January 14, 2021

Meet Your New Climate Czar

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

Gina McCarthy will serve as the first-ever National Climate Advisor, heading up the newly formed White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. So, who is she? We spent time with her before the nomination and talked about her relentless fight to link environmental policy with public health. From her early days inspecting septic systems, to her time leading the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration. Get to know Gina McCarthy.

Calls to Action

  • Read up on Joe Biden’s clean energy and environmental justice plans to prepare to push this team to make those promises real
  • If you want to learn the story of how a bunch of outsiders pushed Joe Biden to adopt the most ambitious climate platform in U.S. history, listen to our episode How 2020 Became a Climate Election
  • Learn more about the executive climate actions the Biden-Harris administration is committed to pursuing right off the bat, and what experts suggest they prioritize
  • Check out Gina’s essay, “Public Service for Public Health,” and Maggie’s essay, “The Politics of Policy,” in the climate anthology that Ayana co-edited, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, at allwecansave.earth


If you take an action we recommend in one of our episodes, do us a favor and tell us about it! We’d love to hear how it went and what it felt like. Record a short voice memo on your phone and send it to us at howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com. We might use it in an upcoming episode.


How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. You can follow us @how2saveaplanet on Twitter and Instagram, and email us at howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com.

How to Save a Planet is hosted by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg. Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd, and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard with original music by Emma Munger. Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib.  

Where to Listen

Transcript

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Welcome.


Alex Blumberg: Welcome to you as well.


Ayana: [laughs] I was trying to welcome the listening audience, but always nice to see you. So this is still How to Save a Planet.


Alex: Yup. I'm Alex Blumberg.


Ayana: I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. And this is the podcast where we talk about what we need to do to address the climate crisis, and how we're gonna make those things happen.


Alex: So remember that maskless time when we could actually go into a studio and record interviews?


Ayana: Oh yeah, it was great. There are great snacks at Gimlet. [laughs]


Alex: Yes. And around that time, early early on ...


Ayana: Before we even had a name for the show.


Alex: You and I both went into a podcast studio and did an interview with this person.


Gina McCarthy: My name is Gina McCarthy, and I am the director of the Harvard Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment.


Ayana: We did this interview with Gina about a year ago. She's one of my favorite people working on the environment. She's super smart, obviously love her Boston accent. And at the time, we were talking to her because she was just getting ready to take a new job as head of NRDC—the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is this really big environmental group.


Alex: A job though, it turns out, she didn't keep for very long, because just very recently, a new job opportunity came her way.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: To serve as the first ever National Climate Adviser, to lead the newly formed White House Office of Domestic Policy, I am appointing Gina McCarthy.]


Ayana: That is president-elect Joe Biden, making Gina's new job offer official. She'll be serving in a newly-created role in the White house as National Climate Adviser, where she'll be leading a team to coordinate climate work across the branches of the federal government, the federal agencies, with the goal of putting the US on track to reach carbon neutral before 2050.


Alex: In other words, she's America's brand new climate czar. Do we still call people czars?


Ayana: It's a weird title, and I'm always like, is it with a 'CZ,' or a 'TS?' And is 'Tsarina' still a thing?


Alex: [laughs] I mean, I remember when we had the first czar, that's how old I am. Anyway, she's the person who's going to be leading the charge into the carbonless future.


Ayana: So when we sat down to talk to Gina about a year ago, we were just starting to figure out what this podcast was gonna be. And so we had this just getting to know you conversation.


Alex: But now that Gina is gonna be in this huge job coordinating federal domestic climate policy out of the White House, we thought you all might want to get to know her as well.


Ayana: Right. So on today's episode, getting to know the person who will be leading the White House's response to the climate crisis. That's coming up after the break.


***


Alex: So back last year in the before times, when we sat down for our get to know you conversation with Gina McCarthy, we started off by asking about her career.


Ayana: It's pretty impressive.


Alex: Yeah.


Ayana: Before this new White House appointment, she was the head of NRDC. Prior to that, she was director of the Harvard Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment. And before that, she held the job she's probably best known for: She ran the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, under President Obama. But she told us that she got her start in local government. Very local.


