Skip to main content

Gina McCarthy: Protecting the planet for all people

The former EPA administrator and current head of NRDC reflects on the inextricable connections between racial justice and climate justice.

Gina McCarthy

Then EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks to the National Press Club on climate change and power plants in September 2013.

Gina McCarthy thinks we should be more ambitious in our goals for a thriving planet and an equitable society. The former EPA administrator and current president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has been a leading advocate for smart, successful strategies to protect public health and the environment for more than 30 years.

During a VERGE 20 virtual event Friday, McCarthy talked with GreenBiz co-founder Joel Makower about how racial justice and climate justice go hand in hand, and what we need to do to assure a bright future for everyone’s children.

"We’re facing a lot of challenges at once," McCarthy noted, "but they’re also an incredible signal about the future we need to deliver and the way to get there."

The first challenge is the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, we are facing a racial reckoning that is long overdue. Third, many people are feeling the painful effects of the economic fallout from the pandemic. Finally, the climate crisis is worse than it’s ever been.

For too long, climate change was viewed as a problem for the planet instead of a problem for people.

What do these four challenges have in common? "They stem from the system we chose when we grabbed and relied on fossil fuels," McCarthy said. "For too long, climate change was viewed as a problem for the planet instead of a problem for people. The planet doesn’t give a damn if we’re around — we do!"

McCarthy pointed out that we can protect our planet and natural resources in a way that grows jobs and well-being. "We have solutions," she said. "Let’s grow the demand for them."

Social imperative

McCarthy focused strongly on the need for equitable action in the face of society’s four major challenges, noting that data on COVID-19 show the disease is killing twice as many exposed Black people as their white counterparts. McCarthy observed that the pandemic is one more example of how our system has left some communities behind, drawing a parallel to the disproportionate impact of climate change and pollution on communities of color. "They’re in the crosshairs of the danger," she said.

McCarthy thinks that we as individuals must reckon with the fact that we can take action in our own communities. If we commit to doing so, the solutions will come, she said.

McCarthy discussed regulators’ role in delivering solutions, noting the EPA’s obligation to protect people’s health. The agency sets standards that send market signals, she said, which supports growth and expansion.

Business community role

Big business needs to look at its entire supply chain and be transparent in how it tells us what it’s valuing, McCarthy said, so consumers can make choices accordingly. While we’re making progress on this front, we still have a long way to go, she said.

"We’re not talking about sacrifices, but rather benefits," McCarthy explained.

I want twofers and threefers. I want something better than survival. Why aren’t we wanting it all and demanding it all?

For example, people can make money from technological expansion, among other types of innovation. The transformation we need demands significant work in transportation, McCarthy offered. She sees no question that electric vehicles are the wave of the future, and we just need to work to get the technology up to critical mass by expanding the relevant infrastructure via public-private partnerships and other mechanisms. The same applies to hydrogen technologies for heavy vehicles and more.

“If we work at the state level, it won’t matter who’s sitting at the federal level," McCarthy opined. "If we drive the kind of change we want at every level of government, it will open up markets everywhere."


"I want twofers and threefers," McCarthy exclaimed, referring to the idea that we can and should have multiple ambitious goals at the same time. "I want something better than survival. Why aren’t we wanting it all and demanding it all?"

She highlighted the imperative to raise up everybody in the process, pointing to the need for better housing, clean air and clean water for communities left behind by systemic racism.

McCarthy also emphasized the United States’ outsized obligation to the rest of the world, given that "we’ve been shipping our pollution elsewhere, merrily going on our way as if we didn’t do that. We have a shot at an equitable, healthy, sustainable future. There is no reason we have to compromise on those goals."

Message of hope?

Wrapping up her comments, McCarthy enjoined everyone to hug their children and to listen to them about the future they want. She called upon all parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, godparents and caregivers to deliver a future for the children in their lives that would bring them pride.

"We humans care about taking care of our families more than anything else," McCarthy concluded. "Let’s use that to lift all families up."

More on this topic