Find Your Sustain Ability: Former Head of EPA Gina McCarthy

Gina McCarthy discusses what it was like to be in charge of 15,000 people at the EPA and shares why she remains hopeful about our nation and our world.

Gina McCarthy, former head of EPA, delivers a rousing, humorous and inspiring keynote during Appalachian Energy Summit


  • Lee Ball: Well, thanks so much for being with me here today with Gina McCarthy, the former Head of the Environmental Protection Agency. I'm so excited to have a conversation with you about your work and your history. I've got some prepared questions. I'm just going to go ahead and launch into it. I'm really interested in people's stories and I'd love to hear a little bit about your story that kind of lead you to value sustainability and kind of get on the career path that you chose.

    Gina McCarthy: Well, Lee, let me try to explain. Before I do, just let me thank you for inviting me. It's really exciting to be part of the energy summit. I can't tell you how impressed I am with the sustainability program here. The commitment of this university. This is just about one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. All in all, invite me back again-

    Lee Ball: Okay.

    Gina McCarthy: -because it is quite amazing. I don't know, my story may be a little bit simplistic for folks. I grew up at a time when pollution was everywhere. It was not something that anticipated 30 years in the future. We were just inundated. When I grew up, I lived in the Boston area, where I still live. Boston Harbor was just where all the sewer went. The sewage water went. It was not a place that you could swim. Frankly, as a kid, I did, but that's because my family was pretty limited in means and that was where we went; but you shouldn't have. After a period of time, they'd tell you, you'd better get some shots if you fell in. We had smokestacks spewing black smoke, we had Love Canal happening, we had the Cuyahoga River on fire. It was at a time when people were outside all the time. There were very few attractions inside and so I had a natural connection to the outside world and visual clues that we were messing it up.

    I really started my journey after undergraduate school where I did a degree in social anthropology and loved it. I always tell people that learning about primitive cultures has been most helpful in the work in government. That's always helpful, especially with legislators and Congress. Most importantly, I started to discover my interest in public. I went to school in Public Health and Environmental Protection. I ended up getting a local job in my own home town to be the Health Agent there. At that point in time, we discovered a couple of hazardous waste sights, we had some TCE contamination in a well. All of the things that were playing out at the federal level, started to play out at the local level. I just got engaged, involved and eventually was asked whether I wanted to work at the state and I did.

    I kept getting asked to do different and interesting things. I think I always treated this as a very human story. A very fundamental core need and value that everybody in the United States would share if you just took the time to explain what the risk was. What you see and if you had solutions to offer that people could embrace. Over time, I think, that's been the key to, at least, my success is to never forget to explain what I do and why it's important and to get all voices to the table to participate in what the solutions are that they can embrace and how quickly. That's what government does. That's what this country has always does as we've built the strongest economy in the world on a foundation of the strongest sets of environmental protections in the world. I'm pretty proud of that. At least for being part of it.

    Lee Ball: Did you find that with your work when you connected these issues with people that it really helped how decision makers, maybe give them a chance to understand maybe more deeply instead of trying to make an argument for the environment?

    Gina McCarthy: What I found was that how I came into this was through a public health lens and I see agencies like EPA as being a public health agency. We sort of measure ourselves not in birds and bunnies, which I love. I love birds, I love bunnies, so nobody think otherwise.

    Lee Ball: Yeah.

    Gina McCarthy: It's just not what EPA does. We do public health protections like clean air and clean water.

    Lee Ball: Right.

    Gina McCarthy: We measure ourselves in lives asthma attacks prevented. Contamination that didn't cause health impacts in kids when they drink the water. That's my measures of success. They're very visceral to people. You can make them understand that by explaining what you do. The further you get away, the more difficult the challenge is. What I mean by farther away is less able to clearly articulate the risk to people and why it matters to them and their families. The interesting thing is, as I think we all know as people, we don't like to embrace challenges that we can't fix. We would rather deny them until something's available. It's sort of a natural instinct. I think the challenge for us, when you move to things like climate change, is that it has always been presented as far away, as about polar bears not people, it's presented in probabilities and statistics when the rest of the world actually think that scientists state facts, not probabilities.

    Lee Ball: Right.

    Gina McCarthy: The communication challenge has been big. It's such a long term issue that it goes beyond electoral cycles so you have the trouble of asking a politician to do something that won't benefit anybody until after they're well out of office. Then you have early on our challenge was that we were trying to drive solutions rather than knowing we had solutions on the table. I've been doing this for 30 years. It was a hard slog for so many years, which is what's very exciting about today. You can talk about sustainability not just as a goal, but as actions. This university shows that you can be sustainable and live sustainably and how much it saves you in terms of money. That's when solutions take off. That's when it's no longer about what regulation do we need, but who's the smartest investor that's going to catch that new wave of innovation that's going to make more money down the pike? As a wonderful, American capitalist I think it's great.

    Lee Ball: Yeah.

    Gina McCarthy: It's just the goal line for us. We are so close to being able to really continue to branch forward. It's going to take a lot of effort to move from small communities and campuses to get a broader acknowledgement that the solutions we need are on the table.

    Lee Ball: Right. We find ourselves in this leadership role and through the dissemination of responsible knowledge. Knowledge for good. I think that's a big part of our role at the university. Could you tell me what it was like to run the EPA? I can't imagine.

    Gina McCarthy: A lot of sleepless nights. It's an agency of about 15,000 people. Maybe a little bit more. I was in Washington. Fortunately, I had the experience of four years as the Acting Administrator overseeing the Air and Climate Programs. I kind of got a good feel for the agency because prior to that I only worked at state and local governments. It was a big leap for me to go to Washington and tackle this, but I had that four years of experience. Then the President asked me if I would really work the next four in his second term to try to advance a number of issues. For him, and for me, it was most importantly trying to make progress on climate. He certainly felt, and I agreed with him, that there wasn't enough progress made when there was so much opportunity.

    What the President did really during his first term was to invest a lot of money through the Department of Energy and others in innovation and new technologies that really provided fruit in the second term. It really opened up opportunities for new technologies to shine, which for EPA and for me as the Administrator, it gave me the opportunity to have solutions that I could, through regulation, make sure were available to everybody and do it in a way that would require reasonable progress using already well defined solutions. That's when you can really make progress. I spent a lot of time getting to understand the breadth of the agency. Certainly doing a lot more than climate work.

    Making, I think, good progress in water and a new piece of legislation on toxics, which was very exciting. The first bill we've ever had that was strongly bipartisan in many years that was focused on an environmental issue. I spent time in the regions. We have 10 regions and all of them have unique challenges where they work with their regional states to actually make sure that states are implementing the federal laws as they're supposed to and managing the duties that we support them to do to make sure that everybody is living up to at least federal standards. I spent a lot of time trying to work with the agency also to give it a more personal face outside.

    The federal government is, for the most part, something that people don't relate to. They know it exists and they pay a lot of taxes to make sure it exists, they never quite see what it does. They don't connect new roads with the Department of Transportation, they just see their own little construction going on in their local area and they don't always realize that it's funded and supported by the federal government and programs. They don't see where that money goes for. EPA is so distant from many rural areas in particular, because we do a lot of work in urban areas because that's where the bigger health implications lie. We have very little visibility. I spent a lot of time trying to make sure that the regions were supported in their efforts to work with states and build up a stronger relationship in the communities that have been left behind.

    The communities like what we call environmental justice communities. The ones that really haven't benefited as much from the overall national average of how well we've done to reduce air pollution. They're the ones that need a stronger voice and need the federal government to be there, even if the state government isn't focusing their attention there. It has to be somebody paying attention to make sure the benefits of what we do actually reach everyone. I spent a lot of time trying to get EPA out into the community, working with people who have been left behind. Minorities, low income areas. Trying to form a stronger relationship with rural areas where we don't tend to have the visibility that we have in the urban areas.

    Lee Ball: I spend a lot of time thinking about the disconnect between knowledge and practice. We have a lot of knowledge when it comes to ideas related to solving sustainability problems, whether it's with water or air pollution. You've spent a lot of time with your career being very solution oriented. Expressed that really well. Could you speak a little more about that disconnect? It's something that I spend a lot of time thinking about, trying to ... How do we get around that? We've had knowledge related to these issues since the sixties and seventies and we're still dealing with a lot of those same problems. We have the knowledge, but why and how can we turn them into practice using practical solutions?

