Climate change as an opportunity for innovation

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{***Noah Leavitt***}

Coming up on Harvard Chan: This Week in Health…

An in-depth interview with a woman who has spent her career protecting our environment

{***Gina McCarthy Soundbite***}

(Climate change is our own public health issue. It impacts everybody. But we need to make it personal. Everybody needs to understand it’s about them and their kids.)

This week we speak with Gina McCarthy, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency about the EPA’s critical role in protecting public health. Plus—why addressing climate change change needs to be viewed as an opportunity for innovation.


{***Noah Leavitt***}

Hello and welcome to Harvard Chan: This Week in Health. It’s Thursday, May 11, 2017. I’m Noah Leavitt.

{***Amie Montemurro***}

And I’m Amie Montemurro.


Amie, this week the Environmental Protection Agency dismissed at least five members of a major scientific review board.

The group of academic researchers reviews and evaluates the work conducted by the agency’s scientists.


And the move is viewed by critics as the latest step by the Trump Administration to reduce the EPA’s role and influence.

This comes in the wake of proposed deep budget cuts at the agency—and the appointment of Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator. Pruitt has publicly questioned the established science of human-caused climate change.


This week we had the opportunity to sit down with Pruitt’s predecessor, Gina McCarthy.

McCarthy is currently at the Harvard Chan School as a Menschel Senior Leadership Fellow.


She’s an expert in environmental health and air quality and during her four years as EPA Administrator she helped spearhead the Obama Administration’s efforts to address climate change and increase use of renewable sources of energy.

McCarthy has become a vocal advocate for the need to address climate change—and has called on scientists to be more outspoken on the issue.


I spoke with McCarthy about the EPA’s critical role in protecting the public’s health, the challenges the agency faces in protecting our water and air—especially in the wake of Flint’s water crisis, and what can be done to address climate change even if the EPA’s influence is reduced.
{***Gina McCarthy Interview***}

NOAH LEAVITT: So I want to start very generally kind of talking about the roots of the EPA. It was founded in 1970 under President Nixon. So kind of take people back who might not be familiar kind of with the history of the EPA. At that time, what was its mandate? What was its mission?

GINA MCCARTHY: Yeah. It’s great to take people back, because it brings me back to when I was pretty young. And basically, it was all about recognizing that we were polluting our environment in a very visible and meaningful way. So it came out of the ’60s and ’70s, when you had Rachel Carson pointing out the dangers of pesticides and DDTs.

But it was even more than that. I mean, I lived in this area. It was about Boston Harbor being basically a place where the sewage went. And it wasn’t a place where you could swim or boat without taking your life in your hands.

And it was all about the black smoke that was spewing out of smokestacks. And people just got fed up. They knew we were damaging their health and our environment, and they needed a change.

And so at the federal level, that translated into Richard Nixon– which is interesting– designing an executive order to actually create the EPA. And it was really the start of the environmental movement as we know it. It actually led to federal laws that came into being that helped us clean the air and clean the water and start cleaning up some of the hazardous waste problems, and hopefully to better manage our waste from that point forward.

NOAH LEAVITT: And you mentioned cleaning up water, cleaning up air. And I know you’ve talked in the past about the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act as kind of two really critically important public health laws. So what did each of those laws do? And then kind of, what has their long-term impact been, now almost 45, 50 years later?

GINA MCCARTHY: Well, let’s start with the Clean Water Act. And the Clean Water Act basically was an opportunity for the United States to do two fundamental things, is move forward and protect source waters that were important not just for fishing and swimming but also for drinking water systems. And then it also set up a system for the federal government to work with states to develop standards for different rivers and streams and water bodies so that we would be able to create opportunities to keep them clean and also to set standards for drinking water. It basically said you have to start protecting your drinking water properly, test it properly, manage it, see what contaminants are making their way in, what kind of technology choices are available.

