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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Democrats Distort Vote on Climate Change

A Democratic video says 240 House members “voted in 2011 that climate change was a ‘hoax.’ ” Not exactly. The 2011 vote was ultimately a referendum on who should set climate change policy — the Environmental Protection Agency or Congress. It was not a vote on whether climate change is a “hoax.”

Organizing for Action, a nonprofit political group that advocates for President Obama’s policies, unveiled the climate change video on April 25. It is a compilation, for the most part, of Republicans talking dismissively about climate change. One clip shows Rep. John Boehner, who was minority leader at the time, downplaying the environmental harm caused by carbon dioxide — noting that it is emitted by humans exhaling and cows “doing what they do.” We corrected some of the misstatements Boehner made in that 2009 TV interview in a piece titled “Hot Air on ‘This Week.’ ”

But the Democratic video goes too far in its text and images when it says, “Number of House members who voted in 2011 that climate change was a ‘hoax’: 240.” That is immediately followed by a video clip of GOP Rep. Paul Broun calling climate change a “hoax” in a floor speech — which implies that Broun was speaking on the 2011 legislation mentioned in the video.

We asked OFA about that 2011 vote. We were referred to an April 6, 2011, vote on a Democratic amendment to a GOP-backed bill that would have prohibited the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. The amendment, which was defeated 184-240, did not use the word “hoax.” Broun did not speak on the amendment during the debate, and, in fact, none of the Republicans who spoke against it called climate change a “hoax.”

Also, not all of the 240 who voted against it were Republicans; three were Democrats.

The full text of the amendment, which was sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman of California, reads: “Congress accepts the scientific findings of the Environmental Protection Agency that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.”

The underlying bill — H.R. 910, Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 — was the Republican response to an EPA finding that greenhouse gases are a public health threat, which cleared the way for the agency for the first time to regulate carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to global climate change. The official House Republican position on the bill was that climate change should be addressed by Congress, not the EPA. In its analysis of the bill, the Republican leadership said: “H.R. 910 would prevent the ever expanding EPA regulations of stationary sources and return climate change policymaking responsibility to Congress.”

In other words, the Republicans did not want to approve an amendment accepting the EPA findings on climate change, because they did not want to give the EPA congressional approval to regulate greenhouse gases. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner expressed that concern in his floor speech, when he said the amendment “gives the proxy to the EPA to make determinations that will have vast impact on our economy without going through the usual legislative process.” He said this is “not a debate on the underlying science of climate change.”

Sensenbrenner was one of two Republicans who spoke against the amendment during a brief debate. The other, then-Rep. Robert Dold, said: “I believe in science. I also know that the Earth has been warming for some time. … I believe that human activity is also playing a role.” But Dold said he was not willing to “only accept the scientific findings of the EPA.”

Broun did not speak on the amendment. The clip in the video of him calling climate change “a hoax” came from a floor speech two years earlier on June 26, 2009.

Let’s be clear: Broun is off base. As we wrote when GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum called climate change a “hoax,” climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that global warming is real and human activities are making it worse. A paper published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 found that 97 percent to 98 percent of climate researchers “most actively publishing in the field” agreed with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finding in 2007 that human activity is “very likely” the cause of “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century.”

But OFA, too, is off base in saying that every House member who opposed the Waxman amendment in 2011 voted “that climate change was a ‘hoax.’ ”

In fact, four of the Republicans who voted against the Waxman amendment in 2011 voted for Waxman’s climate change legislation in 2009 that would have created a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. (Waxman’s bill — the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009narrowly passed 219-212, and it would not have passed without eight Republican votes, since 44 Democrats voted against it.)

In supporting Waxman’s cap-and-trade bill in 2009, GOP Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey cited the scientific evidence of climate change and the need to address it.

“While not a unanimous outlook, the concerns and warnings about the impacts of global climate disruption are the predominant views of the scientific community,” Smith said.

Smith quoted from a National Academies report that concluded “the scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to begin taking steps to prepare for climate change and to slow it.” Smith then added, “With this in mind, I will continue to gather as much data as I can in order to fully assess the best and most accurate scientific opinion and identify the most reasonable, balanced government response to address environmental issues and concerns.”

As Smith’s comments suggest, there is a range of opinion on global warming and how to address it. There are those, such as Broun, who say climate change is a hoax. There are others, including Dold, who say climate change is occurring and humans do play a role, but question how much human activities contribute to it. There are still others who believe climate change is happening and that humans are mostly to blame, but who are concerned that unilateral actions by the U.S. will not do enough good to outweigh the impact on the economy.

In Smith’s case, he thought the Waxman cap-and-trade bill in 2009 was a “balanced government response,” but two years later, he voted against the Waxman amendment. Does that make Smith a “climate denier,” as OFA puts it? We don’t think so.

Organizing for Action would have been correct to say that 237 Republicans opposed an amendment accepting “the scientific findings of the Environmental Protection Agency that climate change is occurring” and “caused largely” by humans. But that’s not the same thing as calling climate change a “hoax.”

— Eugene Kiely