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James Inhofe, Oklahoma senator and climate-change denier, dies at 89

James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who served for nearly 30 years in the U.S. Senate, where he chaired the Armed Services and Environment committees and became known as the Capitol’s most outspoken denier of climate change, died July 9 at 89.

He recently suffered a stroke, the Associated Press reported, citing a statement from his family. Other details were not immediately available.

Mr. Inhofe retired from the Senate in January 2023 after an almost six-decade political career that began with stints as a state legislator and as mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second-largest city.

He served for nearly eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 1994. Mr. Inhofe became his state’s longest-serving member of the chamber and a “rock-ribbed and senior figure in the Republican Party,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar and senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Inhofe was a reliable supporter of conservative causes, including opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage, and an effective champion for regulatory policies benefiting his oil-rich state.

On the Armed Services Committee, which he led following the 2018 death of Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), he argued forcefully for robust military spending.

But he was best known for his sometimes combative objection to the scientific consensus surrounding human-caused climate change.

“With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people?” Mr. Inhofe said in a 2003 speech on the Senate floor. “It sure sounds like it.”

A self-described “one-man truth squad” on the subject, Mr. Inhofe published a 2012 book called “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”

He argued that only God could change the climate, writing that “God is still up there, and He promised to maintain the seasons and that cold and heat would never cease as long as the earth remains.” It was arrogant of human beings to suppose otherwise, Mr. Inhofe contended.

In the winter of 2015, while serving as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Mr. Inhofe brought a snowball onto the Senate floor in an attempt to disprove global warming. “It’s very, very cold out. Very unseasonable,” he said, before tossing the snowball to the sitting Senate president.

(While temperatures in Washington were cold that winter, the D.C. region has warmed by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century due to human-caused climate change, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.)

During an earlier snowstorm in Washington, in 2010, Mr. Inhofe and his grandchildren built an igloo and erected a sign reading “Al Gore’s New Home,” a reference to the former vice president, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to combat climate change.

Mr. Inhofe’s influence in Washington increased during the presidency of Donald Trump, whom Mr. Inhofe supported, and who filled key appointments with administrators who shared Mr. Inhofe’s commitment to environmental deregulation. He once characterized the EPA as a “Gestapo bureaucracy.”

Scott Pruitt, a protégé of Mr. Inhofe’s who served as Oklahoma attorney general, became Trump’s first EPA administrator before resigning amid an ethics scandal in 2018. Pruitt’s successor, Andrew Wheeler, who led the agency through the end of the Trump administration, had worked for Mr. Inhofe on the Senate Environment Committee.

In 2021, Mr. Inhofe bucked Trump and the president’s loyalists by voting to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election, which Trump had sought to overturn. Any other action, Mr. Inhofe said of his vote at the time, would have been “a violation of my oath of office.”

James Mountain Inhofe was born in Des Moines on Nov. 17, 1934, and grew up in Tulsa.

He served in the Army before following his father into the insurance industry — Mr. Inhofe eventually became president of Quaker Life Insurance Co. — and venturing into real estate development. His move into politics was partly motivated by his frustration over government regulations.

Mr. Inhofe was elected in 1966 to the Oklahoma House of Representatives and two years later to the Oklahoma Senate. He completed his college education during his time in the legislature, receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Tulsa in 1973, the year he turned 39.

After his tenure in the state senate, Mr. Inhofe served as mayor of Tulsa from 1978 to 1984. He lost races for governor and Congress before he was elected to the U.S. House in 1986.

Six years later, Mr. Inhofe defeated Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) in a special election to fill the Senate seat left vacant by David L. Boren, a Democrat who resigned to become president of the University of Oklahoma. Mr. Inhofe went on to win his first full Senate term in 1996 and was reelected four times before he stepped down at age 88.

Mr. Inhofe was a licensed pilot and routinely flew himself to and from Washington. In 1991, he joined three other aviators in flying a Cessna around the world in honor of Wiley Post, an Oklahoman who had completed a record-breaking flight around the globe 60 years earlier.

In 2010, Mr. Inhofe landed his aircraft at a rural airport in South Texas on a runway that was marked as closed, and where construction workers were on the job. He agreed to undertake remedial training in lieu of punishment.

For a campaign ad in 2020, when he was 85, Mr. Inhofe flew a plane upside down in a demonstration of his prowess in the air.

Mr. Inhofe’s survivors include his wife, the former Kay Kirkpatrick, whom he married in 1959, and three children, Molly, Jimmy and Katy. His son Perry, who was also an aviator, died in 2013 when the private plane he was flying crashed near Owasso, Okla.

Despite his conservative positions and pugnacious rhetoric, Mr. Inhofe by all accounts had strong working relationships and friendships with many Democrats on the Hill.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me, ‘Inhofe, I don’t agree with you on everything, but I know where you stand,’ ” he once told the Tulsa Word.

Former U.S. senator Barbara Boxer, his Democratic counterpart on the Environment Committee, told The Washington Post in 2015 that she regarded his views on climate change as “dangerous” and “waaaay out of the mainstream,” but she said she regarded the two of them as siblings with different worldviews. During congressional hearings, Mr. Inhofe sometimes wore a tie depicting a polar bear, a gift from Boxer.

Staff writer Maxine Joselow contributed to this report.

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