At the U.S. – China Greener Consumption Forum on March 22nd, Lisa Jackson, the just retired Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), re-affirmed her strong support for laws and regulations that significantly reduce air pollution and reverse climate change.
Speaking as a mom and scientist, as well as a long-time public servant, Jackson reiterated the need to take meaningful actions to reduce air pollution from coal-fired power plants and cars. She emphasized in particular the need to reduce sulfur mercury levels from coal production.
I interviewed Lisa two days before the Forum and asked her about clean air, climate change, her role at EPA, and her plans moving forward. Here’s what she had to say:
MCAF: You had a very successful tenure as the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What accomplishments make you most proud? What do you hope the next Administrator will accomplish?
Lisa Jackson: I’m particularly proud of three achievements. The first was in December 2009 when I signed the scientific finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare. That was a real moment for scientists at EPA whose voices had been drowned out for many years by climate critics. As a scientist, mom and leader of the agency, that finding was just wonderful.
Second, I’m very proud of the clean car standards we submitted. The standards will virtually double gas mileage between now and 2025 and save American taxpayers trillions of dollars. That action also helped make our nation much more secure, and proved that we don’t have to choose between the environment and the economy.
The third is my favorite. I’m very proud of the fact that I was the first African-American to run the EPA. I believe it is truly important to expand the conversation on the environment to include environmental justice. Addressing pockets of polluted air and water is still the unfinished business of the environmental movement as a whole, and that often needs to be done in low-income communities. Bringing new voices – moms, people of color, tribal nations – into the conversation felt good. No one ever said, “I’m willing to sacrifice clean air or water for my kids.” It was gratifying to see so many people realize that we don’t need to choose between the environment and the economy.
Many people are curious about your potential successor, Gina McCarthy, who currently heads EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. Do you have any thoughts on her potential to lead the agency? Do you have any advice for her?
Gina is a strong, brilliant woman with lots of experience. I know she’ll keep moving the agency forward. Remember that EPA, for all the sound and fury in D.C., is still a very trusted voice to the American people and internationally on public health. Gina has a great advantage: Even now, even after misplaced attempts to discredit EPA and not follow the science in making decisions, a great cadre of competent people remains at the agency. My only advice is keep moving forward on the issues she cares about.
What issues and constraints, political or otherwise, made your job as Administrator particularly challenging?
EPA is the only federal agency whose only job is to protect the environment so we can protect human health and the natural environment. Air quality, water quality, climate change, toxics — all those issues are at play. What makes the job hard is the competing voices that are stuck in a narrative that you have to choose between the economy and the environment. It’s important to challenge those notions. They’re old fashioned! Studies prove that $20 – $30 are returned for every $1 spent to clean up the air. We also know that the cost of following rules and regulations is actually much cheaper than EPA’s own estimates. In fact, once there’s certainty in the regulations, the private sector not only can adapt but do it faster and cheaper than was previously estimated. EPA has the ability to cut through the static and bring people back to that fundamental truth.
Any final thoughts?
I hope the environment stops being a partisan issue. We can’t take our environmental watchdog off the beat.
Photo: Jonathan Ernst for TIME