“We can be upset about what’s going on in Washington and have disagreements with what’s happening, but we have to maintain a tremendous sense of hope,” Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy said during her lecture, “The Future of EPA and Our Planet,” on Wednesday.
McCarthy, an environmental health and air quality expert, was the spokesperson and driving force of Obama’s climate change and global warming initiative. Among her many accomplishments, she finalized the Clean Water Act and spearheaded the Clean Power Plan and Clean Air Act to fulfill the United States’ goals for coal reduction as outlined by the Paris Agreement.
Speaking to students and community members alike in the packed Sir Arthur Lewis Auditorium, McCarthy began by addressing the elephant in the room: the Trump administration’s current attempts to repeal her work as EPA administrator.
Rather than be a “grumpy Gus,” as she put it, however, she soon pivoted her talk to a call for action that asked students to “turn off Netflix and get busy.”
“Today is not a time to despair; it is a time to get active and activated,” she said, urging students to “not throw in the towel, sit on the couch, and watch seven years of episodes of Game of Thrones.”
On a more serious note, McCarthy explained why the EPA was created in the first place, stressing that it was created “to protect our common good, not to take away individual freedoms.” She focused on the effects that cleaner water, air, and environment have for public health, particularly for children. Concern for their future, she said, should be a nonpartisan common interest.
Citing recent hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts, McCarthy reminded the audience that nobody wants worse natural disasters. Such disasters only diminish “our sense of safety and stability in this country as well as create huge off-budget deficits that all of us will have to deal with,” she said.
“Everybody wants clean air,” she added.
McCarthy stressed the importance of these words, noting that the scientific community faces significant challenges in trying to clearly communicate with constituents and policymakers. Research needs to be translated into policies and laws without “science speak” that obscures the facts, she said.
In particular, McCarthy referenced the Trump administration’s current plans to roll back “virtually every standard that has been put in place over the last eight years.” The administration plans to cut the budget by 35 percent, cut federal funding for state environmental programs by 45 percent, and drastically diminish EPA manpower. McCarthy noted that even the EPA’s climate science webpage has been removed under the new administration.
“Our climate science page isn’t under development, it’s under wraps,” she said, adding that the change is intolerable.
With respect to the Paris Agreement, McCarthy emphasized that the United States led the charge and put its reputation on the line for this environmental agreement. She expressed severe disappointment that Trump has decided to depart from the accord. Such a decision is contrary to the wishes of the business community and U.S. economic and national security interests, McCarthy said.
“For a president that wants to make deals, how does one make a deal with someone that changes their mind like that?” she asked.
Nonetheless, McCarthy expressed certainty that the current administration would not be the end-all for U.S. environmental policy combating climate change.
“Pronouncements don’t change things,” she said. Rather, “it takes a rule to undo a rule and rules are incredibly, wickedly hard to do.”
Explaining that her work during the Obama administration took massive teamwork with scientists and policymakers, she underscored her belief that Trump’s administration has not come close to this necessary legal work, and thus the declaration to repeal the Clean Power Act is just that, a declaration.
During the Q&A session and throughout her lecture, McCarthy stressed how important citizens’ efforts are to stop climate change.
“Continue to work at the grassroots level, give states a shout-out, and let them know that you are paying attention,” she told the audience.“ A clean, healthy environment is not a luxury; it’s a human right, no matter who is in Washington.”
McCarthy emphasized that in addition to grassroots foundations, such work needs hardworking professionals dedicated to public service as well. When asked what her advice would be, she responded, “It’s not a career path if you want to be rich, but it is a career path if you want a rich life. Public service is the most noble profession.”
Audience members were struck by McCarthy’s lecture, noting her encouragement and heart.
Isabelle Kuziel ’21, felt that the lecture “was really inspiring,” making her feel “motivated and encouraged that we can move forward.”
“I thought she was excellent,” said Michael Mathews ’62. “I thought she threw the gauntlet down to the students that there are things they can and should be doing at the city and state level that are important and need to be done.”
The lecture was held at 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 11 in Robertson Hall’s Sir Arthur Lewis Auditorium. It was sponsored by the Wilson School as part of the Dean’s Innovation Science, Technology and Environmental Policy Initiative.