Gina McCarthy: My first job in government was as the first full-time board of health agent in the town of Canton, Massachusetts.


Ayana: What did that entail?


Gina McCarthy: Everything I didn't know, but figured out. Well, you know, it was in the, really, the mid-'80s, early- to mid-'80s, and it was, you know—I had thought I was going into community health. I did a lot of work with community health centers out of graduate school. And I realized that people were walking into the health centers who simply had lots of environmental challenges.


Ayana: Hmm.


Gina McCarthy: Like dirty air they were breathing, lead paint their kids were eating. You know, not enough nutrition. They were poor that didn't have good housing. And I realized then that, you know, what happens in the world is highly dependent on the environment they live in, and what kind of resources they have available to them.


Gina McCarthy: So when I went to work in the town of Canton, I really—I ended up being in charge of deciding whether the water quality was good enough to drink. I became the hazardous waste coordinator for the state. I went around and looked at industries and how they were handling their waste, and I was doing food inspections.


Ayana: Oh geez!


Gina McCarthy: I was doing housing inspections. I was doing septic system inspections. You know, I'd get called when somebody's dog died and they thought it was a pesticide exposure because somebody sprayed for mosquitoes next door.


Alex: Wow!


Gina McCarthy: And as you can imagine, it became very clear to me why we were having such pollution problems, because of the deficiency in understanding the connections between environmental exposures and health. But also the lack of really good standards and regulations and enforcement and compliance.


Alex: Mm-hmm. Can you give an example of, like, one of the most pronounced areas where the environment was directly impacting human health?


Gina McCarthy: I went to inspect industries, to see what kind of chemicals they had, whether they were labeling them right, because I was just really interested in knowing what the challenges were in this town of 20,000. And we had some big facilities. And one of them I went to was basically, it was a corrugated box company, and I went into the company to see just what it did, you know, what it has and what's going on there. And I was given a tour and I realized that they had this printing shop where they printed labels or, you know, basically logos and other things on these boxes. And I realized that, looking at the vats that they put them in, there were all kinds of chemicals that were in there, including the print, which was a lead-based ink. And all I saw was a pipe going outside the building.


Ayana: Uh oh.


Gina McCarthy: So I said to them, you know, "Where is that going?" And they said, "Well, what do you mean?" I said, "Well, what are you doing with your lead-based ink?" And they said, "Oh yeah, there's a tank over there." I said, "Fine. Dig it up. Lemme see it." Because it was pretty clear to me that I caught them off guard, and I was supposed to go and revisit them on a Monday to see what was out there. Only I went back and they had already dug it up. I could see the gravel already behind there. And I got this phone call from the neighborhood saying that some kids were out playing in the woods and there's this big stinky pile of dirty soil.


Ayana: Hmm.


Gina McCarthy: That they came in after having played in it.


Ayana: Yikes.


Gina McCarthy: And they can't get the dirt off their hands, blah, blah, blah, blah. So, of course, I put two and two together and I realize they had been discharging right out next to a neighborhood, they put the pile of stuff right in the kid's backyards, and those kids are exposed to a tremendous amount of lead in the soil, right?


Alex: Oh!


Gina McCarthy: And so I called in the strike force at the Department of Environmental Protection and at EPA and they immediately went to the courts, and they tried to get an injunction and some criminal indictments for this. And the judge who was listening to it stopped the whole thing, and he basically looked at his pencil and he said, "There's lead in my pencil and this isn't doing anything to me." And he dismissed it all.


Ayana: No!


Gina McCarthy: No, this was the '80s, right? This was the challenge that we had to face.


Ayana: Huh.


Gina McCarthy: And I was so shocked by that, because you go out of graduate school and you think everybody cares about these things, and all you have to do is work the system and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But it didn't really matter.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Gina McCarthy: You know, it just didn't matter. And on the other side of the coin, when I was in Canton, we had this—you know, I was 26, I think, at the time, they uncovered a whole pile of drums that had oil in it, PCB-contaminated oil, in the middle of woods where there used to be a manufacturer 20 years ago and they just dumped it all, right?


