BY ANNA SHORTRIDGE ’19
“Democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires everybody to participate,” said Gina McCarthy, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, at a lecture titled “The Future of the Planet: Climate Change, Health Equity & Environmental Justice” on Nov. 8. “So get engaged — be part of the democracy, be bold, be excited. And for crying out loud, be hopeful, this is a time for great hope and great action,” she said.
Catherine Corson, Director of the Miller Worley Center for the Environment reflected on McCarthy’s lecture. “Gina offered an inspiring message [of] political change, and she pointed to the critical connections between environmental work and human health and the disproportionate impacts of environmental pollution on communities of color,” she said.
McCarthy served as the Administrator of the EPA from 2013-17 under the Obama Administration. During her term, she finalized the Clean Power Plan, which set the first national standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also served as Assistant Administrator in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation and as Commissioner for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.
McCarthy began the lecture by excitedly talking about the midterm election results. “I can’t be at a women’s college without asking whether any of you watched the election results this week,” she said. “Did any of you notice that there are 117 women that won office? That’s 23 percent of the House, but we’ll get there over hell or high water.”
She then explained that the United States improved through the implementation of environmental policies. She described dangerous smog conditions in nearly all of the major cities in the U.S. in 1946, comparing conditions then to those of Beijing and New Delhi today. This situation led millions of Americans to call for change, which resulted in the creation of Earth Day, the Clean Air Act and the EPA.
McCarthy said that these changes took place mainly because the smog was a physical problem that people could clearly see. She said that today, many environmental issues are not always visible, so people are not concerned by them.
“All kinds of things changed as a result of the visible pollution that you didn’t need to explain to people, you didn’t need to document it, you didn’t even need to do the science around it. Everyone knew it was horrible and that it was time to take care of it. But today we are really challenged because that visibility is gone,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy struck an optimistic tone, arguing that progress on environmental policy can be made regardless of the party in power. She cited her work under five Republican governors and noted that they were able to make excellent progress. “This is not a partisan issue. I am not talking to you about politics, I am simply talking to you about fact,” said McCarthy. “We worked through the issues and understood how to define a path forward.”
Regarding the Trump administration’s rollbacks of environmental regulations, McCarthy urged her audience not to worry. Under President Obama, she said that the EPA followed the law and used science to fully understand the complexity of economic, social and environmental issues. “We designed reasonable, cost-effective rules that have helped to support a remarkable clean energy revolution in the United States. So I am not worried about all of what you’re reading with rollbacks.”
Though she acknowledged that “we’re in uncertain times,” McCarthy repeatedly emphasized that Americans need not worry about threats of rollbacks of EPA regulations. “We are still seeing EPA wanting to roll things back and being highly unsuccessful in doing so.”
She emphasized that science has led to crucial innovations that have contributed to public health and saved millions of lives. “We have science, we have knowledge, we have understanding — we even have the technology and we even have the economic opportunity to make [a sustainable future] happen. What we are lacking is political will,” said McCarthy. “We need to demand change that’s necessary to protect our health today and our future moving forward.”
She noted that despite the attitude of the Trump administration, the U.S. is continuing to make progress with its environmental policy. McCarthy explained that the U.S. is reducing greenhouse gas emissions and that people across the country are standing up for science.
She applauded Mount Holyoke for its sustainability goals and for signing the We Are Still In declaration along with many other towns, cities and universities.
According to the We Are Still In website, the declaration serves as an affirmation to leaders around the world that Americans who signed on would not back down from the Paris Climate Accords, despite the U.S.’s official withdrawal from the agreement. She said that by signing this declaration, Mount Holyoke and the other signers sent a message to the global community that the U.S. is “not just interested in what goes [on] in [the U.S.], but that we understand that our country has always been about providing international leadership, caring about one another, recognizing that pollution knows no boundaries, and [that] our climate is something [for which] each and every country, including the United States of America, must do its part.”
“And I am proud of this university for being all in, I’m proud of the sustainability work you’re doing, and I’m proud of the mayors and the governors who are out there doing the right thing,” she said.
McCarthy emphasized the importance of grassroots organizing for making progress on environmental issues. “[The local level is] where pollution hits first, that’s where people take a risk, that’s where people demand action.” As a grassroots movement spreads, McCarthy said that the innovations called for by individuals are often adopted at the state, regional and federal level.
She concluded by encouraging the audience to participate in the political process. McCarthy noted that it is a privilege to live in the U.S., where citizens have the right to run for office, march in protest and most importantly, vote.
When asked about her career path, McCarthy gave advice to the students in the audience. “Don’t worry that you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up, just try things and try things that are hard that you’re not actually sure you can do — it’s been wicked fun,” she said.
Marge Seguin ’19 said this advice especially resonated with her. “As a graduating senior with a major in environmental studies, I most valued when Gina McCarthy advised about post-college careers.” She added, “She said to pick a job that fits two criteria, something that’s fun and something that challenges you in a way you haven’t been challenged before.”