Former EPA chief McCarthy: ‘We are living in incredibly uncertain times’

Gina McCarthy spoke with Yale professor Dan Esty about the power of grassroots efforts to spur environmental progress, among other topics.
Yale's Dan Esty and former EPA chief Gina McCarthy speaking on stage.
Yale's Dan Esty and former EPA chief Gina McCarthy spoke Nov. 4 at the Yale Environmental Sustainability Summit. (Photo by Annie Guo)

Gina McCarthy, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, says people aren’t sure what to say to her these days, considering the state of America’s environmental agenda under President Donald Trump.

In less than a year, the Trump administration has signaled a shift away from many Obama-era efforts McCarthy spent years working on, including the Clean Power Plan. There also have been reports of EPA scientists being blocked from talking at public events about climate change.

But people need not worry for her, McCarthy told an audience Nov. 4 at the Yale Environmental Sustainability Summit (YESS). “This is not personal, folks,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”

The YESS event was a “fireside chat”-style conversation between McCarthy and Dan Esty, the Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale. McCarthy offered an assessment of what she believes Trump administration policies could mean for climate change, science, and government.

We are living in incredibly uncertain times right now,” McCarthy said. “The big challenge for me is, a lot of what’s happening in the sphere of public health and science and the environment is really right now up for grabs.” Even more pressing than the immediate impact of Trump policies, she said, is concern about what those policies may do “to our system of government and … the protections that people rely on.”

McCarthy and Esty agreed that many of Trump’s environmental and energy directives will continue to be challenged in court. Striking down Obama-era rules about greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, for example, will require a legal argument that those rules are not technically feasible or are based on faulty data.

Several times, the YESS talk focused on the influence of state and local governments on environmental policy. Prior to joining the EPA, McCarthy was commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection from 2004 to 2009. Esty served in that post from 2011 to 2014.

We can do a lot, state by state. And we can do a lot in cities,” McCarthy said. She said grassroots efforts to demand environmental regulations have always been the engine of progress. She also said she is heartened by a continued commitment from the business community, remarking that the transportation sector is “incredibly poised” for change with the combination of electric cars and autonomous vehicle technology.

Esty said business support was a key ingredient in the success of the 2014 Paris agreement, compared with the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. “The world has dramatically shifted in 25 years,” Esty said.

An audience member asked McCarthy what she thought of the recent federal report indicating that climate change is, in fact, happening and that humans are most likely the dominant cause. “The substance of that report was shockingly clear,” McCarthy answered. “It really made it clear that climate change is real. It’s happening.”

McCarthy ended the event with a plea for environmentally minded people at Yale to get past politics.

If you can’t do it in Connecticut, you can’t do it anywhere,” she said. “I don’t live in a Democratic country. I don’t live in a Republican country. I live in the United States of America. Start acting like it.”

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