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Gina McCarthy: And the challenge that I faced was nobody called me, they called the I-Team. And all of a sudden we were surrounded by news reporters coming in saying ...


Alex: Oh, like the local news teams?


Gina McCarthy: You know—yes.


Alex: I-Team on the spot, whatever.


Gina McCarthy: Exactly. And what happened was that there was some concerned residents in the area that had already raised concerns about the amount of cancer in their neighborhood, so that when the I-Team was there, they made that direct connection and said these people must be impacted. And the community themselves got worried about it. So all of a sudden, I was in the middle of a cancer cluster. And so I just—what I did is, instead of just relying on the state who I called in, I did my own analysis. I pulled up all the death certificates, I looked at where they were, what the ages were, what the sex of the population was. And we did a big community meeting and said, look, most of these cancers are not associated with exposures. That this is soil over there. I don't know what the route of exposure could be for these people, but we'll keep track of it. But everything we saw didn't indicate a direct connection.


Gina McCarthy: And the community relaxed a little bit, some of them. But, you know, what happened in that community was a lot of the people just wanted to stop talking about it, and the other half wanted to keep probing it because they didn't believe a single thing that I said.


Ayana: Mm.


Alex: Right.


Gina McCarthy: And so it sort of was a tremendous learning experience about the challenges you're facing in explaining the science, and the challenges you're facing in terms of the emotional issues that are involved with health, and people's perception of that and their experience.


Ayana: Yeah.


Alex: Right.


Gina McCarthy: For me, it was probably one of the best experiences I ever had, because I knew enough never to dismiss people's fears just because I didn't think science proved it. You have to keep doing the analysis, you have to do the clean-up, you can't dismiss any concerns. And it made me realize that health is what matters to people more than anything else in the world.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: Yeah. The experience that you're describing so far, really has a lot to do with human health. And it seems like the way that you approach environmental issues is through this health perspective, which is quite different than the way a lot of people think about it as just sort of an environmental quality issue without connecting that back to human health or public health. Has that been a through line throughout all of your work? Is that really at the core of what drives you?


Gina McCarthy: Yes, it is. Because, you know, in every agency that I've ever worked in, it was—the standard that you looked at was whether or not it was sufficient for human beings to live in a healthy way. And I think it was a challenging way of looking at it and talking about it, even for people that worked at EPA. You know, they envisioned themselves as being somehow protecting natural resources. But I talked to them and I said, "Well, when we do cost-benefit analysis, what do you count?" You know, we benefit human beings. We stop people from being sick, or we stop people from getting sicker, and we do that by protecting the natural resources we need to be healthy.


Gina McCarthy: And so there is no question in my mind that EPA is one of the most significant public health agencies that exists. And we have been able to protect public health in a way that other agencies simply have not been able to do. And it's because we've had a mission that is focused on human health, but recognizing the direct relationship between respect for natural resources and what that means for our ability to have a healthy world for people. I think of climate change as being no different than any other pollution problem.


Ayana: Yeah.


Gina McCarthy: It is not a planetary issue. It is a human issue, because the planet will adjust to whatever abuse it takes and continue to revolve around and revolve around the sun, and it just won't care whether people are able to survive or not. And I always joke and tell people that I think the planet would be happy without us because we're an incredibly disruptive species.


Ayana: It would probably be better off without us at this point. [laughs]


Gina McCarthy: You know? And so I really desperately want people to begin to think about climate, which to me is the greatest public health challenge of our time as being a human problem.


Alex: Yeah.


Gina McCarthy: A human problem that demands human beings to address it as we have with other pollution.


Ayana: At what point did you really start to think about climate being a primary concern?


Gina McCarthy: It was probably about 20 years ago, maybe?


Ayana: Gina McCarthy, OG.


Gina McCarthy: Maybe a little bit earlier. You know, the science started to get pretty clear then.


Ayana: Yeah.


Gina McCarthy: You know, I helped to pull together the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which was the first cap and trade program in the US.


