Andrew Wheeler responded to questions Wednesday during his confirmation hearing to become administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

At EPA Confirmation Hearing, Andrew Wheeler Faces Questions on Climate

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Former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler performed a balancing act on Wednesday as he faced questioning during his confirmation hearing to become the 15th administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

While affirming to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders his belief that humans have an impact on the climate, “what’s not completely understood,” Wheeler hedged, “is what the impact is.”

That statement directly contradicts the global scientific consensus that humans are largely responsible for recent planetary warming.

Though Wheeler has been serving as acting director of the EPA since July — following the scandal-prompted resignation of former leader Scott Pruitt — he was nominated to officially take over the role just last week.

After adding to Sanders that he believes climate change is not “the greatest crisis” facing society today, Wheeler rated his level of concern regarding the issue at an “eight or nine” out of 10.

Such remarks follow Wheeler’s push to continue with President Donald Trump’s agenda of deregulation, including his replacement of Obama’s Clean Power Plan with a weaker set of rules for coal-fired power plants. Though Wheeler told lawmakers that he takes the responsibility of protecting human health and the environment “very seriously,” he has also proposed to roll back protections for wetlands and streams, along with standards for vehicle emissions.

During the hearing, Wheeler noted that he had not read the latest National Climate Assessment, which warned that the United States will warm 3 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 if fossil fuel use is not drastically curtailed. He was also skeptical of the report when it came out in November, stating that media coverage had focused on the “worst-case scenario.”

Pushing back, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey replied: “You are a former coal industry lobbyist that is sitting here. That’s the worst-case scenario, what you are proposing here.”

Also in the news:

• Under the Trump administration, the EPA last year referred a record-low number of pollution cases for criminal prosecution to the Justice Department, raising further questions about the agency’s commitment to its core mission to protect the public and U.S. resources from the harmful effects of pollution. EPA criminal referrals reached their peak in 1998 with 592 cases under President Bill Clinton, but have been on a downward trajectory ever since. The steepest decline has come under President Trump, with only 166 cases referred for prosecution in the 2018 fiscal year. This is the lowest number on record since 1988, when 151 cases were referred under President Ronald Reagan. What’s more, of the 2018 referrals, only 62 resulted in federal convictions, the lowest number since 1995. While Scott Pruitt was in charge for most of the EPA’s 2018 fiscal year, data obtained by the nonprofit advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) shows that the agency’s referrals have slowed even further during the first two months of fiscal year 2019, under Andrew Wheeler. (Associated Press)

• James Watson, often called one of the “fathers of DNA” for his role in discovering the material’s double helix structure, has a history of making racist remarks. In 2007, the geneticist commented to a reporter that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa,” stating that testing had affirmed a genetic difference in intelligence between blacks and whites. Watson quickly apologized for those remarks at the time, but when asked in a new PBS documentary whether his beliefs had actually changed, he replied “Not at all.” While Watson bases his conviction on differences in IQ test scores, which are themselves problematic, experts largely attribute such gaps to environment, rather than genetics. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which maintained ties with its former director for many years and even held a 90th birthday party for him last year, revoked Watson’s honorary titles last Friday, describing his comments as “unsubstantiated and reckless.” (New York Times)

• The first Moon plant — a tiny green shoot sprouting from a cotton seed inside a metal canister on China’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe — has met its demise. It was not yet one lunar day old. The news comes a day after Chinese scientists unveiled the first pictures of the plant, the first sign of life from a mini-biosphere experiment that also included potato and rockcress seeds, yeast, and fruit-fly eggs. Earlier this month, Chang’e-4 became the first probe to safely land on the far side of the Moon. The cotton-seed sprout was hailed as a crucial step toward one day building a self-sustaining human base on the moon. But as temperatures plunged below -61.6 degrees Fahrenheit during the lunar night, the seedling abruptly died. According to Xie Gengxin, who led the design of the experiment, the short lifespan had been anticipated — though that detail was missing from news stories touting the sprout’s initial appearance. The Chinese news website Inkstone reports that the two-week-long lunar night likely spells the end of the mini-biosphere experiment: “If the lunar flies didn’t hatch, they’re unlikely to get a second chance.” (The Guardian)

• While it’s widely believed that antibiotics are overprescribed, a comprehensive study published this week in the international medical journal The BMJ makes clear the extent of the problem in the U.S. Analyzing private insurance claims data from more than 19.2 million Americans under the age of 65, researchers found that nearly a quarter of patients prescribed antibiotics in 2016 were done so without proper justification. Of the more than 15 million prescriptions examined, a mere 12.8 percent of the them were unequivocally “appropriate,” meaning the conditions they were used to treat — chiefly urinary tract infections, bacterial pneumonia, and strep throat — almost always require antibiotics. The remaining prescriptions were ambiguous, categorized as “potentially appropriate,” meaning the conditions sometimes warranted the drugs, or “not associated with a recent diagnosis code,” which accounts for refills and prescriptions that were likely written without patients having been examined, as well as those that didn’t result in official claims and were therefore not included in the study. (U.S. News and World Report)

• And finally: California’s largest utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, announced this week that it will file for bankruptcy, due to an estimated $30 billion in liability claims related to wildfires during the past two years. While the announcement came as no surprise, it prompted real concern about the impact on the state’s solar industry. Under a climate change protection plan, PG&E had been scheduled to invest heavily in renewable energy programs. With that funding now uncertain, the credit ratings of solar projects in California were immediately downgraded.  Clean energy experts warn that a ripple effect of damage to the renewable energy sector is also likely. (Los Angeles Times)

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