And it led to EPA creating basically drinking water standards for 90 different chemicals that were broadest in terms of their impact across the US. And we see now that about 90% of the larger systems are really in compliance 90% of the time with all of those. So it led to great progress.

But in my opinion, water, we have some of the biggest challenges coming up, because you have investments that were made 50 or 60 years ago. I’m 63. I need a facelift. Probably needed it years ago.

I think our water system does as well. You know, you got to keep investing in what you don’t see, which is the pipes under the ground, and the systems that people think will last forever that now are facing real challenges with different contaminants and simply needing to have more investment there. And it’s a big deal for us moving forward.

On the clean air side, the Clean Air Act is– I would say, sitting at the Harvard School of Public Health, that it is one of the most successful and well-celebrated public health statutes of our time. It basically is all about delivering clean air that protects our health, most notably for kids and the elderly, who are most impacted by dirty air.

And so it basically did a bunch of different things. It basically asked EPA to do the science to understand what healthy air looked like. What are the standards we’re looking for ozone, for lead, for CO? All of those things needed to be identified so we know what our goals are.

And then it set up a system where the federal government and states work together to develop plans to reduce pollution to achieve those goals. It also set up an opportunity for us to set standards in the industrial sectors that are most important, and that at that point were significantly emitting large amounts of pollution that we knew was damaging.

And so we look at everything from different smokestacks and setting standards for industries, both new and existing. And then we look at opportunities for technology advances. And we look at things like the transportation sector, looking at fuels, and looking at vehicles, and how we can continue to make sure that we’re addressing pollution as best we can, and as technology and costs allow, and as health requires.

And it’s been an enormous success story. We’ve been able to reduce air pollution 70% while our GDP tripled. There’s no anxiety between the economy and the environment, as some folks would like to say. It actually goes hand in hand, because people want to live where they have clean air. And people want everybody to do their part.

And over the past eight years in the Obama administration, we continued that movement forward as best we could, especially for folks like us in the Northeast, the tailpipe of the Midwest, at times. And we’ve really moved forward to tell the Midwest, you know, you got to use the same kind of standard technologies that we use in the Northeast, or else you’re not doing your fair share.

So there’s been great momentum moving forward. And I think the US really leads the world in terms of new clean air technologies being implemented that are available now across the world. And we hopefully share those in a way that will protect us from air pollution no matter where it comes from.

NOAH LEAVITT: So I want to follow up on a couple of things you talked about there. I guess first of all in water, and water to me is always interesting, because it’s something that I think in a sense we take for granted. We turn on the tap. It comes out. We assume it’s clean.

But I mean, you kind of touched– I mean, there are now growing concerns over lead, contamination in water. I mean, in Flint, but really kind of across the country. So I guess, what can be done to address that going forward? Is there– like, how can that be addressed at the federal level? But is there work that can be done at the local and state level too?

GINA MCCARTHY: Sure. You know, water is primarily managed, first and foremost, at the local and state level. That’s where you decide what you want your rivers and streams to be. Do you want them to be working rivers where you discharge into them and we make sure that it’s at a level that we can continue to have healthy ecosystems? Or do you want them to be pristine water, or swimming areas, places where you’re going to fish and swim and recreate?

So these are challenges and questions that really begin at the local and state level. And you know, the only thing I would point out is that the federal government is there to make sure that states continue to do their jobs moving forward, with appropriate oversight. But there really needs to be clear investment in infrastructure at the state and local level. People have taken for granted that the water that they drink is clean, but we do not have the kind of source water protection that I think we need to be assured of that.

And so while we test, we don’t want surprises. I don’t want to be finding lead in drinking water today. I mean, we got the lead out of gasoline, and it changed the health complexion of kids everywhere in the United States. I want that same success story in water. We can’t claim that anymore.

We had Flint, Michigan, happen. Now, Flint was a result of a lot of disinvestment, a lot of shift out of that community, 60% poverty rate. It was a disempowered community.

But they’re not going to be the only ones, and they’re not the only ones in the United States that face similar challenges. We cannot have legacy pollutants like lead stealing our kids’ IQ and their future. We have to take care of that.

Plus we also need to recognize that we have things coming into our drinking water systems that are popping up as a result of chemical use that we haven’t properly managed, because we didn’t have the ability to do that. And one of the challenges we’re going to face is, how do we keep track of these contaminants? And how can EPA work with states to identify what is a safe level of any contaminant in your water system? What would make you feel comfortable drinking that?

And these are questions we’re going to have to ask ourselves, because we have pharmaceuticals ending up in our rivers and streams. Those are not generally treated as they go through the system and come out the faucet for us to drink. We have challenges with perfluorinated compounds, PFOA and PFOS, that are coming up in rural areas, as well as urban.

You know, these are challenges we’re going to have to face. And they’re difficult ones. And EPA estimates that we’re looking at in excess of $650 or so billion in needed investment over the next 20 years. So I’m hoping this administration doesn’t just look at roads and bridges, but looks at what we need do to deliver clean water to the people in this country.

NOAH LEAVITT: And so jumping off of that, I mean, it seems like, hearing you talk, and that– I mean, environmental health and environmental policy is kind of this constantly changing area. Your priorities are always shifting. New challenges are arising.

So I’d be interested to know if, like, from your time in the EPA, what were kind of some emerging challenges you saw? And then, how do you see those being addressed going forward in the current administration or future administrations?

GINA MCCARTHY: Yeah. I think you’re right. I mean, we all know that the science is evolving. But frankly, the disappointing part is we’re still dealing with the science we knew decades ago that we have to address.

And so I think some of the challenges that we have been seeing is our ability to continue to protect source waters. You know, we did a rule called the Clean Water Rule that basically said, what rivers and streams are important enough, from a drinking water perspective, that we should be looking at them before anybody destroys them?

Now, it doesn’t sound controversial. It ended up being hugely controversial. And it really is about making sure that the federal government has something to say about pollution that travels from one state downriver into another, where someone could be disadvantaged and not have the power to be able to protect their own drinking water system.

So it remains politically very challenging to deal with these issues. And so you make progress moving forward, but a lot more progress needs to be made.

Then we had to start dealing with just the infrastructure at hand. How do you recognize that green infrastructure, natural systems, actually work a whole lot better than big concrete pipes? And how do we get urban areas to think about how they would develop in a way that’s good for the community– because you want trees, you want parks– and how do we build that into a system of support for stormwater that actually works better, gets the pollutants out of our rivers and streams, and keeps a beautiful community even looking more beautiful?

The opportunities, now we know, are so tremendous. But getting them to focus on that, taking the action, making the investment, is what’s important. And EPA giving the flexibility for communities to do that in more creative ways.

And then we add onto that the challenge of climate change, which I really have to raise, because it became a predominant issue for President Obama to make progress on, because he has two beautiful daughters who he wants to have a really good future for. And so we spent a great deal of time looking at climate change, not only at mitigating the carbon pollution that was being emitted that’s really fueling climate change and taking some strong domestic action, but really understanding how climate change changes the dynamic of the challenges we’re facing on clean air and clean water.

You can’t just focus on clean air and clean water without looking at climate change, because it exacerbates the challenges we have. These intense storms are blowing out the ability of our stormwater to protect our rivers and streams, and it’s challenging us from an air quality perspective by resulting in more ozone being emitted. And how do we handle that moving forward?

And carbon pollution itself is challenging to address from a mitigation perspective, but we found ways to make it amenable and cost-effective, where we can still have reliable and cost-effective energy systems and reduce the amount of carbon that’s being emitted by utilities, or by the transportation sector, by looking at new fuel-efficient vehicles. So you can go double as far on a gallon of gasoline. How bad is that?

