THE LIGHTBULB

One of President Trump's Cabinet members is taking heat this week over his comments about California's wildfires and climate change.

During a trip to parts of Northern California charred by the Carr Fire this past weekend, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters that “it doesn’t matter whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change; what is important is we manage our forests.”

According to the Sacramento Bee, Zinke added: “This is not a debate about climate change.”

The Trump administration usually does not seem to think it is a good time to talk about climate change when the country is going through -- or healing from -- a natural disaster. The interior secretary is just the latest of a series of officials to eschew big-picture questions about climate change during these crises.

Democrats and their allies in the environmental movement, on the other hand, use the disasters as opportunities to bring up global warming. They say that these are the moments when its impacts are most visible. 

After Hurricane Harvey inundated much of the area around Houston last August, for example, CNN's Chris Cuomo asked Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway whether Trump was “open" to discussing the role of climate change. At the time, many climate scientists were saying Harvey’s record rains had been made worse by an atmosphere that is warmer — and able to hold more moisture.

Conway's response: “Chris, we’re trying to help the people whose lives are literally underwater, and you want to have a conversation about climate change. I mean, that is — I’m not going to engage in that right now because I work for a president and a vice president and a country that is very focused on helping the millions of affected Texans, and, God forbid, Louisianans.”

Similarly, when Hurricane Irma rocked the Caribbean in September, former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt told CNN that “to have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced.”

And a few days after that, Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, reiterated that it was not the right time to talk about climate change.

“I'll be more than happy to have a longer discussion on another day,” Mulvaney said.

Unlike Mulvaney, Zinke did acknowledge the warming climate in his remarks. “There’s no doubt the [fire] season is getting longer, the temperatures are getting hotter,” he said in the same remarks to reporters in California.

And in an op-ed in USA Today last week he wrote: “The fires are burning hotter and more intense, due in part to hot and dry weather and in part to the fuels that overload our forests.”

The interior secretary was trying to point out that regardless of climate, federally managed forests are still laden with dead and dying trees that make them more susceptible to burning. The Trump administration, along with many Republicans in Congress, want to ease requirements for environmental review for tree-thinning projects while making it more difficult for environmentalists to hold up that work through lawsuits.

Many conservationists counter that such legislation will allow for more unwarranted commercial logging on public lands.

“Zinke is in California using an ongoing natural disaster to push an unpopular political agenda,” said Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities.

POWER PLAYS

— 328 days later: Almost an entire year after Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico and took out what was already a struggling electric rid, the last residential customers of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority had service restored on Tuesday, the Associated Press reports. Yet even after a $3.2 billion injection of money from the federal government to put up about 52,000 new electrical poles, the island will need to invest billions more to reconstruct the struggling electric system, per the New York Times

— Trump vs. China: China has filed a challenge with the World Trade Organization against U.S. tariffs on solar panels, saying that the 30 percent tax the United States announced in January are in violation of WTO rules, the Associated Press reports. The move from China, which the Trump administration says has unfairly lowered the price of solar panel through subsidies, is the latest in the growing trade tensions between the two nations.

— Trump vs. Illinois: Lisa Madigan, the state's attorney general, has filed a lawsuit against the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago, charging that the property has endangered fish and other aquatic life in the Chicago River in violation of environmental law, the Chicago Tribune reports. The hotel takes in 20 million gallons of water every day, replacing it with water at a higher temperature. “Trump Tower continues to take millions of gallons of water from the Chicago River every day without a permit and without any regard to how it may be impacting the river’s ecosystem,” Madigan said in a statement.

— Sneak peek at the EPA's rewrite of the Clean Power Plan: The Trump administration’s long-anticipated plan for replacing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan will markedly ease the limits on polluters who are driving the increase of greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet, Politico reports based on a draft of the plan it obtained. The new climate rule is expected to be released in the coming days and would allow states to write their own regulations for coal plans or opt out of the rules all together, per the report.

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THERMOMETER

— Florida is in a state of emergency over algae: Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has declared a state of emergency over the toxic algae bloom that has spread across the state's coastline, and has poisoned dolphins, manatees, fish and led to the death of a 26-foot whale shark. The bloom is also threatening the state’s tourist season. Scott “declared a state of emergency in seven counties stretching from Tampa Bay south to the fringe of the Everglades,” The Post’s Alex Horton, Joel Achenbach and Kate Furby report. “Scott promised $1.5 million in emergency funding… Scott’s declaration came one day after thousands of Floridians engaged in a grass-roots collective action on Florida beaches. At 10:15 a.m. Sunday they lined up at the water’s edge and held hands, an image captured by drones.”

...and the climate is making things worse: While the state isn’t new to algal blooms, it’s not usually this bad, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. “There are several ways human activity can exacerbate a bloom, but the main culprit is allowing nitrogen-rich material such as fertilizer to run off into natural water source,” she writes. “Humans are also playing a role by driving up global temperatures via greenhouse gas emissions."

— Man, it’s a hot one: And it’s about to get worse. A new forecast published in journal Nature Communications predicts the next five years will be “anomalously warm,” even more than what the warming globe already had in store, The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. “That could include another record warmest year, even warmer than the current record year of 2016,” Mooney writes. “It could also include an increased risk of heat extremes and a major heat event somewhere in the Earth’s oceans, of the sort that have triggered recent die-offs of coral reefs across the tropics.”

— California is still burning: But parts of Yosemite National Park that had been closed for 20 days because of the nearby wildfire reopened finally on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. A park spokeswoman said air quality had improved but that visitors would likely still see and smell smoke.  

...and the rest of the West is burning too: There are currently 110 large fires burning all throughout Western states, a total burned amount that has already this year passed the 2016 total. “The amount of acreage consumed by fire is growing. Fires are getting bigger, and fire seasons are lasting longer," The Post’s Christopher Ingraham reports, adding “total consumed acreage is increasing not necessarily because there are more fires, but because the typical fire is getting bigger.”

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OIL CHECK

— The road ahead for Tesla: The electric automaker will form a three-person special committee that will consider whether to take the company private, Tesla announced Tuesday. “The company appears to be playing catch-up with Musk’s assertions about the momentum behind a deal, highlighting the speed at which the proposed transaction is unfolding,” The Post’s Hamza Shaban reports. “If and when Musk presents a plan to take Tesla private, the special committee has the authority to negotiate the transaction and ultimately to approve it, the company said.”

Meanwhile: A blog post from Musk on Monday, which revealed he had met with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund about potentially backing the effort to take the company private, “gives regulators more ammunition to fault how he first disclosed it,” the Wall Street Journal reports. The Securities and Exchange Commission had already inquired about Musk’s initial tweet announcing that he had “secured” funding for the plan. “Securities lawyers and former SEC officials said Mr. Musk’s blog post Monday looks like he is trying to show that he had a factual basis for making the announcement on Twitter that he could take the firm private and had the financing to do so,” the Journal added, noting that one law professor and former SEC commissioner predicts the likelihood of SEC enforcement action is “quite high.”

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks holds a legislative hearing.

Coming Up

  • The Senate Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on Energy Department nominations on Thursday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a legislative hearing on Thursday.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration holds a briefing on Alaska’s climate outlook on Friday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— "Lotta money here:" A flash flood in Little Falls, N.J. swept brand new cars out of a dealership parking lot: