'Coming out' on climate change

Story highlights

  • John Sutter: Senate's climate vote is mostly hot air
  • Politicians should be debating solutions, he writes
Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Email him at ctl@cnn.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Well, the Senate says climate change isn't a hoax.

Phew.
But are we causing it?
    Oh no-no-no, says half the Senate. Forty-nine senators (full list here) voted on Wednesday against an amendment that said climate change is happening and, crucially, that it's actually-for-real caused by human emissions.
    That's something scientists are pretty darn sure about, and have been for more than a decade.
    These votes -- particularly the not-a-hoax vote -- have been heralded by some in environmental circles, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, as a sign of progress, like a "coming out" party of sorts.
    At least the senators are going on record, the argument goes. At least, in a 98-to-1 vote, they said, in public, that climate change is not a hoax.
    I'm not so sure.
    True, there would be value in knowing where every senator stands on climate change. Americans -- 61% of whom say climate change is real and 40% of whom know it's caused by people, according to to a 2014 Pew survey -- have a right to know where their elected officials fall on this and many other important policy issues.
    But -- and this is an important "but" -- that's not what we learned on Wednesday. We learned that 98 senators say climate change is happening -- without blaming humans for it. Among them is Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, who is perhaps Washington's most vocal climate denier.
    He continued that streak this week.
    "Climate is changing, and climate has always changed, and always will, there's archaeological evidence of that, there's biblical evidence of that," Inhofe said on the Senate floor, according to Bloomberg News and others.
    "The hoax is that there are some people that are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful that they can change climate. Man can't change climate."
    Helpful, huh?
    We also know that 49 senators voted against the amendment saying climate change is, in fact, caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases. That could seem like a win for the left, at least an effort to pin down senators who don't buy the science saying humans do contribute. But among the no votes was Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who said her reason for voting no simply was the word "significantly," according to The Hill. (The amendment said "human activity significantly contributes" to the warming climate.)
    That's an artful dodge.
    And it means neither vote offers true clarity.
    These votes are more witch hunt than substance.
    The political left seems to want to embarrass the right for denying the facts of climate change. The right, as Elana Schor of Politico smartly noted, played this brilliantly, appearing to take a the-Earth's-not-flat stance on this, while actually ceding next-to-nothing.
    Meanwhile, the people we actually need to be listening to on this issue are not the politicians. They're the climate scientists, who have been saying for years that the climate is changing, that human emissions of greenhouse gases are the driving cause, and that we need to act urgently to cut emissions. I hate doom-and-gloom climate politics as much as the next guy, but that's the reality. And here's the other part of it: There's time to act.
    Congress should debate how to respond to climate change, not its very existence.
    The other voices that need to be heard in this debate are those of ordinary people, all over the world, who already are seeing their lives and livelihoods disturbed by warming temperatures and changing oceans.
    They're people like Bren Smith, this oyster farmer in Connecticut.

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    And Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a young mom from the Marshall Islands, in the Pacific, whose nation may be sunk by rising sea levels.
    "I am fearful," she told me, "but for the most part, I'm optimistic."
    Congress could take note, and so should we.
    We should listen to their stories. Listen to the science. Debate the solutions.
    And skip the rest.
    It's mostly hot air.