March 4, 2019

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Ecologist Goes to Capitol Hill and Testifies about Climate Change in National Parks

Forest ecologist and ESA member Patrick Gonzalez served as a witness during a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing held Feb. 14 entitled Climate Change and Public Lands: Examining Impacts and Considering Adaptation Opportunities. This hearing is one of several climate change focused hearings held by the House Natural Resources committee in February and the first one of the 116th Congress for the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. New subcommittee chair and freshman member Deb Haaland (D-NM) led the hearing. Dr. Gonzalez is an associate adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the coordinating lead author for the Southwest chapter of the 2018 US National Climate Assessment and a lead author of four reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Dr. Gonzalez answers a series of questions about his experience and also provides tips for colleagues about serving as a witness in a congressional hearing. 

These answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

How did you come to be invited to testify in this hearing? What was your reaction when you received the invitation?

The House Natural Resources Committee sent me an email the first day of the new session. Staff had seen my recent research article presenting the first analysis of human-caused climate change in all 417 U.S. national parks. They wanted me to present the results in person at the first hearing of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. I immediately welcomed the opportunity to provide robust science for U.S. national policy. I considered it a great honor to be invited to speak to the U.S. Congress.

I have two affiliations, with the University of California, Berkeley, where I am an associate adjunct professor, and with the U.S. National Park Service, where I am the principal climate change scientist. I spoke under my UC Berkeley affiliation, traveling on my own time and expense. I was committed to contributing science to action on human-caused climate change.

How did you prepare for the hearing?

I had previously lived and worked in Washington, DC, for 17 years and had met with Members of Congress and staff, but testifying would be new for me. I first tried to recall advice given a long time ago by my Ph.D. advisor John Holdren (Editor’s note: Dr. Holdren also served as the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration), who impressed on me the great impact a scientist can have by contributing to policy.

Then I went to my current next-door office neighbor, Jon Jarvis, executive director of the UC Berkeley Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity and former director of the U.S. National Park Service. He shared lessons from years of testifying. At UC Berkeley, my dean, department chair and colleagues strongly supported me and the communications and government relations staff were very helpful.

I aimed to write a clear and scientifically robust summary of the science for policymakers. Consequently, I dedicated much time to writing and editing. I spent even more time composing and practicing an effective spoken statement that would fit in the five minutes allotted.

What were the key points (or key message) of your testimony?

Human-caused climate change has exposed the U.S. national parks to conditions hotter and drier than the U.S. as a whole. Cutting carbon pollution from cars, power plants, deforestation, and other human sources can save parks from the most extreme heat.

In your testimony, you gave several examples of the impacts of climate change on national parks and future vulnerabilities to climate change from your (and colleague’s) research, how you did decide which impacts and vulnerabilities to highlight?

To give the most robust examples of historical impacts of climate change, I only gave examples from published research that has employed the procedures of detection – finding changes statistically significantly different from natural variation – and attribution – analysis of different potential causes that determines human-caused climate change as the main or a major cause. Among those examples, I chose the most visible impacts in parks – increasing wildfires, melting glaciers and rising sea level.

I clearly distinguished those historical impacts, which have already happened, from future vulnerabilities, the severity of which depends on our actions. Highly consequential future vulnerabilities include local losses of wildlife and coral reefs dissolving from ocean acidification.

During the hearing, you fielded questions from Members of Congress on topics ranging from wildfires and forest management to the impacts of climate change on public lands in the Member of Congress’ district. What was the question and answer session like? Did any of the questions surprise you?    

The answers offered opportunities to present the published scientific research on human-caused climate change that I had summarized in my written testimony. I had prepared possible responses in advance, with specific examples from national parks located in the districts of individual members.

As a forest ecologist, I was able to clarify for the members the published research on prescribed burning and allowing naturally-ignited fires to burn. These fire management practices can reduce future risks of catastrophic wildfire and increase long-term carbon storage in forests.