Ayana: Yeah.


Gina McCarthy: We did it with the New England and mid-Atlantic states. Because we had an opportunity then to show that you could do this in a way that satisfied the economic concerns, and the health and planetary issues.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Gina McCarthy: You know, as soon as we began to actually have solutions available, I got frustrated about the lack of government leadership, to make sure that those solutions were available to everybody. And I think the fossil fuel companies have spent a great deal of time and money making sure that they take the fun out of it, The way they tell us that it's gonna be too expensive to fix, you know?


Alex: Yeah.


Gina McCarthy: And it couldn't be more untrue. I want to show that the move to a zero carbon future is not just possible, but it's better. And it builds an economic future that is much more stable and much more lucrative than relying on fossil fuels continuously when we know the harm it has caused. And I am not going to just demand clean energy, I'm gonna demand that fossil fuels pony up and recognize that they are not the future for us anymore.


Gina McCarthy: They are the basis for every organic chemical out there that is causing us trouble. They are the reason why people are worried about plastics in the ocean, and worried about the coral reefs deteriorating. They are the very reason why we don't have water to drink in some places. And where some places the water is there, but you shouldn't be drinking it. We have learned so much since the Industrial Revolution. That was a great horse for us to ride, until we figured out that it wouldn't get us beyond where we are today. And so we have to change ponies, folks. We've done it before, we can do it again.


Ayana: This is a great metaphor. I look forward to seeing how it plays out, after the break. [laughs]


***


Ayana: Welcome back from the break. We're still hanging out with Gina McCarthy, learning about what makes her tick.


Alex: And how we move the world off of fossil fuels.


Ayana: I'd love to hear a little bit about sort of how you think about the role of business, as both a problem and a solution. I mean, I'm thinking right now back to my environmental law class at Harvard in, like, 2001, and learning about the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and where liability exists for cleaning up pollution in the future when it's found to be problematic. So if there's something you want to add about that piece of it, because you're describing scenarios that deal with communities, public health, pollution, the role of government, but obviously, like, a lot of the problems are caused by businesses in these scenarios as well.


Gina McCarthy: Yeah, yeah. You know, I don't tend to put black hats and white hats on people. Or even corporations. I tend to look at what they do before I do that. And, you know, to me, I was a regulator because I understood that there was a role for regulation, and that role was that businesses that produce pollution, businesses that can impact other people's right to public health, right to be healthy, right to breathe clean air, right to have clean water to drink, those are inherent rights to me that this country has embraced. And when an individual is robbed of that right, and they have no individual course of action, the government has to regulate. That's what we do.


Ayana: Yeah.


Gina McCarthy: That's why businesses are regulated and held liable, when they actually have an impact on human beings' health when those human beings have no ability on their own to protect themselves. That has to be regulated. We have no right to regulate just because we like it, or because we think it's better. We have a right and a responsibility to regulate when individuals cannot protect themselves.


Gina McCarthy: And so businesses for a long time before regulation had an ability to rob their employees of their health from occupational exposure, had a right to, you know, emit emissions into our air and water, that robbed people of an ability to have clean air and clean water and clean land. And we have been looking at making sure that we give the public the rights they need to the extent that science allows us to determine that. Well, it's the same with fossil fuel companies.


Ayana: Yeah.


Gina McCarthy: You know, there is some responsibility on the part of businesses to ensure that they're producing products that, where we understand the full implications, they have not felt that responsibility.


Alex: You've been in this policy universe for a while. You've worked with many different administrations. And policy's sort of like a dry subject, but I think it's incredibly important.


Ayana: Not dry to me!


Gina McCarthy: Yes. Yeah, you're talking to a couple of policy wonks here.


Alex: And just talk about like ...


Ayana: What are the levers that you feel, like, really need to be pulled right now in terms of policy? And I guess I would say in the US, specifically?


Gina McCarthy: You know, I think we have a wealth of opportunities now. And the challenge really is to look at how we are spending public dollars and our own attention to drive those solutions to be taken up. You know, just example after example, you know, the energy system is changing now because we did exert policies. We did fund renewable energy investments. We did take action at the local and state level to demand a certain amount of renewables in our energy mix.


