with Paulina Firozi


View live politics updates

The State of the Union is President Trump's opportunity to set the agenda in Washington as best he can for the next year. But a handful of congressional Democrats are seeking to highlight an issue he will almost surely fail to mention: climate change.

They will do so by bringing academics and activists who focus on climate change to be their guests for the State of the Union speech Tuesday night. 

The climate-themed invitees run the gamut, from longtime climate activist Bill McKibben, who was invited by Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.), to relative newcomers such as Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, who got a seat from Sen. Edward J. Markey (Mass.). Prakash's group got Washington talking about a “Green New Deal” proposal to address greenhouse gas emissions by protesting late last year in then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's (Calif.) office.

“Instead of tackling the problem head-on, President Trump is burying his head in the sand and handing out favors to his friends in the coal industry,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), who invited as her guest University of Washington professor Lisa Graumlich, a pioneer in using tree rings to understand climate trends. “In fact, it’s unlikely that President Trump will mention climate change or the dire need to protect our environment in his State of the Union at all.”

While Trump will almost certainly agitate about getting money to construct a sea-to-sea border wall, Democrats are letting Trump and Republicans know that climate change will be a priority in Congress. 

And the day after Trump's address, Democrats will hold the first House hearing on climate change in more than six years. Meanwhile, the offices of Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are preparing a “Green New Deal” bill, giving legislative flesh to what had largely just been a slogan in the hopes that Democrats one day control enough of Washington to pass it.

While any legislation House Democrats advance has little chance of being signed by Trump or even passing the GOP-controlled Senate, the renewed emphasis on climate change on Capitol Hill could elevate the issue in the 2020 election.

Among the other invitees is the head of an organization that more than any other environmental group worked to install a Democratic majority in the House. Rep. Paul Tonko of New York, the new chair of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on climate change and other environmental issues, invited League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Gene Karpinski to the speech. His group spent more than $80 million in the 2018 cycle in support of a slate of mostly Democratic candidates for federal, state and local office.

“I love to say, 'Elections have consequences,' " Karpinski said, “and I am thrilled that champions like Tonko are leading the new pro-environment House majority.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine is bringing Joel Clement, one of the first whistleblowers in the Trump administration. Early in Trump's presidency, the career Interior Department executive said he was retaliated against for raising with senior department and White House officials the issue of the impact that climate change will have on Alaska Native communities. Clement ultimately resigned in October 2017. 

“Since the Administration wants to stifle expert voices like Joel’s — something it does at the country’s peril — we stand ready to give them a pulpit,” Pingree said in a statement.

Climate change isn't the only issue Democratic members of Congress will try to highlight in their State of the Union invitations this year. One New Jersey Democrat, Bonnie Watson Coleman, invited an undocumented Guatemalan woman who recently made headlines for working at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., while Sen. Kamala Harris's (Calif.) plus-one is an air traffic controller who was furloughed during the partial government shutdown


— Trump to nominate acting interior secretary to permanent role: The president announced on Twitter he plans to nominate David Bernhardt as the next interior secretary. Bernhardt has led the department as acting secretary since Jan. 2, following the departure of Ryan Zinke, who resigned amid multiple ethical investigations.

Trump tweeted on Monday that the 49-year-old Colorado native has “done a fantastic job.”

Some things to know about Bernhardt, who The Post’s Juliet Eilperin, Josh Dawsey and Darryl Fears write is the “ultimate insider.”

  • He's a former oil lobbyist. Before joining the Interior Department, he was a partner at law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. He “initially had to recuse himself from ‘particular matters’ directly affecting 26 former clients in order to confirm with the Trump administration's ethics pledge." Liberal advocacy groups argue that his lobbying past disqualifies him from leading the agency.
  • He has a list of potential conflicts of interest. Bernhardt carries a card naming 22 ex-clients covered by his ethics recusal, in part to “underscore his commitment to adhering to the law.” He told The Post: “I talk to ethics experts, and I'm very careful, but I am 100 percent in compliance." But he's sure to face questions about potential conflicts during confirmation hearings to lead the department.
  • He has already helped steer the department. In a year and a half, he has “made it easier for federal authorities to approve drilling projects on land and offshore, has proposed narrowing habitat protections for endangered species, and is pushing California to divert more of its water from conservation to agricultural interests,” Eilperin wrote in a November profile of Bernhardt.
  • He is a former Capitol Hill staffer and policy wonk. He's “made it his mission to master legal and policy arcana in order to advance conservative policy goals.” “I don't shy away from reading a massive amount of material before [a] decision,” he told The Post in an interview.

How Bernhardt finally got the nod: Up until a week ago, the president was leaning toward nominating former Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) for the gig. But Bernhardt, at first reluctant to take the role, had the opportunity to spend more time with Trump as the president weighed the vacant post, and he "made it clear he was prepared to leave the administration if the president tapped someone else for the top job." 

