In her first public address as administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy aimed to redefine the EPA as a source of job creation, instead of the economic drag it is sometimes portrayed to be.
Climate change is not an environmental issue but a "fundamental economic challenge," Ms. McCarthy said in a speech Tuesday at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass. It must be addressed with cleaner, more sustainable energy and transportation sectors.
"Today, the truth is that we need to embrace cutting carbon pollution as a way to spark business innovation," McCarthy said, making a point to elongate the "a" in "spark" with her signature Boston accent.
"We need to cut carbon pollution to grow jobs," she added. "We need to cut carbon pollution to strengthen the economy. Let’s talk about this positively. Let’s approach this as an opportunity of a lifetime. Because there are too many lifetimes at stake to not embrace it this way – the way this country has always embraced its challenges: head on."
McCarthy's direct approach has earned her a reputation as a tough regulator in Washington. Her confirmation process ended earlier this month after 136 days and more than a thousand questions from Senate Republicans wary of her previous work as head of the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation.
Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming has long criticized McCarthy and the EPA, and voted against her nomination.
“This administration has pummeled coal country, power plants, manufacturing, and small businesses for four years pursuing their preferred version of a clean energy future," Senator Barrasso said on the floor of the Senate during the vote on McCarthy. “Since 2009, unemployment has remained stagnant. Nearly 10 percent of our coal energy capacity is gone."
In Tuesday's speech, McCarthy thanked President Obama for nominating someone who, as she put it, "was not a wallflower at the EPA," and signaled that she would work to implement the policies outlined in the president's address on climate change last month.
Sidestepping gridlock on climate policy in Congress, Mr. Obama has directed the EPA and other agencies to find their own ways to cut carbon pollution. That includes expanding carbon limits on new coal plants to apply to existing coal plants – a proposal that has drawn fierce opposition from Republican senators and coal-state Democrats, who say more regulations would decimate an industry that supplies about 40 percent of the nation's electricity.
That tension between environmental stewardship and economic health is a false dichotomy, McCarthy said. Between the EPA's founding in 1970 and 2011, emissions of air pollutants dropped 68 percent, McCarthy said, while the US domestic product grew 212 percent and the US population grew 52 percent.
Fuel economy standards introduced in 2011 have reduced car emissions, McCarthy said, while bolstering job growth in the auto industry.
"We need the economy to serve the needs of current and future generations. That’s where jobs will grow," McCarthy said. "For too long we’ve been focused on this false choice. It’s not a choice between the health of our children and the health of the economy."
The speech was a homecoming for Administrator McCarthy, a Boston native, who served as an environmental adviser to five Massachusetts governors before heading to Washington.