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A Sea Change in the Language of Climate Change

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Congressional Republicans who have long denied the reality of global warming recently made a subtle shift in their language.

On January 21, the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 in favor of a Democratic resolution that said “climate change is real and not a hoax.”

Among the Senators who scrambled to co-sponsor the resolution was – surprisingly – Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee.  The same James Inhofe, just two years ago, published a book titled, “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”

In his remarks to the Senate, Inhofe revised his definition of the hoax.

 “Mr. President: Climate is changing.  And climate has always changed and always will,” Inhofe said. “There is archeological evidence of that. There is biblical evidence of that.  There is historic evidence of that. The hoax is there are some people who are so arrogant to think that they are powerful enough that they can change climate.  Man can’t change climate.” 

Inhofe later tossed a snowball at the podium to make the point that global warming, although real, is not a big deal because snow still falls occasionally in the winter.

But beyond Inhofe’s throwing around of snowballs and the Bible as evidence, what is significant is that the Republican party’s top elected officials– confronted with the increasingly undeniable, data-driven conclusions of the world’s climate scientists – are now massaging their messaging. Republicans are no longer denying climate change. They are saying, essentially: “Of course it’s happening.  But now that it is, we can’t do anything to stop it.”

Beneath the rhetorical update, however, their bottom line remains the same: Government should not regulate fossil fuel companies that donated more than $60 million to Republican congressional campaigns last year, more than triple the amount given to Democrats, according to Open Secrets.org.

In a second vote on January 21st, 90 percent of Senate Republicans agreed that climate change is real, but voted against the statement that humans are contributing “significantly” to it.

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, whose state is being dramatically altered by melting ice from warmer weather, said that the word “significantly” was significant – and caused the Republicans to vote down this resolution.  “That inclusion of that word (significant) is sufficient to merit a no vote at this time,” Murkowski said.

 In a television interview, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida – who once dodged questions by saying “I’m not a scientist”-- changed his tune and said he listens very closely to scientists about climate change.

 “Look, the climate is always changing, and certainly it’s changing now,” Rubio said, echoing Senator Inhofe’s words.  “We can’t ignore what scientists are saying about the role that humans might play.  My fundamental argument has been… the amount of change attributable to human activity, the sensitivity of the climate to human activity, that is not well established. And that is a topic of debate in the scientific community.”

In other words, climate change is real, but the Senate can’t yet act on the issue, because now lawmakers must be sensitive to the sensitivity debate.

Jason Funk, senior climate scientist for the union of concerned scientists, is not buying that argument, given the monitoring data from NASA and other agencies proving that 10 of the 11 warmest years on record have happened since 2000.

 “I think the scientific debate aspect is overblown,” said Funk.  “The vast majority of scientists -- more than 97 percent of scientists will agree --that what we see is consistent with our understanding of climate change, and the drivers behind it, including the human contribution. And we are arguing somewhat narrowly about how sensitive the climate is to what we’ve been pumping into the atmosphere.  There is some fear in the scientific community that these small debates are being overblown and taken out of context.”

Bob Deans, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Republicans have realized that climate denialism is no longer tenable. And so now they are being verbally creative in trying to unpaint themselves from the corner they painted themselves into.

 “They’re trying to find a way to admit that they do believe in the thermometer – without actually doing anything to protect our children from the dangers of climate change,” Deans said.

A Pew Research Center opinion poll in August found that 52 percent of Republican voters now accept there is solid evidence the earth is warming, up from 35 percent in 2009.  Among Democrats, 87 percent now accept the reality of climate change, up from 75 percent in 2009.

“In effect, what you are seeing is a real consensus within the Democratic party (about climate change) that doesn’t exist within the Republican party,” said Carroll Dougherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center.  “The Republican party is seen as kind of denialist on this question. I think it’s more divided.”  

These divided opinions are heating up a rapidly changing political climate.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.