And I think for me, we found really cost-effective opportunities that the market will drive, which for me is the winning touchdown. As soon as you regulate, if you get it into the market and there’s a cost there of that pollution, and it can drive it, that’s what you want to have happen.

So we took, I think, aggressive action on climate. We got the world to sit up, I think, and take notice with the Paris agreement. So I’m proud of what we had done.

But I’m concerned about whether this administration is going to maintain their commitment. Clearly, they are sending very clear and abrupt and noticeable signals that they’re doubting whether climate change is real, which is disturbing at best. And they’re starting to look to unravel some of the rules that we did that actually made this progress moving forward.

And we’ll see what they do with the Paris agreement. It’s concerning, but I want people to understand that the clean energy train in this country has left the station. No matter what this administration wants or executive order the president signs, that’s not going to change. It just may be a pause in the system that none of us can afford to have.

NOAH LEAVITT: And so I wanted to ask about that, because at an event last week at Harvard, you kind of made that point, that there is a right to be concerned. But on the flip side, you don’t need to be as concerned about the impact of one single four-year administration.

So why is that? I mean, why should people maybe take a step back and say, OK, let’s look at this from a realistic perspective. There’s reasons to be concerned, but there’s still reasons we can address climate change going forward.

GINA MCCARTHY: Well, I think people have a hard time understanding what the rules of the road are at the federal level. And so the first thing I wanted people to understand is just because you sign an executive order, it doesn’t trump a rule, pun intended. You know, the rules that we already put in place continue to stand until another rule is done. And I know that we did those rules looking at real science, at real technology, at real costs. And we did them in a way that is going to stand up legally.

So they’re going to have to figure out, this administration, how to change the science perspective in a way that I don’t think is legitimately looking at real science. Or they’re going to have to say we missed the boat in some other way. And I just don’t think we did. So it’s going to take them a long time to really go through the process of undoing those rules.

But perhaps even more importantly is that we know the people in the United States care about climate change. They understand it, apparently, better than Washington DC does right now. They know that the climate is changing.

They see the droughts that are happening. They see the heavy rainfalls that’s washing soil into rivers and streams with nutrients and pesticides that you don’t want to see. They see the wildfires that are happening. They see the more intense storms.

And they expect government to protect them, not to sit on their hands or to have their head in the ground, right? And so I am pretty confident that while this administration isn’t responding right now to the core values of the people in this country, which is clean air and clean water and our kids’ future, that they will over time if we continue to speak up.

That’s what climate marches are all about. That’s what science marches are all about. Let’s just remember that in the ’60s, we had to fight for the environmental movement to happen. Perhaps it’s our time to make sure that we continue to fight to make sure that our core values are reflected and our kids’ future is protected. Right now is where we’re going to have to make our values known and our voices loud enough to be able to continue to move forward.

And the fun thing right now, though, is that I remember the ’60s and ’70s. You know, that was a time when it was all about big, bad business. You know what I mean? We pointed at where that smokestack was, and that’s where we were going.

You know, now it’s a little bit different. At least on climate, the business community are aligned with us. You know, more than 750 of the biggest companies in the United States sent a letter to President Trump saying, stay in the Paris agreement. They know the inevitability of a low-carbon future.

And guess what? They know there’s money in it too, because the market says that renewables are outcompeting fossil across the United States in so many markets. And it’s only getting cheaper, while fossil is getting more expensive.

And so we know that that is the shift. That’s where jobs are growing. That’s where markets are developing. So we don’t need to run away from this. And we don’t need to think of business as our enemy. We have to think about how we do this in a way that’s sensitive to the market and strengthens our economy and opens up job opportunities.

And that’s where we already are on climate. So to have Washington DC go backwards, look at what jobs there used to be, not recognize real markets today, is disappointing. And it’s not going to last, because that’s not where the real world is. And you and I have to– have to– live in the real world, thank goodness. And I’m glad I’m out of Washington and I’m in Boston.

NOAH LEAVITT: Well, so it’s interesting here, you talk about the real world and communication, because I think, as we talk a lot about communicating about climate change and communicating the health effects, it seems like, you know, we need to share this with the general public, make them understand. But it seems that what you’re saying is people get it. It’s more communicating up to those in power. So can you talk a little bit more about that shift, and I guess how can scientists raise their voices and communicate to those in power to maybe sway their opinion or their views?

GINA MCCARTHY: Well, I think science is doing better, and scientists, in terms of communicating. You know, the science is pretty clear. And what I tell the scientists here, the young ones that are our future, is that it’s really important to recognize that research is wonderful. But if you speak in the language of research, people don’t understand it.

And so while it’s extremely important for a scientist to explain where uncertainties may lie, if you lead with that, the rest doesn’t follow. Talk about what you know. Talk about what you found out, the associations and connections that you’re making, and how strong those are. And then talk about uncertainties appropriately.

But if you lead with that, people won’t understand, because people have this funny thing of thinking that science is a bunch of facts, when you don’t talk like that. And it is facts. There are facts. You know certain things. And what they don’t understand is that while you deal in layers of probability, if you stand up and say, we think it’s likely that something happened, all they hear is that you may not know.

You know, and if something is very likely, if it’s 95% out of 100, and the future of the planet is at stake, there’s very little discussion here. You know, you need to lead with that and put it in proper perspective so that people understand what you mean and not think that you’re so uncertain that they can’t rely on what you say.

And the second thing is that when scientists rightly point out that science is evolving– we mentioned this earlier, it always is– it doesn’t mean that it’s going to have wholesale change, and next week. I’m going to say, you better go back to fossil, because we found a loophole in the science that we didn’t see before. You know, it just sends the wrong signal. And you need to be careful to talk in language that people understand.

And having said that, I do think most people actually understand that the climate is changing. I’m not sure it’s as much about what scientists are telling them, about what they’re feeling and seeing themselves. You know, farmers know. They may not say “climate change is happening.” They’ll say, “Can you believe the weather? It is so extraordinarily. What are we going to do to keep our soils and our nutrients on our farms? How do we manage this and change those techniques?”

And so it’s helpful to have the science as the backstop for education. But we still have a lot of work to do, I think, in the science and communication. While most people get it, because they’re feeling it, most people don’t understand that it impacts them directly. They sort of still see this as perhaps a polar bear issue, you know, or an issue that might happen where you have migration and refugees in other countries that we’re going to have to worry about.

But climate change is our own public health issue. It impacts everybody. It’s going to matter whether you’re a laborer that does work on the roads, because the temperatures are going to become so extreme that that work is going to be more hazardous. It matters for the elderly that don’t have air conditioners, and how we start managing that.

It matters for large ecosystems like our oceans. Where are the coral reefs going to be? Those are actually the breeding grounds of fisheries that serve millions of people. What if they’re not available?

What about planetary health showing us that high levels of CO2 is actually going to rob nutrients from some of the foods that we grow that we’ve always relied on? We’re going to have to start supporting those nutrients in some other way.

So these are big challenges that we need to address, and they’re challenges that threaten our economy, our national security, not just our public health. But we need to make it personal. Everybody needs to understand it’s about them and their kids.

NOAH LEAVITT: So I think it’s interesting, because going back to what we were talking about with water and lead, I mean, Flint was a very kind of bold, singular example that kind of called attention to an issue. But with climate change, I think maybe it’s more difficult, because it’s not one single issue. It’s these small things that add up over time. So do you think that that is maybe part of the challenge, that people can’t see the nutrients in their food eroding? It’s a longer tail.

GINA MCCARTHY: Absolutely. Climate is challenging from so many perspectives. First of all, it’s– basically, it started out decades ago asking people to accept a science that they didn’t understand. Most people don’t understand science. You know, and I don’t mean that critically, but they haven’t gone to school in this. They don’t understand the difference between a weather event and a climate trend.

