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Climate Deniers in the 117th Congress

Clouds form above the U.S. Capitol in between rain showers on the National Mall, March 2021.

The interactive map in this product is currently offline. Please download the data via this spreadsheet until it is back online.

According to new analysis from the Center for American Progress, there are still 139 elected officials in the 117th Congress, including 109 representatives and 30 senators, who refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change. All 139 of these climate-denying elected officials have made recent statements casting doubt on the clear, established scientific consensus that the world is warming—and that human activity is to blame. These same 139 climate-denying members have received more than $61 million in lifetime contributions from the coal, oil, and gas industries.

While the number of climate deniers has shrunk by 11 members (from 150 to 139) since the CAP Action Fund’s analysis of the 116th Congress—largely in the face of growing and overwhelming public support for action on climate—their numbers still include the majority of the congressional Republican caucus.* These climate deniers comprise 52 percent of House Republicans; 60 percent of Senate Republicans; and more than one-quarter of the total number of elected officials in Congress. Furthermore, despite the decline in total overall deniers in Congress, a new concerning trend has emerged: Of the 69 freshmen representatives and senators elected to their respective offices in 2020, one-third deny the science of climate change, including 20 new House Republicans and three-of-four new Republican senators. Of note, no currently serving Democratic or independent elected officials have engaged in explicit climate denial by this analysis’ definition.**

It is stark and shocking that there are still 139 elected officials in the U.S. Congress who deny or dodge clear scientific consensus, despite the obvious effects of climate change now accelerating across the country and globe. Climate change is no longer a distant threat looming in the future—nor has it been for quite some time. In 2020, there were 22 extreme weather events that caused damage in the United States that exceeded $1 billion each, a new annual record that shattered the previous record of 16 events that happened in both 2011 and 2017. With the backdrop of a deadly pandemic, Americans last year had to flee their homes in the face of out-of-control wildfires and an unprecedented number of hurricanes and seek shelter from sweltering heat waves—events that exacerbate already-troubling racial and economic inequalities.

While more than 25 percent of elected officials in the 117th U.S. Congress refuse to accept this clear and experienced reality, the American public has noticed. Climate change featured prominently in the 2020 presidential election, with younger voters ranking climate action as their top priority. The public knows how to solve climate change too—by deep and immediate cuts to U.S. carbon dioxide emissions through sectoral standards coupled with massive investments that create jobs in the clean economies of the future, all while addressing decades of environmental injustices. According to exit polls on November 3, 2020 by Fox News, these investments are supported by 70 percent of the American public. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of adults believe that the government is doing too little to address the climate crisis, and 80 percent support tougher limits on carbon pollution from power plants.

The map below shows whether each state’s representation in Congress denies accepted climate science and includes lifetime fossil fuel donation amounts for the identified climate-denying members. Click on each elected official’s name to see their statement on climate change. To view a full-size version of the interactive, click here.

The fossil fuel industry’s funding of denial

CAP’s analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that these 139 climate science deniers have accepted more than $61 million in lifetime direct contributions from the oil, gas, and coal industries, which comes out to an average of $442,293 per elected official of Congress that denies climate change. This figure includes all contributions above the Federal Election Commission’s mandated reporting threshold of $200 from management, employees, and political action committees in the fossil fuel industries. Not included in this data are the many other avenues available to fossil fuel interests to influence campaigns and elected officials. For example, oil, gas, and coal companies spent heavily during the 2020 election cycle to keep the Senate under the control of former Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—a known climate denier—with major oil companies like Valero, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips contributing more than $1 million each to the conservative Senate Leadership Fund.

This analysis only shows direct, publicly disclosed contributions to federal candidates. The fossil fuel industry regularly spends millions of dollars of dark money advertising to the public; shaping corporate decisions; lobbying members of Congress; and otherwise funding the infrastructure that makes climate denial politically feasible and even profitable.

How climate change was defined in this analysis

As the deadly impacts of climate change become increasingly obvious, the fossil fuel industry has had to develop more sophisticated talking points for denying climate change and promoting misinformation. CAP’s definition of “climate denier” attempts to capture this shifting reality under a definition that considers the below factors:

  1. Believing that climate change is not real or is a hoax
  2. Stating that the climate has always been changing as a result of natural factors and that today’s warming is a continuation of natural cycles, despite direct scientific evidence to the contrary
  3. Thinking that the science around climate change is not settled or that nonscientists cannot assess the body of evidence that confirms its existence
  4. Claiming that while humans are contributing to a changing climate, they are not the main contributors, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary

There are, however, many more elected officials who have failed to provide leadership on this pressing issue without stooping to what this ongoing series of analyses has traditionally considered climate denial, and their rhetoric is often just as dangerous. Dismissing the daily impacts of our climate crisis as a problem that will be solved by vague promises of innovation without the transformation of our existing economy is similarly scientifically inaccurate to claiming that climate change does not exist. Claiming that the United States is doing enough and that this is a problem for bigger carbon emitters (in the absolute) such as China and India to solve is dangerous and will not decrease emissions to safe levels.

Overlap with other forms of denial

Ultimately, the findings of this analysis show that—despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary—climate denial remains alive and well in the United States Congress, and its impacts are already costing lives. Furthermore, dangerous denial within Congress is not limited to climate change alone. By this analysis, 82 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and six U.S. senators are both climate deniers and members of the “sedition caucus”—those who denied the certified results of the 2020 general election and therefore supported President Trump’s violent attempt to overturn these democratic results.*** There is also significant overlap between elected officials who deny climate science and elected officials who deny the reality of the pandemic that has sickened millions and claimed the lives of more than half a million Americans in the past year. In fact, as this analysis was being written, one congressman-elect and another congressman who had both cast doubt on the science around climate change died from COVID-19.

Conclusion

The reality that so many members of Congress and senators—including many newly elected officials—deny basic science leaves the overwhelming majority of the American people who accept reality with a grueling task ahead. Without bold new investments in a clean energy economy and an end to the practice of subsidizing fossil fuel extraction, the agents of doubt peddling climate change misinformation will have succeeded in darkening not just the future but also the shape of the present as well.

Ari Drennen is the associate director of communications for the Energy and Environment War Room at the Center for American Progress. Sally Hardin is the Center’s director of the Energy and Environment War Room.

The authors would like to thank Will Beaudouin, Mat Brady, Shar Ghavami, and Shanée Simhoni for their contributions to this piece.

*Authors’ note: CAP did a comparison of climate deniers from the 116th Congress (using the previous CAPAF analysis) with climate deniers from the 117th Congress. Since 2019, 12 climate deniers have retired (10 House members and two senators); three have resigned (all House members); eight were defeated in election contests (five in the House and three in the Senate); one died; and 13 members (10 in the House and three in the Senate) have since acknowledged the science of human-caused climate change.

**Authors’ note: CAP reviewed quotes on climate change and its connection to human activity from every single elected official in the U.S. Congress—Democrats, independents, and Republicans—and applied the same definition to determine whether that official denied climate science.

***Authors’ note: The overlap between the 147 U.S. Senators and House members who voted against certifying the 2020 election results and the climate deniers defined by this analysis was calculated using Emily Atkin’s reporting from an issue of her HEATED newsletter published on January 19, 2021. Here is Atkin’s raw data that was used to do the actual comparison.