The Hill: Rep. Mike Levin Op-Ed: Congress must press Interior secretary to act on climate change

May 22, 2019
In The News

In my home state of California, the indicators of our rapidly changing climate are unmistakable. Our summers are hotter, our droughts are more severe, and our land is drier, creating fuel for year-round wildfires that can wipe out entire communities.

There is no question that these conditions are a direct effect of our climate crisis. The scientific consensus is clear that human action is driving climate change, and it is already having a devastating impact on our planet.

Climate change is a defining issue of our time, and if we don’t take bold action to address this crisis, our children and grandchildren will suffer the worst consequences.

Unfortunately, many in the Trump administration are content with inaction. In fact, some refuse to admit that climate change is real, instead pushing policies that would exacerbate the problem, catering to the fossil fuel industry and corporate polluters at the expense of our air, land, and water.

One of those administration officials making the problem worse is Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former high-priced Washington lobbyist for oil and gas companies. His conflicts of interest are so severe that he’s famous for having to carry a piece of paper with him listing all the polluters he used to represent.

Given his close fossil fuel ties, it’s no wonder that Bernhardt has denied any responsibility to address climate change, though required by law to do so as Interior secretary.

During a House Natural Resources Committee hearing last week, I asked Bernhardt if he understood that the Federal Land Policy and Management Act requires him to take “into account the long-term needs of future generations,” and, “take any action necessary to prevent unnecessary or undue degradation of” those lands. He said he did.

I asked him if he understood that he is required by law to “ensure that the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health” of the refuge system “are maintained for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” He said he did.

I asked if he understood that he is required by law to ensure that National Parks are “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” He said he did.

And I asked if he knew that he is required by law “to take a lead role in assessing risks to the water resources of the United States (including risks posed by global climate change); and to develop strategies… to mitigate the potential impacts.” He said he did.

However, defying his legal obligations, Bernhardt maintained that he needed additional direction from Congress to combat climate change.

He even said at one point during the hearing that he’s “not losing any sleep” over record-high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Congress cannot allow this inaction to stand. We must redouble efforts to hold Bernhardt accountable, including later this week, when the secretary testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

I hope the subcommittee chair, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), will ask Bernhardt why he doesn’t take his legal obligation to address climate change seriously. I hope the ranking member, Tom Udall (D-N.M.), will ask the secretary what supposed additional congressional guidance he needs to protect our air, land and water from the effects of climate change.

A vast majority of Americans want public lands protected and proactive measures taken to address climate change. Bernhardt would rather ignore the law and do the bidding for a handful of big polluters — who also happen to be his former clients. 

Left unchecked, the Interior secretary will betray decades of bipartisan work to protect our public lands and will make our fight against climate change more difficult. The American people deserve better.

Levin represents the 49th District of California and is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee.