August 8, 2019 - From the August, 2019 issue

Former US EPA Admin. Gina McCarthy Opines On The Fight For Clean Water & Air Regulation

In May, at the La Kretz Innovation Campus of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), leading environmental advocates and officials gathered to highlight climate action happening at the local, state, and federal levels. Here, VX News presents the remarks and responses to audience questions of former US EPA Administrator in the Obama administration (2013-2017) and now Director of the Center for Climate Health and Global Environment at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Gina McCarthy, who opines on the relentless—but often unsuccessful—efforts of the Trump administration to undo years of progress on the environment. With infectious enthusiasm and focus on the human health consequences of inaction, McCarthy remains dedicated to combating climate change and fighting for a fossil-fuel-free future. 


Gina McCarthy

“We have to work like hell over the next couple of years and really make the demands concrete about the solutions we want to see—where federal money should go and what policies we need.”—Gina McCarthy

Matt Petersen: Gina McCarthy has been a leading advocate and voice for common sense solutions to improve public health, fight climate change, and protect the environment for more than 30 years. Her leadership continues now at Harvard, where she’s a professor of practice of public health at the Department of Environmental Health at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Director of the Center for Climate Health and Global Environment. She’s leading the strategy for the university and the school to strengthen the connection between climate science, health curriculum, and climate science leaders across the country.

Gina McCarthy: Congratulations to LACI and all of the incredible work you do here. Let me just start by deflecting or at least addressing some of the D.C. drama that is going on, because everywhere I go people tend to think that I’m probably dragging around because I feel so depressed that everything I did is going away. Frankly, nothing could be further from the truth. If Trump wants to deny the truth, facts and climate science, go ahead. The rest of us live in the real world.

Yes, he’s pulling out of Paris, which he can’t do. But even so, it takes a whopping thirty days for the country to get back in as soon as this administration changes. He’s trying to roll back lots of rules, but the best thing about this administration is they don’t know how to be an administration, so they have 6 to 8 percent success rate in the courts with the rules they’ve tried to roll back.

I am a feisty Irish woman and there’s no way this administration, this president, is going to make me think anything other than ‘the United States is going to come back’. We are working on these issues really hard. And this place right here [LACI] is telling you what the future is, and it’s not fossil fuels! I know that we can make progress, and I know that sometimes you just have to wait on the federal government to do the right thing. What is new about that, folks?

We know where all the juice is— the juice is at the local and state levels. Because when the federal government tunes out, the rest of us say, ‘Oh crap, we have to do it ourselves!’ That’s when you see places like this come along. You look to see what are the best and brightest ideas, and you find a way to nurture them. You build it from the grassroots up. What’s wrong with that? That’s how our country was built. That’s how the best ideas happen. I defy any of you to tell me anything that started at the federal level that was a good idea, that didn’t come from the grassroots level.

I am not going to be depressed. I wake up every morning to my husband watching MSNCB, screaming and yelling for at least five minutes about some sweep that just happened. So, I tell him, “I love you dearly, honey, just shut up! Grab a cup of coffee. If I can get over this, you can.” And we just have to move forward, because there’s so much that we hope for; there is so much opportunity.

One of the things I try to talk about all the time is that we must not be depressing, because people don’t follow losers. They only follow people who inspire them—people who remind them about what has made this country great, who remind them that our values remain as strong as they ever were. We just need to step up and make those values known. We have to be part of the solution.

We have to stop talking about polar bears and the arctic, and start talking about our families and our children. Polar bears are not the face of climate change— it’s our kids, it’s my grandson. I have a 9-month-old grandson, and when 2050 comes along he’s going to be 30-something years old. I will not let his future be denied. I will not spend any of my waking moments wallowing in what used to be, but instead work with everyone to chart a path for the future.

We know fossil fuels did great, but it was a choice we made when we were Neanderthals. We have to think differently; we have to power ourselves differently; we have to think about where the future is; and we have to think about why that future should matter to everyone. Climate change is the most significant public health challenge of our time. If you think the impacts of climate change are spread out across everyone, think again. It always is an equity issue; it’s a fairness issue. It’s not fair if we don’t bring diverse constituents to the table and empower every community to raise themselves up by not asking them to bear the burden of fossil fuels.

If you’re worried about plastics in the ocean, would you mind telling somebody that plastics in the ocean don’t biodegrade because they’re made of fossil fuels? Do you mind reminding everybody that the clothes we wear are filled with fossil fuels, that our food system where we grow and use pesticides is filled with fossil fuels, that the synthetic chemicals in your body are fossil fuels? We have to make a different choice for the future because the future’s ours. The future is our families, the future is my grandson. If you don’t step up for him, I’m going to step on you.

Let’s not dwell on what’s going on in Washington; let’s live in the reality of today. Let’s celebrate what we can do; let’s think about the future; let’s find the best and brightest ideas and do everything humanly possible to nurture those ideas. Let’s remember that the investments we are going to make on climate change can be strategically invested to make sure that the most vulnerable among us are given a fair shot at having a voice. You can build a broad, diverse constituency, which actually reflects the constituencies of the United States of America. Let’s fight together, let’s not roll over, mope, and moan. It’s time to pull up our big girl pants, our big boy pants, and our gender-neutral pants.