Gina McCarthy: All those things changed the way that industry responded by producing and investing more in renewable energy. It brought innovations to the table. That's how it's supposed to work. We did regulate to make sure that dirty energy was stopping its impact on our health, which added an emphasis on the movement to clean energy. Now we have to take that same approach to transportation. But it's not easy, it's not a widget fix. It's great to have, you know, electric vehicles, but we need to work people to make them understand that electric vehicles are better cars.


Ayana: Alex, do you have any thoughts about electric vehicles being better cars? [laughs]


Alex: [laughs] As a proud owner of an electric vehicle, I can tell you ...


Gina McCarthy: It's ridiculous!


Alex: They're better. They're just better.


Gina McCarthy: Exactly.


Alex: This is the conversation I have all the time. You never have to go to a gas station. You bring it home, you put it in your garage and you just plug it into the wall and then it goes the next day.


Gina McCarthy: Exactly. And I talk about, you know, the fact that you want to have solar on your home so you generate electricity that you force utilities to buy. That's a nice thing to do.


Ayana: Yeah.


Gina McCarthy: You know, we have been made to think that this is a big problem. And it is, but it's the biggest opportunity we have for a better life.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Gina McCarthy: A better way of spending our money.


Ayana: Yeah.


Gina McCarthy: And instead, we're thinking that we have no solutions here. That's wrong. We do have solutions, and each and every one of those solutions make our world a better place.


Ayana: So how do we implement those faster? What are the policies or other things that can help us scale those solutions?


Gina McCarthy: At the federal level it's what we spend money on, what we can regulate where regulation is necessary. It's working with mayors who have made commitments—which there are hundreds of them—to meet the Paris agreement and to start building the constituencies for them that are going to demand them to do it. You know, it's making people realize that everything that the fossil fuel companies is telling us is incorrect.


Alex: What is the most boring but necessary step we need to take to get to where we need to be?


Ayana: I love this question.


Gina McCarthy: [laughs] Maybe it's boring but maybe it's also the most stressful, is that I really worry about the continued pressure for change immediately.


Ayana: Huh.


Gina McCarthy: I think it tends to make some of the better ideas come off the table. Because, you know, I also don't think that change happens in an evenly level sequence. Like, oh, we'll do five percent this year, five percent next year. I think we've got to be bold and let solutions come our way when you engage people that are smart, that are creative. You know, I feel like saying, "Just shut up. Let's get moving." You know, let's agree that we're gonna be as aggressive as we can and demand the number we need in 2030, because I've never known anything that you needed to do big that happened in tiny little steps.


Ayana: That's actually a part of the ethos of how the EPA works, right? That we set these very ambitious goals, whether that's for air quality or other measures, that we're not exactly sure how we're gonna reach. The technology is not fully in place yet, but we know that that's what's necessary to protect public health. And so we just set the bar where it needs to be, and then figure out how to jump that high, right?


Gina McCarthy: That's exactly right. So we tend to do it in a couple of different ways, which is by keeping our eye out for innovation. So you never want to go further than you can without disrupting life, right? So you don't want to start saying, "Okay, half the population has to turn their lights off every Tuesday and Thursday."


Alex: Right.


Gina McCarthy: "The other half on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And then for the weekend, we'll all enjoy it." It just doesn't work like that.


Alex: Right. [laughs]


Gina McCarthy: People won't accept it and you don't do it, right?


Alex: Yeah.


Gina McCarthy: So instead you say to yourself, what can everybody do? We're gonna demand that today. And keep the lights on. And then we're gonna look for those innovations that continue to push us forward faster and faster. And we're gonna change that and we're gonna make that the standard next. Do you know what I mean?


Alex: Right.


Gina McCarthy: You keep driving what can work, and then you keep rewarding that success and investing in another.


Ayana: How do you see the role of government and other entities in pushing the innovation that we need? If that's a big part of the solution, how do we incentivize that, or accelerate the innovation that will help us get there?