Do you have any advice for other ecologists and scientists preparing to testify before Congress? Is there anything else that you think other ESA members should know?

I recommend dedicating your time and energy to communicating the science as clearly and concisely as you can. The investment of time in your spoken and written statements will be worth the positive impact that you can have on developing solutions for our future.

Congress Ends February with Six Additional Climate Hearings

After a weeklong recess, congressional committees held six hearings examining climate science and policy from all angles the week of Feb. 25.

The last of the House Natural Resources Committee’s month-long series of climate hearings, The Denial Playbook: How Industries Manipulate Science and Policy from Climate Change to Public Health, ended prematurely after Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) successfully moved to adjourn the meeting early. Witnesses included Chris Borland, a retired NFL player testifying on traumatic brain injuries in professional football; Alexandra Precup, a Puerto Rican displaced by Hurricane Maria testifying about the impacts of climate change on her and her family; and, Dr. David Michaels, a former assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health who is an epidemiologist studying how industry manipulates science. Subcommittee Chairman T.J. Cox (D-CA) opted to continue the hearing as an informal Democratic forum after the hearing formally adjourned.

The Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee hosted Acting NOAA Administrator Dr. Neil Jacobs and Dr. Michael Freilich, the director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, for a hearing focused on climate science funding and how additional investments in federal science programs will help meet climate change challenges.  Similarly, Dr. Thomas Frazer of the University of Florida highlighted the need for investment in science to understand the impacts of climate change during a House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee and Environment oceans and climate change hearing. Dr. Radley Horton of Columbia University testified about sea level rise and its impacts for public health and safety. Dr. Sarah Cooley of the Ocean Conservancy highlighted the impacts of ocean acidification and the need for further research.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing looking at infrastructure policy and climate change adaption and mitigation. The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee for Environment and Climate Change held a hearing about how cities, states and businesses are still upholding the commitments of the Paris Agreement.

On the Senate side, the Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing for Chairman John Barrasso’s (R-WY) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-RI)’s Utilizing Significant Emissions With Innovative Technologies (USE IT) Act (S. 383). This legislation directs the EPA to conduct carbon capture and sequestration research and streamlines permitting requirements for carbon capture and sequestration and CO2 pipeline projects. Sens. Barrasso and Whitehouse previously introduced similar legislation in the 115th Congress. Lawmakers and witnesses largely agreed that the legislation could be a key step to reducing CO2 emissions.


Climate Committee: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) announced that Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) will serve as the top Republican on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Graves occasionally defies his party’s consensus on climate change. Before his election to Congress, Graves served as chairman of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and as an advisor to former Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) on coastal issues.

The other Republican members of the climate committee are Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Buddy Carter (R-GA), Gary Palmer (R-AL), Carol Miller (R-WV) and Kelly Armstrong (R-ND). Both Miller and Armstrong are freshman members who campaigned to protect fossil fuel industry jobs.

Climate Resolution: All Senate Democrats co-sponsored a basic climate resolution. The nine-line resolution states that climate change is real, that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change and that Congress and the United States should take immediate action on climate change. The resolution comes in response to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) proposed vote on Sen. Ed Markey’s (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) Green New Deal resolution (see ESA Policy News, Feb. 19, 2019). A “Dear Colleague” letter from Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) asked Republican senators to co-sponsor the resolution.

Public Lands Package: The full House approved the Senate’s omnibus public lands legislation (S.47). The bill designates 1.3 million acres of public land as wilderness, creates four national monuments and permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It also reauthorizes the National Bird Conservation Act and the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping program. The Senate overwhelmingly passed this bill in mid-February (see ESA Policy News, Feb. 19, 2019).

