Is Roger Wicker the Next Jim Inhofe (or Galileo)?

The Mississippi Republican stakes a claim as a top climate skeptic

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) speaks at the 5th Birthday And Beyond event at the Russell Senate Office Building on June 25, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (National Journal)

When Republicans turned the tables on an attempt by Democrats to pin them on the reality of climate change, only Sen. Roger Wicker didn't go along with the plan.

The Mississippi Republican was outvoted 98-1 on the resolution that "climate change is real and not a hoax." The amendment didn't address the question of human causes or greenhouse-gas emissions, so leading climate skeptic Sen. Jim Inhofe arranged to hijack the vote.

Wicker told National Journal that he didn't want to "go along with a gag" and held firm to his skepticism of the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. And while that may make him a lone wolf in the Senate, Wicker says he's in good historical company.

"As far as I'm concerned, I'm standing on some pretty solid ground as being a contrarian of the conventional wisdom," Wicker said. "I include Galileo as pretty good company right now. Copernicus [too]. I feel that I'm in a league with the people who were skeptical about eugenics, or a generation ago the people who thought the [advocates of the] 'population bomb' theory were all wrong."

Wicker said his vote "gained me a little attention" around the Hill. It even merited a line of jokes on The Tonight Show about Wicker's other unpopular opinions like, "There's nothing better than getting into an empty elevator with a coworker you don't really know."

He may not be the next Galileo, who of course was challenging the Catholic Church, not independent scientists (former Texas Gov. Rick Perry made a similar analogy in 2011). But Wicker, serving in his second term, may emerge as the next Inhofe, the climate-skeptic chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

At the very least, he's in the top tier of the Senate's Republican skeptics of climate change science, along with the likes of David Vitter and Ted Cruz. With roles on EPW and the Budget Committee, Wicker has opportunities to bat at the Obama administration's climate work, and he has continued to talk up the issue in interviews and on the Senate floor.

The overwhelming majority of scientists say that climate change is real, that it's the result of human activity, and that its effects are worsening. That's the consensus from the United Nations, NASA, NOAA, and countless independent scientific organizations.

But Wicker and the calcifying group of skeptics say they have to challenge that assertion. At a hearing in February, Wicker used The King's Speech to justify his position. He quoted a scene in which Geoffrey Rush's speech therapist challenges the royal doctors' recommendation that King George keep smoking as evidence that "the smartest people of our time might be wrong and that some of the very learned and educated contrarians on the issue of climate change will turn out to be vindicated."

While some deniers' statements and actions can border on the absurd—see the snowball Inhofe threw on the Senate floor last week—they also carry significant policy implications. Republicans have been fighting hard against the Obama administration's climate regulations, especially the rules limiting carbon emissions from new and existing power plants. EPW—which has Wicker, Inhofe, and Vitter—is conducting oversight of the EPA rules, while Republicans have also vowed to use the appropriations process to try to kill the climate regulations.

Inhofe was the one to flip the attempted gotcha amendment on global warming from Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse by cosponsoring it and saying the climate was always changing. Ultimately, 98 senators went along with it (Minority Leader Harry Reid was absent) and the House didn't treat it as a poison pill in passing the Keystone bill (only one House Republican, Michigan's Justin Amash, voted against the amended bill, for unrelated reasons).

In later Senate votes, 15 Republicans came out against language that said humans contributed to climate change, and only five voted to say humans "significantly" contributed, two votes that are ultimately seen as the political yardsticks for climate-change acceptance.

So does his vote make Wicker unique among his colleagues?

"There a number of congressmen in the House and Senate who feel the same way as I do on the issue of climate change," Wicker said. "I could understand that a number of people, rather than encounter controversy would simply find [the amendment] as an acceptable result."

Inhofe said the vote on the amendment wasn't "ambivalent," and he speculated that Wicker may have backed it had the switch not been made at the last minute, although Wicker himself indicated he wouldn't have gone along with it.

"It's important for the public to know that this is not settled science and, even in the past, theories that have had a 100 percent of the learned people of their day have not necessarily panned out to be true," he said. "The thing that offends me is the intolerance for the minority point of view, the intolerance of any skeptical analysis."

At the same time, as climate skeptics face increasing political pressure, the Republican Party's position seems to be moving away from outright denial. A New York Times poll last month found that a majority of Americans backed action on climate change and that 67 percent of respondents—including 48 percent of Republicans—were less likely to vote for a candidate who said climate change was a hoax.

Billionaire Tom Steyer has vowed to spend heavily to defeat climate deniers in upcoming races (Wicker isn't up until 2018), as have other big-money funders on the left.

That's not a deterrent for the cadre of Hill legislators who reject climate science. Inhofe is regarded as the dean of climate denial—he titled his climate-change book The Greatest Hoax and uses his committee perch to battle the administration on climate change. But he's also 80 years old and has just won reelection, while Vitter is running to be Louisiana governor in an October election.

Inhofe has promised to use the committee to keep pushing on climate-change skepticism, including a potential panel of scientists. Wicker said he hears from plenty of supportive scientists eager to have him push back against Democrats on climate change.

Of course, those scientists are now facing a new line of concerted pushback from the left. Documents released by Greenpeace found that one of those prominent scientists, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics scientist Wei-Hock Soon, had accepted more than $1.2 million from the fossil-fuel industry and failed to disclose that fact in many papers.

In response, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has vowed to probe oil companies and trade groups for links to climate-doubting researchers, while House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raul Grijalva is asking seven universities for detailed funding information (an effort that has drawn its own backlash).

William Happer, a physicist at Princeton University who has testified on the Hill in opposition of climate science, said he's encouraged to see "real heroes" like Wicker push back against a "herd mentality" on climate change.

"Unanimous votes tend to be regretted later on, because they're the result of a stampede," Happer said. "The Gulf of Tonkin resolution [which passed with just two no votes in the Senate] got us into Vietnam. That was a stupid vote, but it was nearly unanimous."

Wicker, for his part, says he's ready to ditch the fame—or infamy—from his vote and simply keep working on challenging the role climate change plays in big-money regulations.

"To the extent there are members willing to engage in a healthy debate as to the data, I think that's encouraging," Wicker said. "There's this matter of how much attention and how many resources we are devoting to climate change at a time when those scarce resources could be used to much better ends."