Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told a House committee Wednesday that he hasn't "lost any sleep" over record global levels of climate-changing carbon emissions.
His comment came during what was supposed to be a hearing about the department's fiscal 2020 budget request. But some of the questions from Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee focused on his handling of climate issues. Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, was pressed to explain how climate could factor into future land management decisions.
At one point Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., in a moment likely to be shared by environmental groups and Democratic political operatives, asked Bernhardt if he was concerned about rising global greenhouse gas emissions. Data obtained Friday by the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii showed those levels reached 415 parts per million, the highest carbon dioxide levels ever found in the atmosphere in recorded human history.
Asked how he'd rate his personal concern about those reports on a scale of 1 to 10, he stated plainly: "I haven't lost any sleep over it."
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., later in the hearing told Bernhardt what he said could have significant news value. He gave him an opportunity to clarify the statement.
"It's one of those clips of testimony that will reverberate. People will look back to what you said," Huffman noted.
Bernhardt said he appreciated the opportunity to add to the previous statement but didn't turn away from it. He instead began to explain how, in his view, the U.S. is cutting its greenhouse gas emissions and the department is now factoring climate into its environmental reviews.
"I absolutely care about the climate changing and that we need to factor that into our thinking. I absolutely believe that and I've said that over and over and over," he said.
Sitting directly behind Bernhardt at the hearing were climate activists in swamp monster costumes, and Democrats seized on the theme.
"It's the epitome of the swamp to have a handful of polluters dictate the environmental policies of this administration. You might wonder why there are people in swamp creature outfits behind you," said Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., at one point during the hearing. "The public has real concerns about your work, sir."
The secretary interrupted: "I'm here voluntarily."
Bernhardt's views on climate went relatively untested during his April confirmation hearing. He told senators humans play a role in driving climate change but stopped short of acknowledging they're the key driver.
A November report from 13 federal agencies found severe climate change as predicted by scientists would have devastating impacts on the U.S. economy. Another report earlier last year from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that unless significant action happens soon, global average temperatures could rise to levels that could trigger a multitude of environmental and humanitarian crises.
Since the confirmation process, in press interviews and testimony before House appropriators last week, Bernhardt has said he doubts that scientific consensus. He has argued that while the department will need to factor climate impacts in its environmental reviews, it isn't his job to use the department to try to stop those impacts. Those statements came in light of recent court rulings in which federal judges struck down oil and gas lease sales because climate impacts weren't part of such reviews.
In a heated exchange with Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., Bernhardt said Democrats were asking him to commit to banning oil and gas development on federal lands, which he said he lacked authority to do.
"Just to say, 'From today forward, David Bernhardt says no development on federal lands,' I absolutely do not have that authority. You have that authority," Bernhardt said to DeGette.
"Mr. Secretary, nobody's asking you to do that," DeGette said.
"That's exactly what we're talking about," Bernhardt replied.
"No, it's not. What we're asking you to do is to take climate change into effect when deciding these leases," she replied.
Bernhardt shot back: "We already do."