Under President Donald Trump, environmental policy has taken an abrupt about-face, and many of the policies that are currently being reversed were instituted under the leadership of Gina McCarthy, who served as the administrator of the EPA from 2013 to 2017. McCarthy is now the director of the Center for Climate Health and the Global Environment at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She spoke with WGBH News' Craig LeMoult. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Craig LeMoult: Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Gina McCarthy: It's great to be here.
LeMoult: So what would you say is the most significant change that you've seen under this administration?
McCarthy: Well I think we all know that the administration is looking to roll back virtually everything that the prior administration accomplished in terms of public health and environmental protections. But the biggest challenge I think that many of us see, and it's Republicans and Democrats alike, is that the administration is not really embracing the mission of the agency itself. Rather than just looking at rollbacks of particular rules, they're looking at trying to go backwards in order to really diminish the ability of the agency to function. They're using a lack of transparency to sort of divert our attention. The ethical problems have been the focus of people's discussion about EPA instead of the very important role that EPA has in plays in our lives to protect us.
LeMoult: What is the impact of pulling out of the Paris climate agreement [and] pulling out of the Clean Power Plan. I mean, are these things going to make a huge significant difference?
McCarthy: Well, I think that's one thing we have to keep in mind is there's a difference between sort of all the rhetoric in Washington, D.C., and what's going on in the real life. Now there was an announcement in the Rose Garden to withdraw from the Paris agreement. You can't withdraw from the Paris Agreement until November 4th of 2020. That's two days after the next presidential election. So what that's done is provide the international community an opportunity to sit around and scratch their heads about what happened to the leadership in the United States of America and how trustworthy is the word of the United States when they lead into an international agreement that is so easily abandoned.
And then when you look at the rollbacks of the Clean Power Plan, yes they're important. The Clean Power Plan's major role was not just to look at how much we can reduce in terms of carbon pollution from our power sector, but it was really to send a signal to the industry as well as innovators and investors on where money should be spent. So when you walk away from the Clean Power Plan you're not necessarily changing the dynamic in the short term of our investment in clean energy because right now the clean energy train's left the station. It is not going back. You know it is cheaper, it's cleaner, it's better for us. So in the real world we're still doing fine in terms of our commitment to clean energy and a low carbon future but that's going to be time limited.
So what I'm really worried about is today, what we're seeing now is not just an attempt to roll back rules and regulations but a recognition that in order to be effective they have to deny the science. In order to be effective they have to change the way science is done at the agency. They have to change what kind of science we can look at and dismiss the best science because the best science is going to take us back to the path that we were on before. And they're also looking at how you start rethinking all of the cost-benefit analysis that has been developed since Ronald Reagan.
LeMoult: One of the regulations that we've seen changes to are the fuel efficiency standards that went to effect when you were in office to make them less stringent. This week, the administration is expected to revoke California's ability to set its own automobile greenhouse gas emissions standards. They had a waiver for that as part of the Clean Air Act, and Massachusetts and 12 other states followed that more strict standard. What do you think about revoking that California waiver and what how would it affect us here Massachusetts?
McCarthy: Right now, transportation is the biggest area or sector in terms of driving greenhouse gas emissions, and it's going to continue to increase if we don't continue to look at the most fuel efficient vehicles and different ways of transporting ourselves, frankly. But the challenge with looking at the California waiver is it's been established law for a very long time. The federal government is much less able to recognize shifts in markets, new technologies, to develop new standards quickly. States have a greater ability to do that, have always been the innovators. And it has been a tool that has really driven much cleaner cars for many years. So I think it's foolish to get rid of it.
I also think it's inconsistent with what we know to be true, which is when the car manufacturers were going bankrupt at the early part of the Obama administration, it was President Obama's move to help them through bankruptcy to save those jobs and to encourage them to sit down with us and work on getting more fuel efficient vehicles into the market that American consumers want to buy. And we did that. We agreed to these standards. And as a result of building more efficient cars they have had a boon for almost a decade. They are doing great. And right now the rest of the world is embracing electric vehicles. And right now GM is selling more vehicles in China than they are here. So why are we not looking at this as again an international effort and one that's better for our health, better for the climate because it's cleaner vehicles that are less polluting, but also ones that are growing new jobs that have created and been the underpinning of the boon of this of these auto manufacturers.
The way that the California waiver is written in the Clean Air Act gives California deference. The agency itself has to prove that California doesn't need cleaner cars in order to get rid of the waiver and deny it. Now I don't think a court is going to undo decades of progress and decades of reading the law in a way that was reasonable and appropriate and clearly is consistent with the way that it is written in the statute.
