At a congressional budget hearing last week, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) gave Interior Secretary David Bernhardt an opportunity to walk back a statement he’d made 30 minutes earlier about how rapidly rising atmospheric carbon dioxide hadn’t cost him any sleep.
“A lot of people are watching and I think it is one of those clips of testimony that will reverberate,” Huffman said. “People will look back on what you said. I want to just give you this chance to assure people that you actually get it on climate change.”
Bernhardt responded that the U.S. has led developed nations in reducing CO2 emissions. (Two separate analyses in January documented a sharp rise in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions last year.)
A week later, two things have become clear. Bernhardt still has no plans of backpedaling on his climate shrug. And the remark is going to follow the former oil and gas lobbyist ― and the Trump administration.
The interior secretary’s comment took center stage at a congressional budget hearing on Wednesday. And Democratic presidential contenders have started citing Bernhardt’s apathy about the climate crisis as they vie for a chance to take down President Donald Trump in 2020.
“Trump’s Interior Secretary said he’s not losing sleep over climate change,” 2020 hopeful Steve Bullock, the two-term Democratic governor of deep-red Montana, told HuffPost via email this week. “Well, as the Governor of a state dealing with record wildfires and as the father of three kids, I am. Climate change is a direct threat to our way of life, which means our response must be both immediate and durable. We need to get this right.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has released the most detailed climate policy vision of any 2020 Democratic contender, addressed Bernhardt’s comment when he joined New York City school striker and 14-year-old climate activist Alexandria Villaseñor at a protest outside the United Nations in Manhattan last week.
“Look, this is the kind of baloney you get when you put an arsonist in charge of your fire department,” Inslee told a HuffPost reporter covering the protest. “They stand in front of the burning house and say, ‘What fire?’ That’s the situation here.”
Researchers announced this month that levels of the greenhouse gas CO2 had exceeded 415 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in more than 3 million years. Bernhardt had just been asked how he would rank his level of concern about this dangerous CO2 spike last week when he said, “I haven’t lost any sleep over it.”
“[She] is losing sleep over it,” Inslee said of Villaseñor. “She expects the older generation to give her generation a chance. Obviously, she isn’t getting it from this former oil and gas lobbyist.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who if elected president has vowed to ban new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters, slammed Bernhardt in a post to Twitter last week.
“We need an @Interior Secretary who cares more about our environment than the profits of his former and future lobbying clients,” she wrote.
The burning of fossil fuels and other human activities are driving the current climate and extinction crises. Scientists around the world have warned that staving off catastrophic planetary warming requires a rapid mobilization to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. And a sobering United Nations report released this month found that up to 1 million land and marine species are now at risk of extinction.
None of this appears to concern Bernhardt, who oversees about 500 million acres, or about one-fifth of the United States. At this Wednesday’s hearing of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) focused his questions exclusively on Bernhardt’s recent comment. He asked the Trump official if he’s lost any sleep over deadly climate-exacerbated disasters, including Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Harvey in Texas and the record-breaking Camp fire in California.
“Do you lose sleep over the carbon pollution that’s driving it?” Merkley asked.
“I think it’s an issue that needs to be addressed, but I don’t lose sleep over it,” Bernhardt responded.
Merkley told Bernhardt that he should.
“The policies you’re promoting are doing enormous damage to our planet,” Merkley said. “That is an immoral thing to do to the generations to come. And I would hope that you start thinking about that, maybe lose some sleep and maybe decide you’re going to be part of the solution rather than part of the force driving the catastrophe.”
Alexander Kaufman contributed to this report.