— Ex-Koch official now running chemical research at EPA: A former Koch Industries official now working at the EPA has reportedly been placed at the helm of research into how the Trump administration will regulate the class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, Politico reports. David Dunlap, a deputy in EPA’s Office of Research and Developmen,  “began working on the issue almost immediately upon arriving at EPA in October,” per the report. “He had spent the previous eight years as Koch Industries' lead expert on water and chemical regulations, a position that typically includes helping companies to limit regulatory restrictions and liability for cleanups.” The regulation of these toxic chemicals could have financial implications for Dunlap’s former employer.

— What the “Green New Deal” may leave out: The “Green New Deal” legislation Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Markey are expected to unveil soon will reportedly omit an explicit call to end oil, gas and coal development in the United States, Politico reports. While the bill will seek to “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for a fair and just transition for frontline communities and displaced workers,” it doesn’t call for eliminating fossil fuels, per the report, which notes the “change is a compromise that may make the proposal more politically palatable for many of the Democrats' presidential contenders in 2020, as well as for labor groups that compose a powerful portion of the party's base. But it will disappoint many of the progressives who have rallied and staged sit-ins in the Capitol in recent months to demand swift action on climate change.”

— Signs of border wall construction at the National Butterfly Center: "Heavy equipment has arrived at the National Butterfly Center, signaling the start of a border wall that will slice through the protected habitat," the San Antonio Express-News reports. The Hidalgo County, Tex. nature preserve is one of several ecologically vulnerable areas along the U.S.-Mexico border where the erection of more border barriers could split apart the populations of not just butterfly species but also rare cats like ocelots and jaguarundi.


— Ocean color a signal of a changing climate: A new study predicts the world’s oceans will be bluer and greener by the end of the century as a result of a warming planet. That’s in part because of phytoplankton, which is sensitive to ocean water temperatures, The Post’s Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney report. “Climate change will fuel the blooming of some phytoplankton in some areas, while reducing it in other spots, leading to subtle changes in the ocean’s appearance,” they write. “Color is going to be one of the early signals,” said Stephanie Dutkiewicz, study co-author and principal research scientist in MIT’s Center for Global Change Science. “We’re going to be able to see — not by eye but by instrument — that the color of the ocean is changed.”

— Himalayan glaciers could melt by the end of the century: Even if ambitious goals to combat climate change are reached, warming in the Himalayas could cause at least one-third of glaciers in the region to melt by 2100, according to a new report called the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment.

The human impact: As the New York Times notes, the region’s glaciers provide water resources to about a quarter of the world’s population. “Impacts on people in the region, already one of the world’s most fragile and hazard-prone mountain regions, will range from worsened air pollution to an increase in extreme weather events,” said lead report author Philippus Wester.

— Big sea, bigger data: There’s a new generation of data-driven resources that will help both fish and fishermen adapt to changes in the ocean and environment, The Post’s Andrew Van Dam reports. “Google and Facebook analyze data to predict our behavior with unnerving precision. With dynamic ocean management, scientists use similar strategies to protect the areas where turtles, albatross or whales are most likely to congregate in a given day or hour,” he writes. 

— The transformation of the Western skyline: Across Western states, the skyline is rising, and cities are expanding upward instead of outward to accommodate increasing populations. Some are concerned the shift will “change the character of the cities,” The Post’s Scott Wilson reports in this in-depth look, as growing structures threaten mountain and ocean views. “But even skeptics of the push for height are largely convinced that, given the inexorable growth, it is the right course to better protect the environment, increase apartment stock and add to affordable housing funds,” he writes. Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock (D) told Wilson there’s “no doubt that it’s more economically and environmentally efficient to go higher.”

— Weather whiplash: Several regions in the Midwest and Northeast have set record-high temperatures just days after experiencing an Arctic blast and record lows. “The lobe of the polar vortex, which carried punishing cold air into the Midwest and Northeast Wednesday through Friday, swiftly retreated over the weekend, and a surge of unseasonably mild air took its place,” Matthew Cappucci reports for The Post. In Chicago, the temperatures hit the low 50s on Monday, and Cappucci writes, “considering the wind chill in Chicago crashed to minus-50 on Wednesday, the city witnessed a 100-degree swing in the feels-like temperature in five days.” In Buffalo, there was a “record low on Friday of minus-4. Then on Sunday, it set a record high, peaking at a balmy 54 degrees.”



  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a business meeting and a hearing to examine the outlook for energy and minerals markets in the 116th Congress.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is scheduled to hold a meeting to consider the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to be EPA administrator. 
  • The Brookings Institution holds a webinar on the Flint water crisis. 

Coming Up

  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change holds a hearing on “Addressing the Environmental and Economic Effects of Climate Change” on Wednesday.
  • Politico hosts an event on clean energy innovation on Wednesday. 
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the status and outlook of energy innovation on Thursday. 
  • Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler is scheduled to give the keynote address at the Environmental Law 2019 conference, held Thursday and Friday.

— Crocodiles and snakes in “unexpected places”: The record levels of rain and subsequent flooding in Queensland in northeastern Australia have displaced crocodiles and snakes, with officials warning residents to expect them to turn up in “unexpected places,” The Post’s Amy B. Wang reports.

Various parts of northern Australia experienced floods in February of 2019. (The Washington Post)