(Q) You touched on a lot of general themes that are inspiring, can you be specific about one or two initiatives?

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Gina McCarthy: One of the things we are doing at Sea Change is trying to make sure that the health message is understood. Climate scientists are wonderful, but they don’t speak very clearly and the concerns are very real. I don’t want to scare people, but I want them to understand that the challenges we see with clean water and clean air are fundamentally impacted by and related to climate change. We’re trying to identify how far the contaminants go when they’re released around oil wells in Los Angeles and elsewhere to identify where and how far that impact is going to be felt and what potential risks we are living with today.

We’re looking at the toxic gases that are being emitted from natural gas in our homes and how to protect ourselves from that. We’re building a collaboration of communicators working with journalists to try to train them to actually put a face on climate change. Like I said, the only faces we have right now are polar bears and far away things. We need to let people know it’s them, and empower them to do something about it. It’s about focusing on solutions, and there are many ways in which we can start engaging a broader constituency.

I am hoping and praying that the 2020 election goes our way, but even if it does, I want more demands on the Democrats. We have to work like hell over the next couple of years and really make the demands concrete about the solutions we want to see—where federal money should go and what policies we need. Why aren’t we building housing that people can not only afford, but can afford to live in because we’re making it with renewable energy by putting heat pumps instead of connecting with the grid? We’re doing things smarter, and that’s what we can do. It’s about engagement and solutions, and we can make this work for us.

(Q) Thanks so much for your infectious enthusiasm. I do have a rollback question for you. I’m working with a lot of state advocates, governors, and AGS on the clean cars rollback we expect to happen this summer. If we lose that authority, we lose the state’s ability to enforce our clean car mandate and to have the strong fuel economy and fuel emission laws that California set. How do you see that playing out in the courts? Are you seeing a lot of other states calling-to-arms in this moment?

I do. If people paid attention in the midterm election, you saw quite a bit of a sea change on this and many other issues. You see a lot of states looking to do more on clean cars. Many of them are contemplating getting a zero-emission vehicle standard themselves. There are other states that are looking to join. Some of the members of different legislatures don’t like that idea and there’s a lot of fighting going on, but it’s really interesting. I know that I’ve always worked with states that have had the California program, and so all of us have benefitted from that. You’re absolutely right there is a risk there, but California absolutely has a right to stand their ground. It does not have to negotiate weaker standards for fear of what might happen.

We have to stand firm and fight this. I’m pretty sure the longer it goes, the better opportunity we have, so we need to continue. The federal government obviously wasn’t negotiating in good faith. We need to continue with the California program. I know that California has been a driver of clean cars. I know there’s more that we can do. One of the things that frustrates me tremendously is that for some reason people think that the solutions to climate change are going to be hugely costly and horrible. Well, if anybody has driven in an electric vehicle they will know there is absolutely nothing horrible about it. It’s really cool. If you have access to renewable energy, you’re saving money in your pocket. How painful is that? You can go on and on with the solutions to a clean energy future. I think we’re doing the right thing. I see other states picking up the clean energy charge. If you hold firm, I think you’ll see that you have many friends, so keep going.

(Q) How do you see change incorporating people with lower-incomes, people from diverse backgrounds, and people from non-traditional leadership sectors into your organization?

That’s really what we’re trying to do. We held an initiative called the Transportation and Climate Initiative in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, where nine states have gotten together to figure out how they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. My message to them was, where are the environmental justice communities telling you what they need for their own communities to get engaged. That will tell you where to spend your money. If you don’t think about these things in advance— not dictate to them—but reach out and engage people, you’re not going to win. You’re not going to build a constituency.

I don’t think my being at Harvard adds a lot of credibility at the community level. So, what I am trying to do is get resources to community members and strengthen them. To me, there’s a great network that needs to be broader and deeper. It’s about getting resources in the hands of local communities who know what their challenges are and can design solutions to address those challenges.

(Q) One of the last controversies under the previous administrator was the dirty-truck loophole, which was quickly reversed by the new administrator. We really have a struggle with heavy-duty trucks. They account for 1/8th of the fleet in California, but 50 percent of NOx (nitrogen oxide) pollution.  What can we do on that issue?

Trucks and busses are some of the key issues in urban areas and one of the most significant sources of air pollution. I know that California has done some work to look at a low-carbon fuel standard, and to me that’s where the opportunity lives. How aggressive can you make it is the question. If you use diesel, can you use synthetic gas to reduce the greenhouse gas portion and make it healthier? Those are the choices we have available today until we have a federal government that steps up. We need the federal government spending money to innovate when there is a social need for innovation. It should be educating and spreading the word, but in the meantime we have to do what we legally can do. I know that California always does that, so thank you.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.