An Alaska Olympian went to D.C. to testify on climate change. Then a senator dredged up four-year-old tweets.

Louisiana Republican U.S. Sen. John Kennedy subjected Anchorage cross-country skier Gus Schumacher to a pop quiz about climate science in an exchange that went viral in conservative circles.

An Alaska Olympian went to D.C. to testify on climate change. Then a senator dredged up four-year-old tweets.
Gus Schumacher, the Anchorage cross-country skier, testifies at a Senate Budget Committee hearing Wednesday.

Gus Schumacher, the Anchorage Olympic cross-country skier, arrived at his first-ever congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., knowing he could be a target.

The Senate Budget Committee’s chairman, Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, invited Schumacher to testify last week in one of a series of more than a dozen hearings about the harm climate change is inflicting on the nation’s economy.

Alongside a flyfishing outfitter and an official from an outdoor gear company, Schumacher was in the room to talk about the impact of global warming on the $1.1 trillion outdoor recreation industry.

And he’d been warned about the possibility of probing questions from the committee’s Republican members. One of them, Mitt Romney of Utah, had previously derided Whitehouse's climate focus as "more Barbie than Oppenheimer," and said that while the issue is important, the budget committee should be more focused on federal spending.

The hearing’s opening was perfunctory: Whitehouse began by describing climate change-related disruption to duck hunting and recreational fishing, and storm damage to infrastructure at Yellowstone National Park. He also took his GOP colleagues to task for "mocking the warnings" about the "climate emergency."

The invited witnesses then shared their testimony, with Schumacher describing himself not just as a professional athlete, but as a “concerned citizen troubled by the effects of climate change on our environment and the activities we cherish.” His message: Climate change has dramatically changed winter sports and the environment itself, and society needs to invest in renewable energy, "sustainable land management practices" and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s when things went off the rails.

After three years working with an athlete-focused climate advocacy group called Protect Our Winters, Schumacher was prepared for the most likely knock against him from antagonistic senators: As a professional ski racer, he has a hefty carbon footprint from flying around the country for training camps, and across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, where he competes on the elite-level World Cup circuit.

[Related: Can jet-setting ski racers be climate activists? Anchorage athlete leans into “imperfect advocacy.”]

Schumacher races in Minneapolis last month. (Nathaniel Herz for FasterSkier)

What he got, instead, was a full-on broadside from John Kennedy, the second-term Republican U.S. senator from Louisiana.

Kennedy did not ask Schumacher substantive questions about climate change’s impacts on cross-country skiing, nor did he ask about the challenges posed to Alaska’s oil-dependent economy by reducing the use of fossil fuels. Instead, he presented the Olympian with a deep excavation of his social media accounts, and a pop quiz on climate economics and science.

“In hindsight, the point was just to derail this hearing,” Schumacher said in a phone interview Friday. “I was kind of thrown off, obviously, which was his goal.”

Among the questions that Kennedy lobbed at Schumacher, a professional cross-country skier since he graduated Anchorage’s Service High School in 2018: Was he at the hearing on behalf of the Democrats or the Republicans? What is carbon dioxide? You want us to abolish it, right?

[Read a transcript of the exchange]

And: “On August 27 of 2020, you tweeted this, I’m going to quote: ‘Police are paid with taxpayer dollars. If they are not answerable to us, we can demand new service, and that’s what it is: Abolish the police in favor of that new service.’ You think we ought to abolish the police?’”

Louisiana GOP U.S. Sen. John Kennedy questions Schumacher at Wednesday’s hearing.

Schumacher, a registered independent whose prepared testimony did not reference carbon neutral goals, atmospheric composition or police abolition, did his best. He was there “on behalf of the outdoor enthusiasts around America,” he said. Carbon dioxide is a gas, and he was not calling for its abolition, he said. His past tweets, he added, are “not the topic of this conversation.”

“But you’re here giving us advice,” Kennedy said. “And I’d just kind of like to know a little bit more about your points of view.”

“I’m here as an athlete, giving you my story and what I’ve seen,” Schumacher said.

Schumacher did flub one question: He told Kennedy that carbon dioxide is a “huge part” of our atmosphere when, in fact, it’s some .04% — a discrepancy that the senator quickly noted. But those facts were not part of his high school curriculum, nor were they covered in the preparation he did with Protect Our Winters before the hearing, Schumacher said.

“We were not briefed on the molecule of CO2,” Schumacher said. “And I was not briefed on the exact numbers of stopping climate change.”

After the hearing, Kennedy, who collected $343,000 in oil and gas industry-aligned contributions in the two years before his re-election in 2022, posted a video mocking Schumacher’s responses for the 1.5 million followers of his senatorial social media accounts.

Their exchange was then picked up by conservative news outlets and activists, including an Instagram account that posted a video snippet with the caption: “Senator John Kennedy DESTROYS Lib with simple question!”

Since Wednesday, Schumacher said, he’s received hundreds of “truly hateful” messages through his website, plus a torrent of negative comments on his Instagram account, where his outnumbered family and friends have sprung to his defense.

“Stick with skiing. Don’t open your mouth because there clearly isn’t much in your brain,” read one message. “One easy way to minimize CO2 on Earth is for you to STOP BREATHING! Will you do that for us?”

Two of the messages Schumacher received after the hearing.

Kennedy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for Whitehouse and the budget committee said in a statement that Schumacher was invited to testify “about his firsthand experience as a winter athlete witnessing the effects of a changing climate on the natural environment and the winter sports industry.”

“His testimony provided the committee with the unique perspective of an expert skier and Olympic athlete whose industry is dependent on a stable climate,” the statement said.

Schumacher, who’s now back in Alaska, said the attacks will not dissuade him from climate advocacy — even if the onslaught of negativity has been a lot to deal with.

“They’re not going to get to me,” he said. “I’m happy to be able to talk about what I see at home and abroad. And I’m definitely motivated to continue it.”

After the hearing, the advocacy group Schumacher works with, Protect Our Winters, addressed Kennedy’s questioning in its own social media post, saying that its representatives, including Schumacher, traveled to Washington because last year was the hottest ever recorded.

Protect Our Winters said the group, including Schumacher, was generally well received by others on its trip to the Capitol — except for by “one senator,” a reference to Kennedy.

“Instead of focusing on the problem at hand, this senator attempted to discredit our athletes’ presence there, discussing irrelevant, dated social media posts to derail and delay the conversation,” the post said. “Our athletes don’t claim to be scientists. But they are experts in witnessing firsthand changes to the environments they have been recreating in their entire lives. And these stories matter.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from the Senate Budget Committee that was shared after publication.

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