Earth Last: Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe Is Waging a War on Science So Extreme That Even the Bush Administration Seems Moderate by Comparison

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AT A RECENT HEARING OF THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT and Public Works, the Republican chairman, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, confronted Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt with a serious complaint. Leavitt had come to the Hill to defend President Bush's 2005 budget, which proposes to slash the EPA's various science programs by nearly $100 million. A staunch conservative, Inhofe once famously dubbed the EPA a "Gestapo bureaucracy"--but in this case, he stood up for the agency's research-and-development funding. "I'm an advocate of sound science," Inhofe proclaimed.

Inhofe has been stressing this theme ever since he took over the committee following the November 2002 elections. He's pledged that on his watch, the committee will "improve the way in which science is used." Last summer he even delivered a 12,000-word Senate floor speech titled "The Science of Climate Change," outlining conclusions he said he'd reached after several years of studying the issue,

The trouble is, Inhofe's views are way out of whack with the scientific mainstream. He argues that natural variability, rather than human influence, is the "overwhelming factor influencing climate." This contradicts both the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which have emphasized the central role of human activities in explaining recent global warming. Asked in writing whether Inhofe agrees that he's at odds with the scientific mainstream, his committee staff retorted, "How do you define 'mainstream'? Scientists who accept the so-called 'consensus' about global warming? Galileo was not mainstream."

But Inhofe is hardly Galileo. In fact, his involvement in a lawsuit seeking to suppress a groundbreaking scientific report on possible effects of climate change in the United States--such as biodiversity losses and threats to coastal areas due to higher sea levels--arguably puts him more on the side of Galileo's oppressors.

If Inhofe is out of step with science, though, he's right in line with his conservative and pro-business constituency. Since 1999, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Inhofe has received almost $300,000 in campaign donations from oil and gas interests and nearly $180,000 from electric utilities. In the 2002 election cycle, he received more oil and gas contributions than any senator except Texas' John Cornyn.

Meanwhile, Inhofe's "sound science" mantra--a watchword of the business community and favorite refrain of Bush himself--appears several times in a recent Republican strategy memo providing talking points on the environment. On global warming, the memo, drafted by pollster Frank Luntz, cynically advises, "The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science." Challenging the science is precisely what Inhofe has done--vigorously. (Inhofe's staff confirmed that he'd read the Luntz memo.)

In February, 20 U.S. Nobel laureates denounced the Bush administration's political manipulations of science. But if Bush is bad, Inhofe is a kind of scientific Attila the Hun--and nowhere more than on the issue of climate. That he now controls the Senate's environment committee suggests that today's GOP, run by dyed-in-the-wool conservatives instead of moderates like John McCain, has developed a dangerous relationship with scientific knowledge itself.

FEALTY TO "SOUND" SCIENCE

A former Tulsa mayor and small business man, Inhofe has consistently received goose eggs on the environment from the League of Conservation Voters (though he recently improved his rating to 5 percent). He became Environment and Public Works chairman in January 2003, following the relatively brief tenure of Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords. As debate intensified last summer over legislation by Senators McCain and Joe Lieberman to curb greenhouse gas emissions, Inhofe quickly opted for the Luntz strategy on climate. …