On Wednesday, during the confirmation hearings for Environmental Protection Agency nominee Andrew Wheeler, Senator Bernie Sanders became perplexed. Wheeler, currently the acting administrator of the EPA and a former coal lobbyist, was making a case before a committee that he should be the permanent head of the EPA. During his opening statement, he did not mention climate change — not even once. This, Sanders said once he had the floor, was “interesting.”
Sanders used his time to press Wheeler about his stance on climate change and how it currently affects the planet. Leading scientists, Sanders emphasized, have said that “climate change is one of the great crisis facing our planet” and that this crisis “must be addressed in an aggressive way.” Did Wheeler agree?
“I believe that climate change is a global issue that must be addressed globally,” said Wheeler. But did he think it was one of the greatest crisis facing Earth? Wheeler responded: “I would not call it the greatest crisis, no sir.”
Subsequent questioning by Sanders demonstrated that the potential EPA head is uninterested is guiding the United States to be a leader in climate change reduction and, in turn, push for the country to rejoin the Paris Agreement, a global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. President Donald Trump pulled the US from the Paris Agreement in 2017. When asked whether he would be a environmental leader on the global stage, Wheeler said that his agency will be focused on “implementing the laws that Congress has passed.”
His agency, Wheeler said, will “move forward to reduce CO2” through initiatives like the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule and an initiative he referred to as SAFE CAFE. The Safe Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicle Rule, or SAFE, is a rule that proposes changes to the EPA’s greenhouse gas emissions standards.Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, meanwhile, will apply to light duty vehicle models set to be released from 2021 to 2026.
According to a briefing released by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, SAFE CAFE will actually “increase vehicle greenhouse gas emissions” and “increase upstream greenhouse gas emissions.” But during the confirmation hearing, Wheeler said that SAFE CAFE is designed to “reduce CO2 levels.”
In response to Sander’s questioning, Wheeler also said he sees rising sea levels as a “concern” but isn’t looking to take action unless directed by “congressional authority.” While he admitted he thinks the summer’s wildfires in California” probably had some relation to climate change,” he maintained that the biggest issue driving the fires was “forest management,” not drought. Scientists disagree, arguing that climate change is the driving factor behind the deadly and costly fires.
While Democrats cannot block Wheeler from being confirmed, they have used this moment to moment to force answers from Wheeler and to drag him for not doing his homework. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts blasted Wheeler for not reading the most recent National Climate Assessment. Markey says that not reading the report is a disqualification for the job.
In defense, Wheeler replied that he didn’t say he didn’t read it, but rather “I said I haven’t finished being briefed on it by my staff.” The report, which was authored in parts by experts from the EPA, was released in November.