COPENHAGEN — On the day that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed up to the United Nations climate conference to say that the U.S. would contribute to a global clean energy and climate action fund that could grow to $100 billion by 2020, Senator James Inhofe also appeared in Copenhagen.
Earlier this month the Oklahoma Republican, one of Capitol Hill’s fiercest critics of climate action, told reporters that he would travel to Copenhagen with a “truth squad.” Its express mission: dispute climate science and disrupt the COP15 talks, which end tomorrow.
But the weight of urgency to meet tomorrow’s deadline and the intense diplomacy occurring around the clock now transformed Inhofe’s planned roar of perceived fact into a politically diminishing squeak. Briefly circled this morning by a group of reporters inside the Bella Center’s media center, Inhofe looked fidgety and uncomfortable as he accused the news media here of “being on the far left,” asserted that climate science was “debunked,” and promised that the chance of the Senate approving a proposed climate and energy bill was “zero.”
“Nothing binding will come out of here in my opinion,” Inhofe said, referring to the negotiations. “And if it does it will be rejected by the American people.”
Inhofe’s conservative allies in government and the media are certain to describe his visit as a heroic act of political principle – confront the lions of climate action in their own den and all that. But a more significant outcome of Inhofe’s three-hour Copenhagen visit could be the political consequence it may produce in Washington D.C.
The Oklahoma Republican, who steadily elevated his career to national significance – in the model of former Alabama Governor George Wallace — through calculated confrontation and rhetoric strategically calibrated to excite and inflame, miscalculated every aspect of his trip here.
The timing was wrong. The audience was not receptive. And Inhofe’s message was a blur for foreign reporters – Senate politics, hijacked emails – and old news for American journalists.
Indeed, there was real news to report. The U.S. started the day here with a surprising commitment to help finance a $100 billion climate and energy fund, the first time the country has formally recognized the magnitude of the investment needed globally. Clinton did not specify how much the U.S. would commit or its schedule, but did say that it was predicated on the Chinese allowing the world to measure and verify carbon reductions there.
The Chinese followed later in the day – no surprise — with assurances that it would be much more open and transparent in reporting progress on commitments it made last month to reduce carbon emissions.
A Day of Progress Ignores Oklahoma Senator
The climate negotiations, fraught with disagreement and slow progress for almost two weeks, seemed to open up after both announcements. NGO experts close to the delegations said the talks were starting to move with more pace. The chance that the 192 nations here would reach a deal on climate change that makes a difference came into clearer focus. In other words, there is little space today in the momentous global conversation on climate and the economy for a whiny American senator from the Great Plains.
Inhofe left Copenhagen looking weak, a little unstable, and kind of kooky. No doubt, the Congressional delegation — led by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — that arrived here today took note.
Inhofe’s revealing performance capped a tough week for free market conservatives in Copenhagen. Early in the week several meetings on climate science and the stolen emails, including one organized by Americans For Prosperity, an activist organization financed in part by coal and oil interests, attracted audiences of less than a dozen participants. The stolen emails, flogged by Sarah Palin and the right as evidence of a conspiracy to cook the science on warming, were ignored in Copenhagen. Instead negotiators vigorously defended the scientific consensus on the causes of climate disruption and its consequences.
Oklahoma’s Favorite Son in D.C.
It’s too early to tell, of course, what effect Inhofe’s silly visit to Copenhagen will have on his standing in Washington. It’s almost certainly not going to injure his stature in Oklahoma.
Named a senator in 1994 — to replace Senator David Boren who resigned to assume the presidency of the University of Oklahoma — Inhofe has won with strong margins three times, the latest in 2008 by gaining 57 percent of the vote.
His primary financial support comes from the fossil fuel industries whose climate science-denying interests he vigorously advances. Since 2000, according to Oil Change International, the coal and oil industries have contributed $1.13 million to his campaigns. Oklahoma is the number three producer of natural gas, the number six producer of crude oil, and is home to seven big coal-fired power plants, according to the Energy Information Administration and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
And Inhofe’s role as one of President Barack Obama’s most aggressive opponents appears as secure as any in the Senate. Just 34 percent of Oklahoma’s voters supported the president in the 2008 election. Only Wyoming disapproved of the president more.
Keith Schneider, a former New York Times national correspondent, is senior editor and producer at Circle of Blue. Reach Keith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the previous installments of Schneider’s COP15 blogging here, here, here and here. Follow Circle of Blue’s continued coverage of the Copenhagen climate talks.