ARPA-E: The House Science Committee Subcommittee on Energy held a hearing about the future of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Lawmakers largely supported the agency’s work. Some Democrats suggested that tripling ARPA-E’s budget and increasing agency funding is an important step in addressing climate change. The Trump administration proposed eliminating ARPA-E in the president’s fiscal year 2018 and 2019 budgets. Congress increased funding for ARPA-E in FY 2018 and 2019. ESA signed on to Energy Sciences Coalition statements supporting the agency.

Legislative updates

  • The full House approved the Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act (H.R. 425). This bill directs the National Science Foundation to develop an outreach plan to increase veteran participation in STEM programs and directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to create a working group to identify and address barriers that veterans and military spouses face in securing STEM jobs.
  • Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and 13 Democrats introduced the Agriculture Research Integrity Act (H.R. 1221), which requires the USDA to keep the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in the DC area. Pingree introduced similar legislation at the end of the 115thCongress. When Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced plans to move NIFA and the Economic Research Service in August 2018, ESA joined other scientific societies in objecting to the speed of NIFA’s proposed move and the lack of information on how the move would affect scientific research.
  • Freshman Rep. Harley Rouda (D-CA) and 11 other Democrats introduced the Coastal Communities Adaption Act (H.R. 1317). This bill would provide grants to coastal cities and towns for climate adaption projects. It would also support National Institute of Standards and Technology and NSF research programs on building structural resilience to extreme weather.
  • Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) reintroduced the Saving America’s Pollinators Act (H.R. 1337) which would suspend the use of neonicotinoids to protect pollinators. Former Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced similar legislation (H.R.3040) in 2017. The bill has 27 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

Executive Branch

Nominations: The Senate confirmed Acting EPA Administrator AndrewWheeler to permanently lead the EPA Feb. 28. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) was the only Senate Republican to vote against Wheeler’s nomination. No Senate Democrats voted to confirm Wheeler. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who voted to confirm Wheeler as the EPA’s deputy administrator in 2018, voted against Wheeler’s confirmation. Manchin cited Wheeler’s inaction on drinking water and clean air in a statement explaining his vote. Wheeler is a former aide to Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and a former coal lobbyist. He has served as acting EPA administrator since former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned in July 2018.

White House: Documents obtained by The Washington Post show that the White House is working to form a Presidential Committee on Climate Security that will assess if climate change poses a threat to national security. The committee will be led by William Happer, the National Security Council senior director for emerging technologies and a prominent climate skeptic who has said that there is a “carbon dioxide drought.” Further reporting by The Washington Post found that the proposed committee will skirt the requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act – i.e., the committee will not be required to meet in public – and the committee will question the findings of the federal government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment.

Fourteen Democratic Senators, led by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) sent a letter to President Trump expressing that the plan “will create an environment of inaction that needlessly threatens our national security” and urging Trump to abandon the plan.

Army Corps of Engineers: The agency released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed Pebble gold and copper mine near Bristol Bay, AK (see ESA Policy News, June 11, 2018). The 1,400 page EIS largely analyzes the impacts of the mine on natural resources within the project’s immediate footprint and does not consider the impacts of the project on downstream waters. Bristol Bay is the nation’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. The document is available on the project’s website. The Army Corps of Engineers is accepting public comments on the EIS through May 30, 2019.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) called the comment period for the EIS ‘inadequate’ and indicated that he will formally request a longer public comment period for the project.

BLM and Forest Service: Public lands agencies lowered grazing fees for ranchers using public lands to $1.35 per animal unit month, the lowest possible fee allowed under a 1986 executive order. The 2018 fee was $1.41 per animal unit month and in 2016, the fee was $2.11 per animal unit month. The BLM and Forest Service calculate an animal unit as one cow and one calf, a horse, five sheep or five goats.

EPA: The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee is seeking a new member with expertise in ecology. The Federal Register Notice notes that the EPA is particularly interested in scientists with expertise related to criteria pollutants – carbon monoxide, lead, ozone, and particulate matter and sulfur oxides. Nominations are due March 28, 2019.

