I had a lot of questions for Gina McCarthy.
As the first White House National Climate Advisor and a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, she has driven change in complex, time-sensitive, politically charged environments — a relatable context for many corporate practitioners. Now, as co-chair of America is All In — with Michael Bloomberg, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, Vi Lyles — McCarthy is managing an initiative dedicated to developing a comprehensive national climate strategy.
McCarthy exudes pragmatism nurtured through a long career in public service. (Her first job "besides waitressing" was as the health agent for the town of Canton, Massachusetts, beginning in 1980). Her attitude is positive and action-oriented, but she’s patient with the speed of change. "In my lifetime, I've never seen an environmental challenge or a health challenge that got fixed all at once," she told me.
That comfort with a slower pace might have frustrated me given the intensification of the climate crisis — that is, if McCarthy hadn’t been a major force behind the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law from inside the White House. She knows how to get things done.
So yes, I had questions, and hoped she could offer a solutions-oriented counterweight with her sane, tough-love perspective to the sometimes paralyzing mix of climate anxiety, urgency and personal duty some sustainability practitioners feel.
To preface our dialogue, I reflected on the need to go much further, much faster, and then asked: What advice do you have for this community around how to accelerate climate action?
"You’re right," McCarthy responded, "we have to accelerate. … But once the ball gets rolling, which is actually what we're seeing now … it gathers its own momentum. And it's going to take a hell of a lot to stop it."
During our conversation, I asked McCarthy for practical strategies on how to advocate for controversial plans; to untangle intractable problems; to drive change in slow-moving organizations; to maintain personal resilience; and to know when to take risks. And she delivered.
Here are five lessons McCarthy shared on how to get tough things done.
1. Don’t take setbacks personally
"[It’s] hugely important for people to try to divorce themselves as a person from the job they're doing. I mean, you always bring yourself into it, but if you miss the mark, if you get criticized, you pull up your big-boy pants, right? And you say, ‘OK, going after it again, what’d I do wrong, how do I think differently? Who is my ally in this? What are the challenges?’ And you just do it again. It's not life-threatening to be criticized."
2. Don’t strive for unanimous support
"You have to acknowledge that you're always going to make somebody unhappy in this transition that we're in. … It's about what you think is right and how you move forward with the people that you feel are most able to join that decision in an intelligent way. Not just a gut instinct — you explain it to them, it makes sense, and you move it forward. I've never thought that unanimity was really the way to go, because generally it means that everybody gives up a lot."
3. Everything is negotiable
"I think everybody knows [the Inflation Reduction Act] took a really long time — and a lot of quiet time — to move forward. There were a few key sticking points in it that some folks on [Capitol] Hill didn't particularly care for. And the [question was]: Do you just give it up and not push? … My entire job was about saying, ‘No, nobody pulls the plug. No, we don't give up. Nope. Nobody's going to do it. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.’
"There was this one thing that we thought was important, and folks on the Hill thought it was important. Someone didn't think it was important or doable. So I can remember going in to Ali Zaidi, my deputy — who was the brilliant architect, with a couple of other folks in the White House, of the IRA, not me. I said … ‘If I can't get that, I want you to tell me what the very next best thing is that we could do. … There has to be something that gets us 80 percent of the way there. Maybe not 100 [percent].’ And all of a sudden he looked at me and he said, ‘Oh, there is something!’ and left. That something changed. And the whole thing moved. …
"So I don't really care when people say they're at the dead end or everything's non-negotiable. Everything is negotiable. And if you don't [or] can't figure out the straightforward way, then you go around another, you find another champion, you find another way to address it. You work something out, because these things are too important to just let them die."
4. Focus on the people you’re fighting for
"It is all about who you're doing something for. It's not about who you're fighting against. That's the least of your problems. The bigger benefit and opportunity is to actually just get in people's heads, understand where they are, and understand what, to them, makes their life better. If you do that every step of the way, it doesn't matter how difficult the problem is. You can frame it in a way that it's meaningful, in a way that it's hard to fight against."
5. Just worry about today
"You're going to find that … there'll be a technology or a process or a product that comes to market that will move you to net zero in a way that you never anticipated. … Don't worry so much about where we're going to be in 10 or 15 years. Worry about what you're doing today. Worry about the creativity you can bring to the table. Because if you do, we will get there."
Special thanks to Katie Ryan, director of sustainability for GreenBiz, for providing inspiration, reporting and analysis for this story. Join us for more from keynote speaker Gina McCarthy at GreenBiz Net Zero on Sept. 7, a free online event that equips you with cutting-edge strategies proven to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions.