Former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy emphasized the following rallying cry to a room full of hopeful Boston College students on Tuesday evening: “The impossible always is impossible until it gets done. We just need to get it done.”
The lecture, titled “U.S. Environmental Policy: What Has Been Lost, What Can Be Gained,” focused on how the country must go about improving the state of our environment and reinvigorating our core values to ensure we progress in that direction, despite how daunting or impossible the task may seem.
To illustrate where the state of the environment had once been, McCarthy shared an anecdote from her childhood about swimming in a polluted Boston Harbor. She noted that she would come up with balls of oil coating her skin, which she now recognizes as problematic, but as a child, “that was summer vacation to [her].” Although this once was the norm, she asserted that such scenarios are no longer considered acceptable as society has improved.
“Smoke stacks were spewing black smoke out, we were driving our cars down the road with no seat belts, throwing the rubbish right out of the windows,” said McCarthy. “We were an absolute disgrace…but my point is that we’re not like that anymore. We’ve made tremendous leaps forward.”
McCarthy encouraged the crowd to recognize how the United States is “kicking butt” in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Since President Nixon started the EPA in 1970 (which McCarthy joked was the only right thing he did), numerous presidents have worked to improve environmental policies, such as President George H.W. Bush’s advocacy for the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990.
She especially commended President Obama for his deep concern regarding the state of the environment and what the U.S. should be doing to combat further damage. Given that President Obama took office during the 2008 Great Recession, McCarthy noted that she feared she would not be able to accomplish much in terms of environmental policy, as the government would be focused on the economy.
He proved her wrong.
“He totally understood that we’re not living in a bureaucracy; we’re living in the real world,” said McCarthy. “The economy and climate change and the environment matter. You don’t dissect them; you make them go together.”
Although President Obama was a major help in advancing environmental policy, McCarthy shared that the current administration has been a great cause for concern. The rollbacks and policy changes proposed by the Trump administration attack the work that McCarthy and her team accomplished during her time in the EPA.
Her biggest concern comes from the fact that the actions taken by the Trump administration are working to “diminish our understanding and our appreciation for real facts and real science.” These ideals, she professed, are the basis for a majority of the success stories that the U.S. has provided for the rest of the world. The science behind the environmental policies has been fundamental in supporting crucial standards and laws that the U.S. and other countries have embraced.
McCarthy argued that science drives prosperity both within the U.S. and everywhere; it supports innovation, challenges us, pushes discoveries, and informs us to solutions. Protecting science and scientists is imperative to protecting the progress we’ve made, as well as the progress we have yet to make in environmental policy.
“Make no mistake about it—climate change is the greatest threat to public health, to our economic security, to our national security that we face today,” said McCarthy. “Yet, too many people have their heads in the sand. But honestly, I am way too nasty and way too Boston to think that this administration is going to win on these issues.”
McCarthy’s spunk and hopefulness continued on as she reiterated that she has faith in the people of America to demand that our politicians make the changes we want and that we are going reinvigorate our core values into our policies. Speaking to a room full of young people, she made sure to emphasize that their votes will dictate their future. She even joked that she would “track [them] down and find [them]” if they did not work to make the change they want happen.
“We have to recognize that it’s going to be up to us to actually stand up and speak for the United States of America,” said McCarthy. “It is not only the President of the United States that represents this country, but it’s each and every one of us. We just have to stand up and make things happen.”
In order to do so, McCarthy expressed that Americans cannot get caught up in the negativity that the media often spews out; if we believe we are miserable, we will act miserable. We must remain hopeful and continue to act as Americans always have.
Considering pollution and other environmental deficiencies affect the most vulnerable, especially women and children, McCarthy reinforced that we need to stand up and fight for climate actions that can save lives and promote equity amongst those who face the harshest consequences from environmental changes. A more sustainable future should be our primary goal as a society.
Notably, the topic of climate science has become highly politicized in recent years. McCarthy noted that she had underestimated how political climate change was going to be before she took her position as EPA administrator, which proved to be a challenge she faced throughout most of her time. As climate change and environmental policy become more divided within the government, discussions amongst civilians regarding the topic become heated as well.
“It has gotten so difficult that when you sit down at Thanksgiving,” McCarthy joked, “people don’t bring up the issue of climate change because it will turn into a [turkey] brawl."
Although the joke was lighthearted, McCarthy drove home the idea that the politicization of science is threatening environmental strides. Over 70% of people understand that climate change is happening, but it still exists as a partisan issue. Climate change is real, and it is imperative that scientists have a loud voice in its discussion. As they are the ones with the knowledge that can lead us to bettering the environment, scientists have the necessary information that the politicians should take note of when utilizing their power. The politicization of science leads to a minimization of the gravity of climate change.
“What are we arguing about?” asked McCarthy. “We are running away from a future that is better, a future that is healthier, a future that is more sustainable, a future where economic development is not something to be frowned upon or has environmental damage, but one that can actually survive and work in a changing climate.”
McCarthy ended on an enthusiastic note, calling for all to put their faith back in the democracy that Americans know we have, and to recognize that things aren't just “fine.” She highlighted that “democracy is not a spectator sport,” and we all must get involved in order to encourage peers, and the rest of the country, to take a stand for improving our environment.
“We have to embrace this challenge together,” said McCarthy. "Don’t tell me that this is impossible. Don’t tell me that we can’t get out of the situation we’re in today, and we can’t stand up together. My dad always used to say fight the good fight—that’s what we all have to do together.”