Raymond David Vela, President Trump’s nominee to be director of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), mentioned climate change on Thursday as he read from prepared remarks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Hearing a Trump nominee cite climate change as an issue that must be tackled is a rare, if not unheard of, occurrence.
Vela emphasized that national parks must remain a vibrant part of American society and that addressing climate change will be key to strengthening the parks system.
“As we embark upon a second century of service, we must make ourselves relevant to current and future generations while building a diverse population of conservation stewards and workforce,” Vela told the senators. “From tackling the effects of climate change to addressing the visitor experience, future generations will be impacted by the decisions and actions that we take today.”
During the hearing, Vela also emphasized the importance of Congress ensuring adequate funding for the National Park Service, which is part of the Department of the Interior. The agency currently suffers from a major maintenance backlog that has caused significant deterioration in parks across the nation.
According to researchers, climate change could make national parks across the United States drier and hotter than other parts of the country. A new study published in September examined the impacts of global warming on all 417 areas included in the national parks system — from parks and monuments to battlefields and historic sites.
Under the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, the researchers concluded that temperatures in the “most exposed” national parks will increase by as much as 9°C (16°F) by the end of the century.
The country’s first national park, Yellowstone National Park, will likely see increased fires, less forest, shallower, warmer waterways, and more invasive plants, the New York Times also reported Thursday.
Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, is one of the Unesco World Heritage sites threatened by climate change. Data from the park and surrounding area has helped scientists understand and track climate change in the western United States.
Despite these new findings, the Trump administration is putting every effort into opening up public lands to fossil fuel and mining industries. It is also an administration that continues to deny the science on climate change and any action required to limit emissions.
But the Trump administration’s climate-denying ways did not scare its nominee to lead the National Park Service from voluntarily mentioning climate change at his confirmation hearing.
The National Park Service has gone almost two years without a director. Vela has been with the parks service for almost 30 years; most recently, he served as superintendent of Grand Teton National Park.
Vela’s boss at the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke, meanwhile has dismissed the role played by climate change in the wildfires that are currently devastating lands overseen by his department across the western United States.
At his confirmation hearing in January 2017, Zinke testified that there is no overwhelming scientific consensus about human-caused climate change. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and other administration officials have read from the same climate-denying script when appearing before Congress.
Aside from Vela, another exception is NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. In 2013, as a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, Bridenstine remarked, “Global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago.”
In June, though, only six weeks into his tenure as NASA administrator, Bridenstine had changed his mind on climate change. “I don’t deny the consensus,” he said at a NASA town hall meeting. “I believe fully in climate change and that we human beings are contributing to it in a major way.”
Vela, who is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate, could use his high-ranking position to serve as an evangelist for tackling climate change. Earlier this year, the National Park Service — after months of delay — finally released a report that concluded sea level rise, caused primarily by human-induced climate change, will pose a challenge to national parks on the nation’s coasts.
These changes, combined with the election of dozens of climate champions to Congress and state offices, may indicate that the Trump administration’s climate-denying wall of inaction is not as impenetrable as climate activists believed a year ago.