On the Record: Key Senate Vote on Climate Change

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Publication date: 
28 January 2015

The Senate voted last week on an amendment stating “it is the sense of Congress that— (1) climate change is real; and (2) human activity significantly contributes to climate change.”  Fifty senators voted in favor the amendment, including five Republican senators.  Forty-nine senators voted against the measure. 

This key vote occurred during the Senate’s consideration of a bill, S. 1, to permit the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.  This is seen as one of the most important amendments that was offered pertaining to climate change.  Under Senate procedures the amendment needed 60 affirmative votes to be adopted, and thus was rejected.

The amendment was offered by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI).  Referring to an Environmental Impact Statement in the State Department’s review of the Pipeline, his amendment was as follows:

(Purpose: To express the sense of Congress regarding climate change)

At the appropriate place, insert the following:

(a) FINDINGS.—The environmental analysis contained in the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement referred to in section 2(a) and deemed to satisfy the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.) as described in section 2(a), states that—
(1) ‘‘[W]arming of the climate system is unequivocal and each of the last [3] decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.’’;
(2) ‘‘The [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], in addition to other institutions, such as the National Research Council and the United States (U.S.) Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), have concluded that it is extremely likely that global increases in atmospheric [greenhouse gas] concentrations and global temperatures are caused by human activities.’’; and
(3) ‘‘A warmer planet causes large-scale changes that reverberate throughout the climate system of the Earth, including higher sea levels, changes in precipitation, and altered weather patterns (e.g. an increase in more extreme weather events).’’.
(b) SENSE OF CONGRESS.—Consistent with the findings under subsection (a), it is the sense of Congress that—
(1) climate change is real; and
(2) human activity significantly contributes to climate change.

When describing his amendment to his colleagues on January 20, Schatz explained:

“This amendment affirms something very simple; that is, climate change is real and human activities significantly contribute to climate change. It also states that a warmer planet causes large-scale changes, including higher sea levels, changes in precipitation, and altered weather patterns, such as increases in more extreme weather events.

“This amendment cites for its evidence the findings of national and international scientific institutions, including the IPCC, the National Research Council, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program. All of these organizations are cited and quoted in the State Department’s final supplemental environmental impact statement on Keystone XL Pipeline. This is the same environmental review document that plays a prominent role in the text of the underlying bill, S. 1, and the substitute amendment.

“The purpose of this amendment is simply to acknowledge and restate a set of observable facts. It is not intended to place a value judgment on those facts or to suggest a specific course of action in response to those facts. It is just a set of facts derived from decades of careful study of our land, air, and water.”

The Senate voted on his amendment the following day.  Before doing so, Schatz stated:

“For most people, climate change existing is not a controversial issue. Certainly, the Keystone Pipeline is a controversial issue. Once we together set the premise of climate change facts, there is plenty to argue about. What approach ought we take with respect to solving this problem? Is a carbon tax the right approach? Is the President’s clean power plant the right approach? Ought we to wait for or accelerate our actions with respect to international coalitions and agreements? Those are legitimate debates to have. But we have to agree on the facts. That is why a vote on my amendment is so important.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who was managing the bill on the floor, was the only senator to speak against the amendment.  She objected to the word “significantly” in the amendment’s wording that “human activity significantly contributes to climate change.”  Murkowski said: 

“I urge colleagues to oppose the Schatz amendment. There is a distinct difference between this amendment and what was previously considered in the sense of the Congress, which would refer to human activity that significantly contributes to climate change, and the issue of degrees. And I would suggest to colleagues that the inclusion of that word is sufficient to merit a ‘no’ vote at this time.”

A roll call vote was held. Fifty senators voted in favor of it – including all Senate Democrats (except Harry Reid (D-NV) who is recovering from an accident), the chamber’s two independent senators, and five Republican senators: Lamar Alexander (TN), Kelly Ayotte (NH), Susan Collins (ME), Lindsey Graham (SC), and Mark Kirk (IL).  All the senators voting against the amendment were Republicans.


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