As his more than three decades in the U.S. Senate came to a close, Jim Inhofe still balked at the idea of Congress trying to prevent climate change.
He believes humans can’t do anything to prevent it.
“This is in God’s hand. It’s not going to be something that we’re going to have control over and it’s arrogant for (people) to just walk around and (think) that,” Inhofe said in an interview at his Washington D.C. office last summer
Inhofe left office this month as the longest-tenured member of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation. Inhofe’s time in the U.S. Senate was defined by powerful leadership roles influencing infrastructure, defense and environmental policy.
His controversial slogan during his first run for U.S. Senate was “God, Guns and Gays,” and he still stands by it 28 years later — consistently voting against abortion, gun control and gay marriage.
In 2006, Inhofe boasted that there had never been “any kind of homosexual relationship” in his family and quoted passages from the Bible to justify his opposition to gay marriage. He also once declared that his office wouldn’t hire “openly gay staffers due to the possibility of a conflict of agenda.”
Inhofe’s remarks were often dismissive of his many LGBTQ Oklahoman constituents, said Toby Jenkins, the former director of Tulsa-based Oklahomans for Equality.
“It creates a sense you don’t feel like you’re heard, you don’t feel like you’re seen and that no one’s sensitive to the impact of what your life is like and not just to an individual but to all of our family,” Jenkins said.
Inhofe was no stranger to confrontation.
In 2015, Inhofe famously brought a snowball onto the Senate Floor in an attempt to disprove the existence of climate change. He also authored a book in 2012 titled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.
Inhofe called for a criminal investigation into top climate change scientists in 2009, claiming they “manipulated data to prove the scientific ‘consensus’ of global warming.”
One of them was Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a leading climate scientist with NASA, who received a letter from Inhofe, who was then the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The committee oversees climate policy and infrastructure, requesting him to retain materials related to the potential investigation.
Schmidt admitted that receiving the letter about a potential Senate investigation rattled him, as the only “crime” he believed he was guilty of was being a climate scientist.
“The science goes on; one Senator doesn’t control that much so they can’t deter it,” Schmidt said. “These people carry on with their jobs because they’re professionals, but suddenly you find yourself mentioned in dispatches for no reason.”
Schmidt also said the public attacks eroded public trust in the science behind climate change.
Even while putting scientists on blast, Inhofe was able to form a friendship with former Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., his counterpart on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who used her position to advocate for policies to combat climate change.
“I used to call them the odd couple,” U.S. Rep. Tom Cole said. “Inhofe and Boxer are like an old married couple; they know the things they can’t talk about and they’ve just given up trying to change the other.”
The two often clashed on climate policy while serving together on the committee but still formed a relationship that allowed them to continually get marquee infrastructure legislation passed.
“I genuinely like Barbara Boxer,” Inhofe said. “I like people that are spirited and that stand for something even if they stand for the wrong thing. We’ve joked around for years but we always got along.”
When Boxer took over as chairwoman of the committee in 2007, the first hearing she decided to hold was on climate change, a move Inhofe thought was ridiculous, she said.
To lighten the tension before the hearing, Boxer brought Inhofe a stuffed polar bear, an animal endangered by climate change. In return, he gave her a mug that, when heated, showed sea levels rising to cover her home state of California, she recalled in an interview.
Boxer and Inhofe were able to find common ground on legislation to fund infrastructure across the nation.
And Boxer genuinely likes Inhofe as well, she said, even if they don’t see eye to eye on most things.
“I can’t cry tears over the fact that Jim is retiring because that’s one less vote for putting a woman in jail for having an abortion,” Boxer said. “But as a legislator from a Republican state, it’s wonderful that he has that ability to find that legislative sweet spot with someone like me, who was his polar opposite.”
As an advocate for limited government, building roads and bridges is one of the few things Inhofe believes Congress should do.
“The constitution tells us what we’re actually supposed to be doing around here and that’s two things, defending America and infrastructure,” Inhofe said.
Inhofe’s ideas about government were formed before he got into politics while working as a builder and developer in the private sector. One day, he was on a job in Texas and was told he needed more than a dozen permits to build a dock. That didn’t make much sense to him. He said he realized then that the government was creating more problems than it was solving.
During his time leading the Senate Armed Services Committee, Inhofe fought to increase defense funding and to keep Oklahoma’s military bases open.
In 2020, President Donald Trump, who had just lost re-election, vetoed the annual defense bill and lashed out at Inhofe on Twitter, because the legislation did not repeal a social media policy he wanted gone.
But Inhofe held firm, voting to overturn Trump’s veto. Inhofe later broke from other Republicans to vote in favor of certifying Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election.
“Jim Inhofe is a man of principle,” U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, who now leads the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “He’s someone who truly understands that all we do on the Armed Services Committee ultimately affects the health welfare of young men and women and service and their families, and he never forgets that.”
Inhofe’s work on defense over the years was recognized in 2022 when the committee decided to name the annual spending bill in his honor.
The James Mountain Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act was a massive $858 billion package that included a pay raise for service members, and support for Ukraine and Taiwan. The bill also repealed the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for service members.
President Joe Biden signed the bill on Dec. 23.
As he enters retirement at age 88, Inhofe said he plans to spend time with his wife of 63 years, Kay whether it be in Tulsa or at his favorite vacation spot on South Padre Island in Texas.