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A Former Oil Lobbyist Is Now Officially in Charge of America’s Public Lands

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A Former Oil Lobbyist Is Now Officially in Charge of America’s Public Lands
David Bernhardt arrives before testifying during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing on March 28, 2019 in Washington, DC. Zach Gibson / Getty Images

The Senate voted to confirm former oil-and-gas lobbyist David Bernhardt as Secretary of the Interior Thursday, despite calls from Democrats and government watchdogs to investigate his past conduct, The New York Times reported.


The confirmation vote was 56-to-41, making Bernhardt—who has so many conflicts of interests he has to write them on an index card to make sure he doesn't deal with former clients—the least popular Interior Secretary in 40 years, the Center for American Progress (CAP) told The Washington Post. The second least popular was Ryan Zinke, President Donald Trump's first pick to lead the Department of Interior (DOI), who resigned last year amidst a series of ethics investigations. A CAP analysis showed that Bernhardt bested his former boss in another respect: he has the most conflicts of interests of all 31 Trump cabinet-level nominees.

"It still amazes me," New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said of Bernhardt's nomination, as The New York Times reported. "Donald Trump campaigns on cleaning up the swamp and he does exactly the opposite when in office. An oil and gas lobbyist as head of the Department of Interior? My God. That's an example of the swampiness of Washington if there ever was one. And when are Donald Trump's supporters going to understand this?"

Bernhardt worked for the DOI under President George W. Bush, contributing to efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. He then spent seven years as a lobbyist with several fossil fuel clients including Halliburton; another of his clients was the powerful California utility Westlands Water District. Trump nominated him to serve as deputy secretary at DOI in April 2017, he was confirmed in July of that year and he has been acting as interior secretary since Zinke's resignation in December of 2018.

Democratic lawmakers and watchdogs have called for investigations into three of Bernhardt's reported actions, according to The New York Times.

  1. While at Interior, he reportedly acted to weaken endangered species protections for a California fish, an act that would benefit Westlands Water District.
  2. He continued to lobby on behalf of Westlands Water District up through the month of his April 2017 nomination, despite the fact that he had told the federal government he was no longer lobbying at that time, The New York Times reported.
  3. He blocked an about-to-be-released report detailing the risks posed by pesticides to more than 1,000 endangered species.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said he was shocked by that last revelation, reported in March. Shortly before, Bernhardt had come to Wyden's office and promised to abide by ethical standards.

"Why would you come to my office and lie?" Wyden asked Bernhardt during his confirmation hearing, The Washington Post reported.

Three Democratic Senators broke ranks with their colleagues to approve Bernhardt's confirmation: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Krysten Sinema of Arizona and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

Heinrich said that, since one-third of land in New Mexico is owned by DOI, it was important for the state to have a confirmed head of the agency, The New York Times reported.

"I need to be able to pick up the phone and talk to the Secretary of Interior on a regular basis. I'm not going to be able to get the Interior Secretary I wanted. We didn't win in 2016," he said, according to The New York Times. "But in New Mexico, I'm going to put my state and protection of public lands in my state first."

Heinrich had been the target of a campaign by the Western Values Project urging him to change his mind.

"Rushing to move forward with Bernhardt's nomination without clarification on his numerous ethical lapses and investigative requests is not only a disservice to the American people, but it also means that Interior will again be led by a secretary shrouded in scandal," Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger said in a statement on Bernhardt's confirmation. "Make no mistake: a vote to confirm David Bernhardt for Interior Secretary was a vote against our American birthright and the viability of our public lands for future generations."

The group noted that Bernhardt already had a poor record on public lands. He has been instrumental in the push to open millions of acres of public lands to oil and gas development and oversaw the decision to keep national parks open but understaffed during the government shutdown.

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A Michigan bald eagle proved that nature can still triumph over machines when it attacked and drowned a nearly $1,000 government drone.

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By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.