McCarthy, Obama’s EPA chief, is back with one mission: fighting climate change.
New White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy has never been one to worry about what she can’t control.
In 2017, McCarthy watched as the Trump administration moved to dismantle her signature work as Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, the Clean Power Plan. Even though glaciers were melting faster than scientists anticipated, oceans were warming at an alarming rate, and the United States was getting hammered by deadly hurricanes and wildfires, Trump was doing the opposite of fixing the problem. He pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, slashed environmental regulations, and installed fossil fuel lobbyists in top environmental posts.
All of this was devastating for many climate experts. But McCarthy wasn’t demoralized. “If you can’t do something about this shit, then stop worrying about it! Let’s just do what we can do!” a characteristically blunt McCarthy told HBO host Bill Maher in 2019 in her Boston accent.
Four years after she told an EPA staff shell-shocked by Trump’s win to “keep your asses in your seats” and weather the Trump storm, McCarthy is back in control. Just days before she was announced as Biden’s new climate czar, McCarthy said on a panel that “it’s time to get our Anthony Fauci of the environment,” returning science and facts to the EPA and other agencies. Now McCarthy is not just tasked with providing clear, science-based information about climate change to the public; she’s in charge of pushing the entire government to adapt as well.
In our recent interview, the thing that struck me about her is her optimism — even in the face of a monumental climate crisis.
“We have armies of people who care about climate these days, way more than we had 40 years ago,” she told me. “Who aren’t just relying on us but doing their own work, and it’s going to be a great opportunity for progress moving forward.”
McCarthy’s task is to force a traditionally slow-moving federal government to come together with America’s traditionally hesitant businesses and utilities to meet the ambitious goal of decarbonizing the US electricity sector by 2035 and put the country on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050. And at least to begin with, she must work with “devastated” agencies when it comes to staffing — more than 800 staffers left the EPA alone in the Trump era.
It certainly won’t be easy. There are plenty of factors determining whether McCarthy will be successful that are beyond her power, including whether Congress will pass a bold infrastructure plan prioritizing renewable energy, or whether the courts knock down ambitious climate regulations.
McCarthy is “tough as nails and smart,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) told me. “She gets it at a technical, dirt-under-your-fingernails level. But she also understands the politics. Gina’s creative in a very practical way.”
To learn more about Biden’s top domestic climate official, I recently spoke to more than a dozen lawmakers, former Obama and Bush administration officials, climate experts, and McCarthy’s former colleagues in state government. They showed that the 66-year-old from Canton, Massachusetts, was not your average bureaucrat. Numerous people described McCarthy as having boundless energy, the ability to bring people who don’t agree with her to the table, and a fierce sense of humor.
“There’s no one better to be at the tip of the spear in the fight against climate change,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), a fierce climate advocate, told me. “She is one of the most skilled and tenacious climate warriors of all time.”
Who is Gina McCarthy?
McCarthy, who was born in Brighton, Massachusetts, in 1954, is a lifelong bureaucrat who spent most of her career in local and state governments in New England before moving to federal service. Her first government job in the early 1980s actually wasn’t in environment; it was as the public health officer in Canton, an outer suburb of Boston.
As Canton’s health agent, McCarthy was simultaneously in graduate school and making just $19,000 a year. One of her first big tests came in 1982, when a Canton barn housing old electronics and chemicals caught on fire, spewing a strange smelling blue-green smoke, according to a 2013 E&E article. McCarthy worked in tandem with the local fire department, evacuating the homes in the surrounding area for fear that residents were being exposed to dangerous toxins.
Whether it was her early job combating hazardous waste or her later work in Massachusetts state government on air quality issues, McCarthy has said she’s driven by a common thread: People need to live well. In a 2009 interview with her graduate alma mater Tufts University, McCarthy joked that caring about people made her a “terrible bureaucrat.”
“I don’t separate health issues from environmental issues or environmental issues from energy issues,” McCarthy said in the 2009 interview. “I try to see it from the standpoint of human beings and what they need to have a sustainable world.”
Longtime Massachusetts environmental advocate Doug Foy, who was McCarthy’s boss in the administration of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, says that speaks to her strengths.
“She’s obviously a very talented bureaucrat,” Foy said. “In my experience working with Gina, it is not an esoteric conversation around environmental issues. It’s very much a sense of how best to serve and protect people and the role that environment and environmental quality plays in people’s well-being.”
Those who worked with McCarthy — whether they were fellow government officials or Massachusetts business leaders she was tasked with regulating — praised her for being upfront, collaborative, and transparent, even when she was explaining to industry leaders why the state was implementing new environmental regulations they may not have liked.
“She was not antagonistic; you certainly felt you were going to get a fair shake with her,” said Bob Rio, the senior vice president and counsel in government affairs for Associated Industries of Massachusetts. “She was making policy, so it was a job where she really wanted people’s advice and she wanted to do it right.”
McCarthy has a lot of credibility on climate policy
Starting around 1985, McCarthy began what would be a nearly 20-year tenure in Massachusetts state government. Under multiple Republican governors, McCarthy worked her way up to being the undersecretary of policy in the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.
In the early 2000s, then-Gov. Mitt Romney (now a sitting US senator from Utah) and Foy handpicked McCarthy to help lead a newly-created Office of Commonwealth Development. The purpose of that office was in many ways a precursor to McCarthy’s current job in the White House: She got multiple government agencies to work together on job creation and climate.
McCarthy and her colleagues wanted to try to think smarter about housing and transportation development. Romney and Foy wanted to cut down on sprawl in Massachusetts and spur more sustainable and energy-efficient development in city and town centers. The office approved community development projects, but it also examined environmental impacts. It sought to rethink road design and how to get more people to use public transportation.
“Gina was a significant and major part of it,” Foy said. “What we were doing 20 years ago and what I bet she’s going to be doing now is busting the silos.”
The hallmark achievement of the office was writing a comprehensive climate plan laying out how Massachusetts could reduce its emissions and move toward energy efficiency. It was “one of the earliest and most aggressive states” on climate change impacts, Foy told me.
Even though Romney’s letter introducing the new state plan punted on whether climate change was human-caused, the plan itself was ambitious. It called for the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2010, and outlined a number of ways to make the transportation and housing sectors more sustainable. At the same time, Massachusetts officials were working on gradually closing dirty coal plants responsible for powering much of the state — which ultimately resulted in the state reducing its carbon emissions by an impressive 47 percent.
McCarthy’s colleagues in state government said she was excellent at communicating the Romney administration’s climate work to businesses and other stakeholders, explaining complicated decisions in ways that were easy to understand.
“When we worked on Gov. Romney’s climate plan, she spent many hours with the businesses discussing all aspects of how programs could be implemented and getting their ideas,” said Sonia Hamel, who worked on McCarthy’s team developing the climate plan. “She walked away with their respect.”
McCarthy recently told me that her time in local state government will inform her current work in the Biden administration.
“The very last thing I would ever do as someone who worked at the state level for more than 20 years is forget about them,” she told me. “They are the ones that are going to bring new ideas to the table; we’re going to look at what’s been successful in those states, what’s had actual bipartisan support.”
After a stint as the commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection, McCarthy eventually transitioned to the federal level, becoming Obama’s EPA administrator in 2013. There, she oversaw Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a sweeping federal policy to reduce carbon emissions from power plants that gave each state individual reduction goals to hit. Obama’s plan aimed to get US carbon emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030. In White House meetings with Obama and his Cabinet, a former staffer recalled McCarthy cut an outsize profile — especially when the loudest voices in the room were men.
“This is the official big boys’ table,” recalled Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins, who served in Obama’s Transportation Department and now works at the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC (McCarthy was NRDC president before joining Biden’s White House). “There was a moment where Gina leans into the table, and she’s just going in. She just commanded the room. There’s a level of self-awareness and understanding. When she’s going to do it, it will get done.”
But the Biden administration isn’t going to pick up exactly where Obama left off. Rather than re-implementing the Clean Power Plan, they’re planning to craft an even bolder one.
McCarthy is reinventing the “climate czar” job
Climate change is taking a far more central role in Biden’s White House than it ever has in prior administrations, Democrat or Republican.
