Former EPA head Gina McCarthy: It’s not about polar bears

The Honorable Gina McCarthy is a straight shooter—a policy wonk by her own reckoning. The former head of the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama spoke on 13 November, the third in this year’s Smith Scholar series on the subject of global climate change. She discussed her work under the previous administration and offered her take on where US climate policy stands today.


Under Obama, the EPA tackled the two biggest sources of greenhouse gases: the car industry and fossil fuel power plants as part of its Clean Power Plan. “The strongest message to the world that the US was serious about mitigating climate change was to reduce emissions from our energy sector,” said Ms. McCarthy. Obama appointed Ms. McCarthy as head of the EPA based on her experience in this area.


“Climate change isn’t just a threat to public health—it’s not about polar bears. It’s about you, your health, the health of your children,” said Ms. McCarthy, and she identified the economic threat as well: the stronger and more frequent storms in the Caribbean and the fires in the west call for billions of off-budget dollars that aren’t allocated. “The reason people are accepting the science of climate change is because they are feeling it.”


Climate change also threatens national security. Ms. McCarthy pointed to the need to create the transitional technology to make the next leap for clean energy. “Currently, China is leading that tech with India not far behind. The US is losing out on those opportunities while Washington tries to roll back progress.” She added that owing to our three branches of government, undoing those policies won’t be easy. “The challenge today is to make sure we don’t go backwards.”


Ms. McCarthy’s environmental leadership experience stretches back 35 years, over both Democratic and Republican administrations. As EPA Administrator under President Obama, her work in advancing climate policy was particularly noteworthy. In 2015, she signed the Clean Power Plan, which set the first-ever national standards for reducing carbon emissions from power plants, underscoring the country’s commitment to climate action and spurring international efforts that helped secure the Paris Climate Agreement.


Ms. McCarthy came to the EPA from Connecticut, where she served as Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. Prior to that, she worked for five Massachusetts’ governors in various environmental leadership positions. Ms. McCarthy is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a Senior Leadership Fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A native of Dorchester, Ms. McCarthy earned her Bachelor of Arts in Social Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a Master of Science in Environmental Health Engineering and Planning and Policy from Tufts University.


This year’s Smith Scholar series, for the first time, is focusing on a global issue that is based in science. Climate change, and the ways in which different countries are addressing its challenges, will have far reaching economic, social, and political impacts around the globe. Earlier in the fall we heard from Dr. Michael McElroy who presented the basics of climate science and shared his perspective on the current state of affairs in America and China, and Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz who spoke about “Climate Change in the American Mind.” This winter we look forward to hearing from Dr. Maria Ivanova, professor of international relations and environmental policy at the University of Massachusetts.