Former U.S. EPA Administrator; Director of the The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
When U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy sat down with Greg Dalton at The Commonwealth Club, the first point she wanted to stress is that the challenge of climate change presents an enormous economic opportunity.
“We have solutions today that are being invested in today that really will lead to a low carbon future and make the planet a much more stable place, and give us a nice future to hand to our kids,” she began. “Every time we have moved ahead and reduced pollution, the result has been better health, a really healthier environment and economic growth. We have never had to choose between the two.”
The EPA’s job, she contends, is to get people moving into the new clean economy, and to signal to investors where the opportunities are. “We know that we can make leaps and bounds by the technology innovations that we've already been able to put on the table and to make money on. There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn't take action now to take advantage of that and fully expect that the U.S. will do everything the U.S. always does, which is we innovate, we grow new companies, we find the new solution."
And that American ingenuity, she believes, will pave the way for climate solutions around the world. One simple tool – a particulate meter installed on the U.S. Embassy in Beijing – was surprisingly effective in illustrating to the Chinese just how bad their air had become.
“All of a sudden, that data became available to the entire city,” she remembers. “And people started getting very anxious about the fact that we were showing levels of PM [particulate matter], and they were markedly different than the monitors that the Chinese government was reporting on.
That information being made public to China’s citizenry was instrumental in kickstarting a conversation with its leaders on air pollution. McCarthy is hopeful that the EPA’s guidance, in tandem with a joint U.S.-China overall carbon strategy, will lead to cleaner skies for that nation.
“We spent a long time talking to them about, 'You now know you have an air pollution problem, you've got to fix it. Would you mind thinking about that in concert with a carbon strategy?' Because they go hand-in-hand."
Along with the health benefits, McCarthy believes China will see economic growth from revising its policies. “And I think they're realizing that the way in which the U.S. has been able to grow our economy as strong as it is, and have a healthy environment at the same time, is the only stability that they really can rely on. “
China’s movement puts the spurs to other countries, such as India, to do the same. McCarthy says her dance card has been filled with international suitors who want help in crafting a Clean Energy Policy for their countries. And that bodes well for the upcoming international climate summit in Paris, she predicts.
“The U.S. wants to go into Paris having already worked with other countries to try to get them on board and get really strong commitments, so we finally have an international solution to what we know is a planetary problem.”
The fact that Pope Francis has recently taken a public stance on this issue can’t hurt. The pontiff is set to release his first major encyclical this summer, which will address climate change, and is scheduled to speak before Congress in September. McCarthy, who is Catholic, visited the Vatican and met with officials there. “They were very clear that it is a very strongly held belief that he has, that this is the absolute right thing to do and that this is a moral issue. It is about poverty. It is about taking care of the least of these.”
McCarthy believes the Pope’s worldwide influence cannot be underestimated – and not just among Catholics. “There are many people that see this as being an essential moral issue that the faith community needs to engage in… and I think that that gives us new voices at the table to talk to people who maybe have not understood or embraced the issue of climate change, from leaders that they will listen to.
“It's enormously important that this be a very multifaceted discussion among all cultural sectors, all religions.”
Back on the domestic front, the topics of discussion ranged from fisheries to food safety, from Boston snowfall to California drought, from ocean acidity to the drinking water in Toledo. All roads lead back to global warming, says McCarthy, and the EPA has a role to play at nearly every turn.
There were a number of students in attendance, a fact that McCarthy found encouraging. Her visits to the Facebook and Google campuses, as well as to schools in Taiwan, have her putting her faith in the 21st century brain trust.
“I can't tell you the number of schools I've gone where kids know a whole lot more than most of the people that I talk to in - I shouldn't say in Washington – anywhere!,” she marvels. “They’re incredibly active, they're bright, they're willing to face challenges…They really are the future. If we set a course that is right for them, then they will run.”
To that end, she is proud of the EPA’s emphasis on “citizen science,” partnering with tools such as the Google Earth Engine. “We're developing technologies that are allowing people to understand what their local stream quality is, what their local air quality is and getting it out. Because when people have information, it is power.” The catch phrase is as true now as it was in the ‘60s, she adds.
One sixteen-year old audience member asked the EPA chief what single, short message should be sent out about the California drought. McCarthy’s answer could apply to any number of environmental challenges:
“The single message is that it is directly related to a changing climate, and that everybody needs to be part of the solution,” she replied.