The decisions McCarthy and Biden make over the next four years will have fateful consequences. The science is clear about the dire stakes of climate change and the very narrow window we have to get carbon, methane, and other greenhouse gas emissions down, before things go from bad to catastrophic. Although US emissions declined 10 percent in 2020 due to the pandemic, according to the Rhodium Group, we still have a long way to go to hit our current 2025 target under the Paris agreement, of reducing emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels.
McCarthy will work closely with White House climate envoy John Kerry, whose role is international-facing. As she recently put it to reporters in the White House briefing room: “I’m the dude who’s supposed to deliver this in a timely way … and he sets the timing,” nodding to Kerry. Their mission is both harnessing the power of the entire federal government to defeat climate change, but also convincing lawmakers, businesses, and unions that the country’s future is green.
“The job I have is really about making sure that climate and equity and job growth are really considerations across the whole of government,” McCarthy told me. “So it does mean that I’m not just hunkered down in my office talking to the various agencies … I’m also reaching out to folks on the Hill; obviously, they matter. I’m talking to folks in the business community, the regulatory community, investors.”
Former presidents have had climate czars before; Obama likewise named another former EPA administrator, Carol Browner, to the role in 2009. But Biden has doubled the number of czars and put a number of other climate-minded officials in top positions.
Browner herself recently told me that even compared to Obama, the Biden administration is putting its climate agenda “on steroids.”
Past presidents have typically kept their environmental agenda cloistered to a number of agencies including the EPA, the Departments of Energy and Interior, and the Department of Transportation. But Biden and McCarthy also envision a bigger role for departments like Housing and Urban Development, to make public housing safer and more energy-efficient; Agriculture, to promote more sustainable agriculture practices; and Education, to update aging public schools to be green and electrify school buses.
“We’re now going to have a team of climate people at Health and Human Services,” McCarthy told me. “We are working with the Treasury Department, you name it. We’ve got folks getting around the table at the agency level and at the Cabinet level, as new Cabinet members come in.”
Sam Ricketts, co-founder of the climate policy group Evergreen and a senior fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress think tank, argues the White House needs a powerful person in charge of its climate agenda. “This is a multi-agency, multi-sector, multi-trillion agenda, and it needs coordination in the White House. You need someone who can speak for the president; you need someone who is coordinating this agenda for the president,” he told me. That person is McCarthy.
Ricketts, along with fellow Evergreen co-founder Bracken Hendricks and climate expert Rhiana Gunn-Wright (an original co-author of the Green New Deal), penned a long article in Democracy Journal arguing that Biden needed an Office of Climate Mobilization much like Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and World War II mobilizations, which were planned and directed from centralized offices in the FDR White House.
“No entity besides the U.S. government could have organized such economy-wide coordination, nor marshaled the rapid investment required,” the authors argued. In their view, the speed and scale needed to address the climate crisis and direct massive green infrastructure projects can only come from a tightly coordinated White House working closely with agencies.
“Nobody in any administration other than the president or the vice president selects the policy,” Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator under George W. Bush, told me. “If they say those are the priorities, that’s what you do. Even though agencies and departments like to think they’re making all the policy, they’re really not.”
Republicans are already lining up in opposition to the new role
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill are not as pleased with the new coordination in the White House. Because McCarthy and Kerry are White House staff and not Cabinet picks, they don’t need to be confirmed by the US Senate and therefore haven’t had hearings like Biden’s nominee for EPA administrator, Michael Regan, or pick for secretary of the interior, Deb Haaland.
“They have already established themselves as the unconfirmed and unaccountable czars on climate, as they made that very clear on Wednesday’s White House press conference,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works — one of the main committees tasked with passing an infrastructure bill.
There are trade-offs no matter what. Getting 10 Senate Republicans on board with a green infrastructure plan could mean watering down the ambition of the plan. But short of getting 10 Republicans, Democrats must resort to a partisan budget reconciliation bill, which only allows them to include certain provisions.
“I’m told that if every automobile in America were to disappear, global emissions continue to go up,” Romney told me in a recent interview. “So we’ve got to do something that’s more bold than that. I believe the answer is to invest in technologies which will be adopted here and around the world,” like recapturing carbon.
