On July 30, Gina McCarthy gave her first public speech as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), at Harvard’s Environmental Law Program building.
Described by the New York Times as an “earthy, tough talking New Englander,” McCarthy didn’t disappoint her audience. With ties to many in attendance and clearly invigorated by being back on her Massachusetts home turf, she took the podium after an introduction by her daughter, Maggie — who is involved in the clean energy field.
One of three children, her daughter conveyed that she was excited to share her role model with the country. With tears in her eyes, McCarthy said,
“This is why we do the work that we do. It’s all about the children and the future generations.”
That theme was prevalent throughout her remarks.
With a streak of mischievous wit, McCarthy said,
“Getting confirmed was the honor of a lifetime—and it took two lifetimes!” (136 days) She mentioned the 1,000 questions that had been posed to her, and thanked the President for nominating her—especially since she hadn’t been a “wallflower” at the EPA. McCarthy underscored that in selecting her, Obama had sent “a message to the public about his goals and legacy.”
McCarthy described her work at her previous position at the EPA, acknowledging that certain actions were “fraught with controversy.” She referenced Obama’s speech on climate change saying, “He called upon all of us to take action.” It was the first of many times McCarthy would put out a call to a full range of sectors to get involved—from industry to faith based organizations.
“I believe in grassroots organizing. Expanding the conversation. Thinking collaboratively.”
Stating that the President is set in his goal to drive “greenhouse gases down,” she pronounced, “The climate is changing.” McCarthy asked those in the room to join her as “stewards of the environment,” saying enthusiastically, “We have challenges ahead.”
McCarthy didn’t shy away from the fact that most of the voices against the EPA and its regulations have been partisan. For those lacking the historical back story, she highlighted that President Nixon was the “one to give an executive order to create the EPA.” She drove home that air pollution emissions have dropped in the past forty years, and that the Clean Air Act has helped prevent “premature deaths, asthma, and respiratory diseases in huge numbers…And jobs grew! And that’s the truth!”
Reflecting on what has been a string of differences with those claiming the EPA has operated without transparency—and is anti-jobs—she riffed on the well-known quote from the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
McCarthy stated plainly, “Economic development is not at odds with a clean environment.” Rather, she believes the EPA is about getting environmental improvement tied together with an economic agenda.
If anyone had doubts about McCarthy’s stand on climate change, she dispelled that by commenting,
“We’re not going to stop looking at the science. Climate change is real…For too long we have been focused on a false choice. We have to cut carbon pollution to spark jobs. Too many lifetimes are at stake.”
Using the post-Sandy clean up as an example, McCarthy said, “Climate change is a fundamental economic challenge.” Reframing a response to climate change as a potential opportunity for innovation, McCarthy pressed “industry, as well as other businesses to step up.”
Acknowledging her predecessor, Lisa P. Jackson, McCarthy promised not to drop the ball on Jackson’s commitment to environmental justice and the communities hit hardest by the effects of pollution and ensuing neglect.
McCarthy made it clear that she would not be stymied by end runs from political players. “We will act!” she pronounced.
The question and answer period covered expected topics. On fracking, McCarthy supported regulating emissions and “bringing smart solutions to the gas world.” She responded to a query on air pollution in China by citing sit-downs she and Secretary of State John Kerry had conducted with representatives of China on technology and environmental challenges. She qualified that in dealing with the environment, “We are running a marathon, not a sprint.”
Regarding the proposed budget cuts to the EPA (33 percent), McCarthy answered,
“We have to build collaborations. We have to stand up for our kids’ futures.”
Addressing regional haze and the impact of coal factory closings on Native American lands, McCarthy explained that there was a conversation taking place. “Proposals to tribes for other opportunities have been put forth,” she said.
It was no surprise that a question was posed about the Keystone Pipeline. McCarthy said,
“The administration is carefully looking at this. The EPA must be honest on this. It’s my obligation to hear all the voices and to keep peace in the EPA family.”
For her closing thoughts, McCarthy pronounced succinctly,
“Climate change will not be solved over the next three years, but it will be engaged. That I can tell you.”