The EPA announced that it plans to release a study on the impacts of ethanol emissions from vehicles on air quality in March 2020. The study is part of a potential settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, which contends that EPA has failed to complete required reviews assessing the environmental impact of the 2005 renewable fuel standard on air quality. The Sierra Club’s lawsuit also alleges that the renewable fuel standard has led to farmers converting grassland to cropland and overall increased usage of farm chemicals.

NOAA: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appointed Neil Jacobs acting NOAA administrator, replacing former Acting Administrator Tim Gallaudet. Jacobs has served as the assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction since February 2018. Previously, Jacobs was the chief atmospheric scientist for Panasonic Avionics Corp. Gallaudet will remain at NOAA and will continue to serve as the assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere. President Trump nominated former Accuweather CEO Barry Meyers to lead NOAA in October 2017, but the Senate has not approved Meyer’s nomination.

USFWS: The northern subspecies of Scarlet macaw (Ara macao cyanoptera) is now listed an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act and the northern distinct population segment of the bird’s southern subspecies (Ara macao macao) is a threatened species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has also listed the southern distinct population segment of the southern subspecies as a threatened species and subspecies crosses of the northern and southern subspecies as threatened based on similarity of appearance. Scarlet macaws are native to Mexico and Central America. This designation will impact the U.S. pet trade. USFWS says that the northern macaw populations have declined in recent decades because of the pet trade, deforestation and forest degradation.

USFWS also proposes delisting the Borax Lake chub, a minnow only found around a hot spring in Borax Lake in southeast Oregon. The agency listed the fish as an endangered species in the 1980s and cited geothermal energy exploration and water quality as threats to the fish. Since then, The Nature Conservancy has purchased the lake and the land immediately surrounding it and the Bureau of Land Management has designated additional land near the lake as an area of critical environmental concern. USFWS is accepting comments on the proposed rule on the Federal Register through April 29, 2019.

USDA APHIS: The agency will likely permit the use of biological control agents for the invasive Brazilian peppertree. An environmental assessment determines that the release of biological control agents for Brazilian peppertree will not have a significant impact on the human environment. Brazilan peppertree is considered the #1 worst invasive tree/scrub in Florida. The Federal Register Notice states that the peppertree “poses a serious threat to biodiversity in many ecosystems.” APHIS is accepting public comments on this environmental assessment through March 29, 2019.


Alaska: Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) revoked a 2017 administrative order issued by his predecessor Bill Walker (I) creating a state climate change strategy task force and ended the task force’s work. Dunleavy’s administration took the task force’s website down shortly after Dunleavy’s inauguration in December 2018.

Florida: The Fish and Wildlife Commission announced that it will preemptively ban several exotic animal species, including three species of anaconda, brown tree snakes and flying foxes (large bats), from entering the state to slow the spread of invasive species. All of these species are listed as “injurious species” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Lacey Act; but, previously, they could be legally transported into Florida from another state.


Germany: Environment Minister Svenja Schulze announced an “action plan” for protecting invertebrates. The plan provides €100 million euros a year for insect conservation, including €25 million euros for research. Germany will also create new regulations for pesticides and light pollution and place a moratorium on covering new land for roads and home construction until 2050.

Scientific Community

NAS: The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine will host a webinar March 5 concerning “the issues surrounding data protection versus open access” as part of its study on safeguarding the bioeconomy. Another webinar March 18 will focus on strategies for protecting the bioeconomy without hindering economic growth. For more information on the study, go to the committee website. 

House Science Hearing Focuses on S&T Policy: On Wed., March 6, National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt and University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher will testify at a House Science Committee hearing titled, “Maintaining U.S. Leadership in Science and Technology.

Federal Register Opportunities

Public Meetings, many of which are live-streamed: 

Opportunities for Public Comment and Nominations:

Visit this page on ESA’s blog for updates on opportunities from the Federal Register, including upcoming meetings and regulations open for public comment.