "get rid of" the MWP.

"When you backtrack, trying to find the proof, you find all these fantasies," says John Mashey, a computer scientist who studies climate change deniers and helps run the  website Skeptical Science.

noaa temp abnormality map

August 2014's global average surface temperature was the hottest since record-keeping began in 1880. Here's a map of temperature abnormalities during that time. (NOAA)

The debate over a single chart

Misunderstanding of scientists’ work is standard in Inhofe’s book. For instance, Inhofe tries to debunk the hockey stick graph — a favorite target of climate skeptics. The graph, which details global average temperature over time, shows relatively minor fluctuations in temperature from 1000–1900, and then a spike in temperature coinciding with the Industrial Revolution. In his book, Inhofe called the hockey stick "bad science." Most scientists don’t agree.

The hockey stick graph first showed up in 1998 in a paper co-authored by climate scientist Michael Mann, then a researcher at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. For the paper, Mann and his colleagues had looked at tree rings, coral, ice cores, and other records that display past temperature variation. They found that while local temperatures fluctuated, the average global temperature was largely stable from the year 1000 until the 1900s.

the hockey stick graph has been reviewed several times for accuracy, and each time it's withstood the scrutiny

Mann is now a professor at Penn State University. He’s has written a book about his experience of being pulled into the center of the climate change "debates," largely thanks to Inhofe. Inhofe’s skepticism actually made Mann’s case stronger, Mann says. Mann’s graph has been reviewed several times for accuracy, including by the National Academy of Sciences, and each time, the basic tenant of the graph — that the world is hotter now than at any time in the past thousand years — has withstood the scrutiny.

"It’s been combed over more times than any other piece of climate data, probably ever," says Jeremy Shakun, a climate researcher and professor at Boston College. His research suggests the world is actually warmer now than it has been for much longer than 1000 years. "We’re still nerding out over some small points, but we’re several years past there being any real doubt."

There are several more erroneous claims in Inhofe’s book. But perhaps the biggest failure of Inhofe’s argument about climate change isn’t about one specific study or point of contention. He just doesn’t understand the scientific process. Good science builds clarity through consensus; an individual study matters, but a body of research can’t be rebutted with one or two contradictory studies.

the vast majority of scientists agree that the climate is changing rapidly

There are some well-reviewed studies that question the specifics of the hockey stick and other pieces of the global warming puzzle. There are some scientists who question whether the dire predictions about the effects of global warming are accurate. But the vast majority of scientists agree the climate is changing rapidly. One review of 12,000 peer-reviewed abstracts found that in 97 percent of papers where the researchers took a position on the cause of global warming, researchers blamed humans for contributing to it. Shakun says scientists are "towards Darwin- and evolution-certain" that climate change is real and humans are causing it.

The rest of Inhofe’s book isn’t about science at all. After devoting a couple-dozen pages to attempting to debunk the hockey stick and the MWP, Inhofe moves on to attacking the people behind the push to act on global warming.

Inhofe has remained defiant about his views on climate change in interviews and Senate hearings; he’s still using faulty information to back up his views. Asked via email whether his views on climate change pose a conflict of interest for his upcoming role as chairman of the EPW, Inhofe replied: "There is no conflict in defending the American people from costly regulations brought on by advocates of man-made climate change. Over the past 15 years, the earth has not warmed yet CO2 emissions have continued to increase."

That claim is accurate, but only because Inhofe uses 1998 as a start date. The year’s an outlier — 1998 was unusually warm because of a particularly strong El Niño. But even without El Niño, a brief warming plateau wouldn’t disprove that climate change is real; a dataset that starts in 1998 is too small to be useful.

glacier melt

Follow the money

Inhofe is funded by industries that have vested interests in ignoring the push for a greener future. "Far from being a friend of Big Oil, as the accusation is often levied against me, I am a friend of 'Little Oil' or of any Oklahomans who strive to develop our vast resources," he wrote in The Greatest Hoax.

in total, energy companies have donated almost $3 million to inhofe

One of Inhofe’s major contributors is Koch Industries, which is a family-owned business that says its annual revenue is $115 billion. Koch, which owns oil, gas, and coal infrastructure across the world, has donated $101,000 to Inhofe. In total, energy companies have donated almost $3 million to Inhofe, more than any other industry. Even during uncompetitive years, Inhofe’s campaign raised hundreds of thousands from oil companies.

Energy money coats all of Congress. Each dollar oil, gas, and coal companies spend on a politician buys the companies $59 in subsidies, according to one estimate The controversy over that pay-for-play system has led most members of the Senate to try to downplay their connections to the industry. Inhofe announces his influences with pride.

"I firmly believe in pursuing policy options to foster an environment of economic growth and opportunity as well as to become energy independent," Inhofe writes in his emailed response.

But there’s hope. Over the past few years, organizations not usually associated with liberal ideology or environmental activism — the Pentagon, the Vatican, ExxonMobil — have acknowledged the existence of climate change and humans’ contribution to it. Even the sage grouse may benefit from energy companies’ largesse, but even if every politician acknowledged that climate change existed, doing something about it in the near future seems less than likely. Congress hasn’t passed a major piece of environmental legislation since it strengthened the  Clean Air Act in 1990. All other legislation since then has been incremental or pushed through by the Executive Branch.

Inhofe has been instrumental in that blockade. Last month, Inhofe demanded the EPA stop looking into whether states have effectively prevented fracking from causing damage to water systems. In 2012, he sponsored a bill that would have stripped the EPA’s ability to force coal power plants to reduce the amount of mercury and other toxic substances they emit. One of Inhofe’s only pushes for environmental legislation was 2003’s Clear Skies Act, which Inhofe touts in his book as "the most aggressive" environmental legislation in history. But according to environmental groups, the specifics of the bill would have actually let power plants emit more toxic substances, and would have gutted the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act. The League of Conservation Voters calculates that Inhofe has only voted in favor of environmental legislation 5 percent of the time.

inhofe has only voted in favor of environmental regulation 5 percent of the time

There’s a section at the end of Inhofe’s book in which he recounts becoming "deathly ill" after swimming in a lake polluted with blue-green algae in Oklahoma. The toxins blue-green algae carries can kill you if you drink enough of it. A few months ago, Toledo, Ohio shut of its water supply because the algae had migrated down from Lake Erie.

Blue-green algae is proliferating across the US because of climate change. It’s not clear why Inhofe includes the story; he doesn’t use it to refute a point about climate change or to prove something about his policies. Maybe it’s a parable: nature can kill you, no matter what you believe.