    Gina McCarthy: Yeah. I don't know whether there's any trick to this. I really appreciate the fact that you recognize it. I'm sort of an implementation person. I don't want to do the best thing that nobody will actually do. Do you know what I mean? There's too many people who are looking for the ideal who try to translate knowledge directly into how people should behave. You just can't do it that way. That's not how people operate and it's not how the government in the United States operates. Everything that you do to try to make large change happen, even that you know is extraordinarily good for people for their pocketbooks as well as their health and the health of the overall planet, you have to work hard for a lot of years to make that happen. You have to earn people's trust.

    I worked for somebody once in Massachusetts who I grew to have tremendous respect for. He was a state legislator for 17 years and he came to run the agency. He used to ask me two things. I was his Undersecretary. I oversaw policy throughout the state for everything from our normal pollution issues to fish and wildlife. I did it all, right? I was the last stop before big things happened. He used to ask me two questions. First he'd say, "Gina, is this the right thing to do?" By that he meant is this really following what we understand for the science and the law? Is this really going to be defensible. Is this what we think we should be doing as people who care about these issues as well as public servants who have taken an oath to do these things.

    The second thing he used to ask me, and it annoyed me originally, but I grew into understanding why he asked me, "Gina, who's standing with me?" He understood what I didn't then get, which was that in the United States, it's a government of, by and for the people. You cannot be, as good as you want to be and as knowledgeable as you are, a benevolent dictator. It takes bringing people with you, because people have a voice. They are the only ones that are going to carry it in the end of the day. Not the politicians. Individuals who embrace what the challenge is and the solutions that you offer them. We're purposely designed to be a stable government. To move slowly and deliberately. You have to understand that knowledge doesn't immediately translate to change.

    If you're looking at being a good policy person, you're identifying a couple of things. Who the first movers and shakers are? Who's going to join you? How you do outreach beyond that? Who the people are that are going to be against it? If you do like I do, you bring every single one of them to your table. You honestly tell them how you view the facts, what you think the up sides and down sides are and then you shut up and you listen to them. I have always found, it's not just wrong, but it's inaccurate to put white hats and black hats on anybody. I have had some great friends who work in industry in the private sector who have allowed me to have tremendous success in adjusting policies and regulations to be more manageable and more reasonable and get better results than I ever would have if I didn't open up my ears and give them credit for sharing the same core values I have, but just seeing the challenge differently and the solutions differently.

    If you fail to bring every voice to the table, you will miss the flavor and texture of what you're supposed to bring to your job as a public servant, which is not to serve my friends and people who agree that I'm the smartest person in the world, but those who challenge you and those you've never met before. Without which, their support will make whatever you do, as brilliant as it is, fall flat on its face. I've seen that. I've seen things fall flat on their face. Thankfully, not most of the things that I've done, but that usually happens when people fail to listen and fail to understand, at least in government, that you're not working for yourself. You're working for the people. They have the final say.

    Lee Ball: That's why we decided to make the theme of this year's Appalachian Energy Summit "Perspectives, Policy and Practice" because we feel like we need everyone's perspective. We need to listen and learn from each other, because there is a lot of challenges and we don't have a lot of time with some of them. We feel like it's kind of an all hands moment. We just need everyone's help. We don't want to marginalize anybody.

    Gina McCarthy: I see the anxiety. I've seen it at high levels for a long time on issues of climate change, only because those of us who look at the sciences and listen to scientists really recognize that the risks are very large and the consequences are extreme. The time we have to actually address this is increasingly shorter. The more you look at the science and the rate of change that we're seeing, the more you get anxious about it. One of the conversations I continue to have with folks on this is, I don't disagree with their anxiety, but it doesn't allow you to shortcut the process. Even if you wanted to, you just can't, but you have to be better at the early communication. You have to be better at making it relevant to individuals. You've got to be better at driving solutions before you demand action.

    There's a lot of people in this country who feel personally at risk because they're insecure in where their next food is going to come to feed their children. They're insecure in whether or not their job is going to continue or where they're going to get another job at an age ... At my age and older, where you don't want to be thinking about those things. When people are afraid, they look for change, but in many ways they don't want change because they feel like every change makes it worse for them. It makes it more unstable and uncertain. You need to recognize that you're going to have to keep pushing and plugging along, but the best thing you can do is actually what this school is doing, which is to take the solutions you're asking other people to adopt and do it yourself. Show them that it works and it can work.