Gina McCarthy: You know, Ayana, that's a really big question. And the way that I've always envisioned it is you have a push and a pull that you have. You have an opportunity to push. Now the push means you regulate, so that if there's an innovation that happened that can protect more people and your goal is to protect people and their health, then you have to require that that innovation get into the system in higher and higher levels, as much as the economy can tolerate, you know? As much as people can tolerate without concerns that job losses are gonna be too large and all that stuff. You gotta do that. So that is regulation. That is a push. Now the pull is just as interesting. The pull means you reward innovation. You do it in a couple of different ways. You invest in it. And so the big connection that people haven't made during the Obama administration was the fact that we did both push and pull. President Obama invested very heavily in renewable energy when we had the economic downturn.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Gina McCarthy: He did that because it grew jobs, but he did it because it gave us more ability to be firmer on regulation because we had answers that we could demand to get into the system, because we had renewable energy that was much better developed and cheaper, so that we could drive that into the system through regulation. That's the clever thing you do, is you marry both. So those are the two things that government does. It pushes and it pulls. And a smart system does both, recognizing that there's an ability to take advantage of both which moves the needle for both.


Gina McCarthy: And I think since the Reagan administration, there's been a concerted effort to say that government is dysfunctional, it can't work. And as a result, a lot of government right now is dysfunctional and isn't working. So there's just so many ways in which we can have the kind of future we all want, as long as we're willing to make government work for us. And so I feel bad, Alex, that you're asking me what's boring to talk about. I probably love the most boring things like that.


Alex: Well I mean, me too. Yeah.


Ayana: So you mention a lot about, you know, we have the solutions we need. What are you seeing out there that you think is so great? If you could give a shout out to an individual or an organization doing really important climate work, whose work do you think deserves a spotlight right now?


Gina McCarthy: You know, honestly, all of the work that's being done at the city and state level is remarkable. I know that everybody points to California, but there's a good reason for that.


Ayana: Shout out to California.


Gina McCarthy: They are really being very cutting edge, not just in terms of looking at, you know, their cap and trade program, but their clean cars work has been remarkable. They are now doing work in each and every community, that's looking at community level impacts and addressing, you know, environmental justice issues and integrating that into how they think and how they act. So there's a wholeness about their approach that to me is very satisfying.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Gina McCarthy: I'm amazed at so many states that used to deny climate change, and now they're on the cutting edge of requiring renewable energy to be a very big part of the portfolio, of recognizing they can no longer sustain coal. If you look at cities, you know, you've got the mayor of Pittsburgh out there on the stump talking about how they're going to transform what was one of the sort of—if I could phrase it nicely—hellholes during the '70s in terms of the pollution they had.


Ayana: So nicely.


Gina McCarthy: And they're changing that around to be a leader and look at how to grow jobs, and work with their surrounding communities and states.


Ayana: We're at this moment in the US, finally, where a lot of people are worried, you know? People understand how big a problem climate change is, how big a threat it is. They want to see solutions happen faster. But a lot of people aren't really sure what to do. So for people who, you know, have a job and other responsibilities and not a lot of time, how can that person help?


Gina McCarthy: Get out in your community. You know, there's many things that you can do inside your home, but honestly, what I am looking for is to return to a sense of community the way it used to be. And I'm sorry to sound so nostalgic, but I've been around for a while. And I want people to get outside, I want them to work together. I don't want them to work by themselves. And I want them to understand that it's not just about new light bulbs and better efficient appliances, but it's about getting together to tell the next mayor that you're gonna support them with everything you can to help them be successful in transforming their transportation system in your city, and making places where their kids go to play safer and healthier. But, you know, be part of the community spirit that made the United States where we are today, not demanding that they step aside, but demanding that they step up, you know, be for something.


Gina McCarthy: You know, when I was in Connecticut, we used to give out climate awards. And I will never forget one award where we gave out about six awards, but two of the recipients, one was 10 years old and the other one was well into his 80s. The young kid, as a school project, went around and signed people up for clean energy programs in the state. And if you signed up a hundred households, you got a solar panel for your school. And this kid did that. All a hundred families signed up, and he got a solar panel so that you could visibly show the next generation that renewable energy was here and they could touch it. And he was a fabulous kid.