McCarthy also needs to convince the private sector to tackle climate change. Fortunately for her, industry is already trending toward renewables and electric vehicles on their own. Renewable energy is exploding, in part because it’s now cheaper to produce than fossil fuels.
Renewables were responsible for producing 20 percent of US electricity in 2020, roughly the same as coal and nuclear power. But natural gas still accounts for double that amount, producing 41 percent of US electricity. Wind and solar installations shot up in 2020 — adding 33.6 gigawatts to the national grid and more than doubling the amount in 2019. McCarthy and Biden are hoping to accelerate that even further with a green infrastructure bill.
And auto manufacturers are moving toward battery and electric-powered vehicles. GM, a manufacturer that had been resistant to change in the past, recently announced it would move to all electric vehicles by 2035, following Ford and electric manufacturers like Tesla — which are growing in popularity. Biden’s climate plan calls for drastically increasing the number of charging stations on US roads to incentivize more electric cars.
“Climate action is going to make a lot of people a lot of money, and we shouldn’t be afraid of saying that,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), chair of Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. “Climate action shouldn’t be exclusively about what a bummer climate change is; it should be about for us to have the opportunities for have vehicles that work better.”
Transitioning to a green economy could be difficult
Even though many businesses are embracing renewables, electrification, and battery-powered cars, fossil fuel companies are already mounting resistance.
A recent S&P Global article found that European-based oil companies like BP, Total, and Shell are moving far more aggressively into renewables like wind, batteries, and solar compared to American companies including Chevron and ExxonMobil. The American oil companies are moving much more slowly, focusing more on developing biofuels and doing carbon capture. More aggressive government fuel standards and other interventions could shift them to renewables more quickly, but fossil fuel companies likely won’t make the transition without a fight.
Already, trade groups like the American Gas Association are mounting pressure campaigns against states and municipalities that are moving to phase out natural gas furnaces and stoves from buildings. If Biden moves to ramp that up, pushback from fossil fuel trade groups will only grow more intense.
And for the most part, there are still better wages and more unionized jobs in the fossil fuel industry than in renewables. McCarthy has repeatedly pledged that jobs in renewable energy will be union and good-paying, but many unions that endorsed Biden in 2020 want to see unionization rates in the renewable energy sector go up.
Wind and solar jobs have unionization rates between 4 and 6 percent, compared to 10 to 12 percent unionization rates in coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants. And on average, fossil fuel jobs pay more than renewables. Offshore wind projects are a notable exception, with a collective bargaining agreement struck between the Danish renewable energy group Ørsted and North America’s Building Trades Union to construct a number of offshore wind turbines off the East Coast.
“If that European company can come over here and build that thing out and do it under collective bargaining … then what’s the problem with the economics with onshore wind and onshore solar?” NABTU president Sean McGarvey told me recently.
I asked McCarthy how the Biden administration could deliver on its promise.
“We’re going to look for opportunities for great-paying clean energy jobs moving forward and push those along, not just through procurement but through a variety of projects that may be lingering, permits we can issue, ways in which we can make transmission lines and move those forward as we look at broadband access and advancement,” she told me.
Biden and McCarthy also have to balance the demands of climate activists and environmental justice groups. So far, activists notched an early win with the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline — much to the chagrin of unions.
Environmental advocates are looking to see whether Biden delivers on his promise to prioritize environmental justice in his climate plan. Biden’s environmental justice plan commits to putting 40 percent of the benefits of the federal government’s energy investment into communities — often communities of color — bearing the full brunt of fossil fuel and chemical pollution. As Obama’s EPA administrator, McCarthy was criticized for not quickly addressing warning signs about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and some local Flint leaders have cautioned Biden’s administration to not make similar mistakes.
“We already had a New Deal that ostensibly did good things for the whole, but re-entrenched oppression,” Gunn-Wright said. “Part of what the Green New Deal calls out is addressing systemic oppression and trying to redress histories of oppression.”
“That’s a really key part,” she said. “Otherwise, in some vein, it’s just another form of green capitalism.”