    As a country we need to make sure that people aren't left behind in the solutions. We can't allow people that claimed solar, renewable energy is just for the elites. We have to find financial and economic vehicles to make it available and accessible to everybody. We can't fail to recognize that the coal sector is waning and what do we do with human beings that are left behind there? I'm not going to cajole them by saying that renewable energy and clean energy isn't the future, because it is. If I said anything different it would be disingenuous, whether I'm sitting here or anywhere else. You've got to figure out as a country, what you do with those communities and those individuals and those families to give them a path forward. Everybody deserves one, but they don't deserve to be cajoled into thinking that someone on high is going to bring that back for them. They deserve honesty and compassion and resources to help them get through difficult transitions. That's how we've done it before and I don't know why we wouldn't want to do that again now.

    Lee Ball: There is a lot of anxiety and there's a lot of good reason to be depressed if you're paying attention these days, but what's giving you hope these days?

    Gina McCarthy: Yeah.

    Lee Ball: What do you find that you kind of latch onto that makes you feel hopeful?

    Gina McCarthy: There's a lot of really good signs. I think one of the reasons why I'm really happy to be at college campuses is that I don't want the young people here to fail to recognize how powerful they are and their voice is and how hopeful I am that solutions for these problems are available to us today and that we can continue to drive forward no matter what the attitude is in Washington. Prior to the Obama administration, there were literally no steps taken at the federal level on climate change. I know that many of the students here only remember the Obama administration and slightly before it, but they can't think that the federal government is the be all and end all of who speaks for the United States of America and who takes action.

    When I was growing up, it was individual communities and individual states. It took many years for us to drive momentum at the federal level for federal laws to be enacted to protect air and water. In the meantime, we didn't sit around. We just did things. We took action. Right now I know that the clean energy train in the United State has left the station. It's not going back. There are remarkable innovations every day. If you look at what's happening not just in clean energy in the utility sector, but look at the transportation sector. It's now the highest greenhouse gas emitting sector in the United States, now that we're continuing to reduce in the utility sector. It looks like it's on the cusp of unbelievable transformation with autonomous electric vehicles. With Volvo just making an announcement that in just a few years they're getting out of the internal combustion engine. Can you imagine that?

    It's just remarkable what I see happening. I don't want your students or anyone out there to think that when the federal government is taking a pass and napping for a while, that the United States has to be sleeping. It is so not. People have to do what they can to reconcile themselves to speak up as much as they can, if they don't like what the federal government is doing. The most important thing is for them to work in their own communities, work in their own families, work in their own states. Take advantage of the tremendous opportunities for consumers to get cheap energy. Think creatively. Do science. Do innovation. It's going to continue the progress moving forward. If this administration does roll back some big protections that we've had in place, people won't tolerate it. It'll come back. It's discouraging and it's uncertain, but it is far less from being hopeless. We're just in the early stages of this right now and I remain tremendously hopeful. Especially when I meet the young people of today who get it way before any of us ever did. That's for sure.

    Lee Ball: Great. I have one final question for you. I was just curious what you're up to these days and more important what's exciting you in your current work?

    Gina McCarthy: Yeah. I'm doing a lot of work with a bunch of constituents just to keep an eye on what's going on in Washington DC, because I do have 15,000 people who I love there and the agency is really at significant risk right now. I just want make sure people understand that risk and the protections that we need, all of us, to work to maintain. I've been at Harvard doing a couple of fellowships. One at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School and the other at the Harvard School of Public Health. I am likely to be continuing that relationship in the fall. They're interested in continuing to explore what I love, which is the intersect between health and climate. I want to make sure we're making the case in the strongest terms possible so that people can relate to the challenge and start embracing those solutions more readily.

    I'm also working as an Advisor to a private equity company that focuses on sustainability. It's called Pegasus Capital Advisors. They're a wonderful group of people who are looking at new technologies and new solutions and what's ready and on the cusp of being more broadly disseminated so that we can get some additional sustainability initiatives moving forward and technologies out there that will improve our lives in so many different ways. I'm excited about the work I'm doing and I'm giving lots of speeches so that everybody knows, if I'm not ticked off about what was going on and it was my work and many others hard work that produced it, they have no right to give up. They have to get over it and move forward.

    Lee Ball: Well, Gina McCarthy, thank you so much for coming to Appalachian State and Boone, North Carolina. We're just so happy to have you here. Yeah, thanks again.

    Gina McCarthy: Lee, thank you for all you do and for all that the students are doing. It's quite a remarkable place and I couldn't be happier.