Gina McCarthy: And then I met this older guy who was—I think he was, like, 82, 84. He lived in a nursing home. What he did in that nursing home was to make that nursing home energy efficient. And he went out and he talked to other seniors. Both of them were worth celebrating.


Ayana: Absolutely.


Gina McCarthy: And what we need to get is the middle. [laughs] You know, they didn't sit around and say, "I'm just cashing it in now. I don't have to do anything more to prove myself."


Ayana: I'm too young. I'm too old. It's too hard. It's too big. Yeah.


Gina McCarthy: Exactly. And the young kid didn't say, "Well, this is too big for me to do anything. Maybe I'll, you know, just go out and get candy on Halloween when I knock on doors." We need to get his innocence and that older man's dedication and persistence, and we need to infect everybody in between to have that same attitude. Because I know that human ingenuity, and our caring for one another, and our working within communities will get us where we need to be. Because, in fact, it's the only thing that ever got us where we are today. And it's time for us to just step up and shut up. [laughs]


Ayana: From whatever crystal ball you have, if you could see two different futures, the one where you let yourself be as optimistic as you can be, and the one where your worst fears are realized, can you help us kind of see what those divergent futures might look like?


Gina McCarthy: The world that we're worried about, that world will be, I think, a world in which you will see incredible conflicts to access primary resources that human beings need to live, which is clean air and clean water and food. And so I see huge amounts of challenges in terms of forced migrations in areas that are now growing food that will be deserts in the future. I see an inability to provide water resources to communities that need it. And certainly, you see communities that have thriving populations that will no longer be livable, that will be fully inundated by sea change. You see some of these impacts today in challenges, it's just a lot more.


Ayana: What does it look like if we get it right?


Gina McCarthy: My hope is that you will have communities that have nutritious food to eat, that will be delivered locally in a way that will have jobs associated with it. You'll see renewable energy and energy efficiency where you will have homes that have good indoor air quality and cities that have great outdoor air quality, ambient air. You'll see rural communities being able to work remotely, so they're not having to get their cars that are dirty, or even drive their electric vehicles far in order to have good employment opportunities. You'll be able to see families that can live in communities that are acting like communities, working together to design a future that's good for them. You will see local communities that are communities of color and low-income communities that have access to the same health that the rest of us currently enjoy.


Gina McCarthy: Now, I realize that all of these things are my fantasy of the best, but I will demand nothing less. [laughs] Because if I demand that, maybe I'll get at least a good portion of the way there. And frankly, I don't know how as human beings we would accept anything less than that.


Ayana: I am ready for that future.


Alex: Yeah.


Gina McCarthy: The way we exist right now is not working in the way we need it to. It's as simple as that. And we can see it in the number of people that are being left behind. And it's not just not working, it's downright unfair. And if we don't deal with these inequities, then we know that there are going to be challenges that we cannot beat. And we won't want to see that world, and I'm not gonna live in it. And I have two grandchildren, and I'll be damned if you're gonna make me live in it.


Alex: Gina, how, screwed are we?


Gina McCarthy: [laughs] I think we're in a very, very challenging situation. I think much of the challenges you see people facing today, many of them are related to the challenge of climate change and the inequities that we now see in the system, and the fact that a lot of the people with money seem to be able to sort of mess up our perception of reality in a way. Not just science, but our reality. And that's why I don't see any way that gets us out of this, without people becoming much more active, much more vocal. Us demanding that we be served, not just the wealthy. And I'm not talking about a revolution, I'm talking about an evolution in the way in which we are approaching our problems.


Gina McCarthy: You know, The move away from fossil fuels is not going to be impossible. It's not going to turn our lights off. It's not going to force us to take actions that are going to be painful. It is exactly opposite of that. I'm one of the ones that are just trying to light a fire under people, and debunk the idea that a zero carbon future is impossible to achieve, or would be to our economic disadvantage to achieve. I think nothing could be further from the truth.


