Gina McCarthy is the Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Prior to being nominated for the post by President Obama in 2013, she served as Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation and Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.
By BPR Guest Contributor Sam Hill-Cristol
How did you get started at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)?
I did not start out thinking I would be doing environmental programs. I certainly had a great interest in public health. When I was at Tufts, I did work in health engineering issues, learning about what the health impacts were, primarily [those] associated with urban areas, and how public health was impacted by environmental exposure issues. Then I began to get interested in some of the broader policy issues that really cross between public health and the environment. I ended up working at the local level for a while, and it really firmed my understanding of how important it is for us to think about environmental exposures, how important clean water [and] proper wastewater management for storm water are to people’s well-being, and what that means from a direct public health standpoint. And it sort of took off from there. Instead of looking at community health center work — the direct delivery of public health services to under-served communities — I began to look at how those under-served communities were impacted by environmental exposures. It became a career that I worked my way into as opportunities arose and as my interest was piqued.
What’s the connection between public health and environmental issues?
In many ways, the public health community has started to think that the major focus of the science has shifted to genetic issues, instead of environmental exposure. It’s really important to remind ourselves that so many people across the world are dying every year — somewhere in the order of seven million a year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) — as a result of exposure to air pollution. That’s a number that now is beginning to far exceed the burden associated with some of the contagious diseases that folks like the WHO have traditionally looked at. So it’s pretty important work. The more you know, the more you realize how important it is.
Former Rhode Island Senator John Chafee was involved in crafting the landmark Clear Air Act legislation. In your opinion, was the Clean Air Act successful?
First of all, I should recognize how important John Chafee was to the environmental legacy of this country and to the EPA. He was an amazing visionary and helped shape many more of our environmental laws. The Clean Air Act is a very remarkable statute. It has made just tremendous improvements in people’s lives. We have done some studies to look at the impacts of the Clean Air Act over the past 20 years — it has resulted in billions of dollars of benefits and many, many, many lives saved. It’s really a credit to the ingenuity of the people that worked on this, and the way they designed it to be constantly looking at how to improve and move forward. It’s arguably the most significant public health statute ever passed in any country. So [the] EPA is really honored to be able to move it forward and implement it. We have realized that it not only can very effectively govern traditional pollutants, but it’s in fact a really good tool to use to address carbon pollution as well. We are going to be showing that as we move forward in implementing the President’s Climate Action Plan.
Recently, the Supreme Court ruled on the “tailoring rule,” which focuses regulations on carbon majors, the group of entities that is responsible for a little over 60 percent of all carbon emissions. The rule was partly upheld and partly struck down. Can you talk about the decision and its potential policy impacts?
Actually, we were really, really pleased with the ruling. It provided us an opportunity to continue to work with folks in the industry on how we could address permitting challenges more effectively. From our perspective, it was an extremely important decision and one in which we won the issues that we felt were most important. On the issues which were overturned, we certainly understood why, and they really allowed us to continue to apply the Clean Air Act — we think, effectively — and ease our implementation challenges on things that we didn’t think were as important.
Given the immense amount of coordination and cooperation environmental issues require, what would you say to get more young people engaged in public service and shaping policy?
I still believe that the public sector is just a really honorable career, but people can make a lot of different choices. The good thing about environmental work, which I don’t think is always understood and felt, is that the environmental movement was started decades ago, and it has always been a bipartisan issue. Climate change, and the politics around that, are a bit of an anomaly, but we will get through it and do what we need to do to protect ourselves and future generations. But the reason why it’s so exciting for young people is that the issues themselves are constantly evolving. The solutions that you can bring to the table are only limited by the ingenuity and innovation that people can bring to the table. We are doing things now that are really quite remarkable and wouldn’t have been anticipated years ago. Now we have a technology industry in the United States that is [worth] billions of dollars and [provides] solutions all over the world to help countries that are still in their infancy grow their economy in ways that keep their kids healthy. It’s incredibly fulfilling to do this work — to know that with some energy and ingenuity, you can find paths forward. It’s work where I think individuals can make a difference, and it’s work where I think individuals, even in an agency as large as the EPA, can find opportunities to feel good about what they do and to recognize that they are really providing benefits to their own families, as well as American families all across the United States.