LeMoult: Another proposed change, not from the EPA but from the Interior Department [and] the Commerce Department, is to the Endangered Species Act which would, among other things, allow them to consider the economic impact of putting a species on the list. What do you think of that change?
McCarthy: You know it's another consistency issue. I mean they're doing the same thing at EPA. They now want to, instead of looking at setting health based standards, they want to interject cost into that consideration as well. So we no longer want to look at what's right in front of our nose and look at health standards or look at the value of endangered species or their inherent right to exist. You know, and instead we want to stop manipulating those by throwing cost in because it's just another way to undermine the law in a way that people might think is reasonable as opposed to simply repealing all these things and saying we don't care about them anymore, we're not going to continue to invest. We've done enough. And I really think that it's just all another way to interject uncertainty, to whittle back protections, to use these underlying premises of inserting costs where cost doesn't belong into science decisions in order to change the way science is done. You know it's quite consistent with what they're doing at every agency, which is to diminish facts and diminish science facts, and then instead keep shifting it towards the interests of business and the interests of those who would wish the federal government to be considerably smaller and weaker.
LeMoult: This does get to the point though that the administration has made that these kinds of regulations are difficult or bad for the economy, that they hurt jobs. I mean, do you believe that there's any truth to that? That there is a sort of a disconnect there or that there's competition between jobs and environmental regulation?
McCarthy: You know in all honesty I've been doing this work for 35 years. And I have not been doing it for this long because I have failed to look at economic consequences [or] job implications. I've been doing this long because I know that human beings have to feed their families. We have to have jobs. We have to have growth. We're doing this consistently in a way that has allowed the economy to grow. We reduced air pollution by 70 percent while the GDP tripled. You know, there are shifts in the economy that happen all the time and I recognize it, but right now we have a shift to be able to actually grow economically in a way that is sustainable in a way that protects public health. All these efforts seem to be running away from that fact, simply because they want to make sure that there's a place in the future for fossil fuels like coal. The reason why we're now beginning to see the administration look at inserting cost where it doesn't belong is because they are simply trying to trying to change the facts of science, not the facts of cost.
LeMoult: I saw you speak to a group of mayors from around the world recently a climate summit here in Boston. Do you think that at this local level, in the absence of leadership on climate change from this administration, that mayors really can make a difference?
McCarthy: I think they can, I think they are, and I think they will. You know, mayors have a very hard time denying climate change. It may be easy when you're sitting in a White House today to deny it, but it's not easy to deny because they're seeing the flooding that they're having in their communities. They're seeing the challenges that they are facing with air pollution problems. You know, there are solutions that we've never had before. There's a reason why renewable energy is going crazy in the marketplace. It's because it's cheap. And so I want to make sure that mayors realize that they have choices to make about how they invest normal tax dollars in infrastructure in their communities. Let me give you a couple of little examples. They just received Volkswagen's settlement dollars. Every state has received it. Put it out to do good things like buy electric buses. That's great for air quality. It's great for climate change, but you could also make it great for the communities that have been left behind in your city because there are areas where air pollution is more prominent than in other areas. You could actually put those electric buses where they will have an additional bang for the buck. Your voters can see that you are thinking ahead, but thinking about today and what's best for them. It's about rethinking the transportation sector in this country and everywhere in terms of what does a low carbon future demand, what is going to be best for the health of ourselves and our children.
You know, Craig, one of the things I do a lot is I go out and give speeches to young people, because today they see what's happening in Washington and they're a little distressed by it. And I talk to them because they think that the Obama administration was sort of normal operating procedures when we actually got a lot done there. And they don't recognize that the reason why we could get that work done was because it was built on the shoulders of governors and mayors and local community activists who started many decades ago to push and try new things, to actually force this discussion to happen, bring new opportunities for industries and technologies to the table.
But there is no need to think that because the federal government has decided to stop that progress will stop. Because the environmental world has always been an issue where the grass roots push the energy, the enthusiasm, and the innovation up. And that's what builds the foundation for federal action. So we don't have to sit and twiddle our thumbs for the next three years wondering what the world is going to look like. We all can do our best in our homes, in our communities [and] at the state level. And I think if we do that we will continue to show the rest of the world that we are actually still in. Because if the mayors show up and the states show up they'll begin to realize that we are way more than a federal government in the United States. We are committed individuals who still care about our core values and our responsibility to our kids and our future.