Gina McCarthy: The only question we need to ask ourselves is how do we actually start that process? And the process has to be started at the community level. And how I know that if you build an infrastructure below them that's demanding it, then we will get a better city as a result. That's why I'm excited about states continuing to push for changes that they know will make their lives better. I'm not fixing the damn planet, I'm fixing my home, my place to live. And we have so much available to us that can do that. We have to stop listening to the negativity and start building up hope again. It's not unlike what we did in the '60s and '70s. We need a movement, folks. I don't want a technology fix, I want a movement.


Ayana: Mm.


Gina McCarthy: The young people got it. They know it. They're demanding it. So we need a wake-up call. And I think the young people are providing that wake-up call, and folks like me better listen. While I don't think we are in a hopeless situation, I think we need to start building hope if we want to win.


Alex: So that was our conversation from over a year ago with Gina McCarthy, the person who'll be leading domestic climate policy for the White House. And Ayana, can we just acknowledge what a relief it is just to have this position in the White House?


Ayana: Yeah.


Alex: And that it is occupied by somebody as experienced and fired up as Gina McCarthy is?


Ayana: She is fired all the way up.


Alex: She's fired up.


Ayana: Which is really exciting. And this position for Gina and the team that she's now putting together was created because the Biden administration is committed to their climate policy agenda. And it makes me think of something that Senator Elizabeth Warren often says, which is "Personnel is policy." And so this does matter that they are investing in building this team inside of the White House. And one of the people on Gina's new team is Maggie Thomas, who will be chief of staff for this new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. And we had Maggie on the show a while ago on the episode about how 2020 became a climate election. Back then, Maggie had just finished her work as the climate adviser for Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign, and Maggie said we're at a key inflection point.


Maggie Thomas: There's a choice, and we are at a fork in the road. And this issue should be the priority for the nation. We need a full government mobilization to defeat the climate crisis. And this has to be a priority starting at the top, which is from the president.

Alex: And we're really excited to be continuing to cover what actually happens, how the Biden administration continues to work on climate, and what Gina and her team do over the next many years.


Ayana: We'll provide both scrutiny and encouragement as needed.


Alex: Yeah.


Ayana: And we know that Gina's really got her work cut out for her, right? The Biden-Harris transition team has been getting up to speed on what's been happening in federal agencies on climate in the last four years. A lot of experts have been purged and advisory boards have been gutted. So this is not going to be easy, in fact it might be harder than people had anticipated—but obviously it's worth it.


Alex: And this brings us to our action items at the end of the podcast. As far as what you can do, the number one action item we have is for all of you to continue to pay attention and hold Gina McCarthy and the Biden administration accountable.


Ayana: So in order to get us all geared up and ready to play that role as citizens, we have in the show notes and the newsletter this week links to Biden's climate and energy plan and to his environmental justice plan, so that you can get up to speed on what they've actually proposed.


Alex: We will put those links in our newsletter, which you can sign up to by going to howtosaveaplanet.show. We will also throw in a couple of other links to interesting articles there. For example, an article describing what the Biden-Harris administration can do just on its own as the executive branch. And also there's a great essay from Gina. Where's that essay, Ayana?


Ayana: That essay happens to be in this delightful and inspiring anthology that I co-edited called All We Can Save.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: And her essay in there is called "Public Service for Public Health." And I found it really compelling.


Alex: And finally, we know that there are times like now when it's sometimes hard to focus on climate policy, given what is happening in our government and our nation right now.


Ayana: I will admit that I have neither read nor written any climate policy documents in the last week. We really need Congress to be intact and able to do its part.


Alex: Yeah.


Ayana: So we should be paying attention to what's happening now in America.


Alex: All right.


Ayana: Hang in there, everyone. It's—it's been a doozy, but we're with you, and we'll be back next week.


Ayana: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.


Alex: And me, Alex Blumberg.


Alex: Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd, and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.


Ayana: Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard with original music by Emma Munger. Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib. Thanks for listening, we'll see you next week.