So when it’s– you know, when it’s really cold outside and you’ve got snow, you can have Senator Inhofe on the floor of the Senate throwing a snowball, saying this is proof that climate change isn’t happening. You and I know that’s not true, that we’re talking about 40-year, 100-year trends, not what the weather looks like today.

But part of the challenge has also been that scientists have been very leery about anybody saying that any specific weather event is an indication of climate change. Well, I think we do have to get over that, and we’re moving past that. So that when you see strings of weather events that are unusual, you can begin to put that in the context of the trend in climate that we all see and know is happening.

But the other thing is that we’ve been asking people to actually believe in climate science at a point when we didn’t have any solutions on the table. So we’re telling them, in essence, oh, our world is going downhill. You’re going to have to embrace that, make wholesale change, but I don’t know what it looks like or what to do about it.

Well, that’s changed too. We have solutions now. It’s called renewable energy. It’s called energy efficiency. It’s called cars that go farther. It’s called different types of transportation systems that may be in the offing as we urbanize and go to autonomous vehicles. What does that open up in terms of new types of transportation that can reduce greenhouse gases?

So we are on the cusp of really good things happening. Maybe people will be able to embrace it better because they see a future they can head towards, instead of one where we’re making them afraid with no solutions moving forward.

And the last issue on climate that makes it so hard is that you’re talking about politics that go well beyond anybody’s term limitations. I got to ask a politician in a four-year window to do something that perhaps won’t have extraordinary benefits until 10 or 20 years from now.

But that’s where politics need to change. Science tells us we need to think more than two-year or four-year increments. And they’ve got to do what’s right for this country and for their constituencies, even if being right means you’re investing in a prevention that really won’t have an impact until years from now. That’s going to be their legacy moving forward. And they’re either going to be on the right or wrong side of the equation. And where climate change is concerned, you better be on the right side.

NOAH LEAVITT: So just a last question. I feel like with a lot of talk on climate change, it’s very negative, doom and gloom. And there are reasons for that. But when I hear you speak, it– I don’t know, for some reason, it’s a different perspective. It’s empowering or uplifting. Why do you think you maybe bring a different perspective than other people who are speaking on climate change?

GINA MCCARTHY: That’s a really good question. Probably because I’ve worked in local communities, and at the state level, and at the federal level. None of this is new to me. And it’s all personal to me, not in terms of an offense I take, but because I really believe that the environment is so fundamental to the health and well-being of individuals and our communities. I’ve seen life change so much, and I’ve seen it benefit us economically, from a country perspective, from a job perspective. The thing you’d never want to do is deny that life is changing.

And to me, climate change was way too seen as a doom and gloom, instead of a challenge that we needed to embrace and that we could embrace in this country. In the United States, innovation is everything. You have a problem, you recognize it, you innovate to address it. You don’t sit in a corner hoping it will go away.

So to me, this is– I’m looking at a change in the future, right, that if you address climate change is right, where energy costs will go down, where I’ll be in charge of my energy generation, not a big huge utility that’s so far away from me I can’t figure out whether my bill is a good one or a bad one. I’m looking at urban areas that are not polluted anymore, that have more green space than they had before. I’m really looking at a future that’s awesome, not one in which I have to sacrifice and reluctantly head towards.

So if we get the climate issue off the table, and simply look at the solutions for climate, I got a great future. This is where we can shine. That’s why I want the United States not just to continue to take strong domestic action, because I think it’s heading to a bright future for our kids, but I want them to lead the international world.

This is where our strength is. We don’t hide. We innovate. And I want this to be about how you invest in the future, not a future that we’re worried about.

That was our interview with Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the EPA.

If you want to hear more from her, she’ll be speaking at the Harvard Chan School Commencement on Thursday, May 25. We’ll have a live stream on our website:


And coming up next week: The first of two profiles on our soon-to-be graduates.

You’ll hear from Pedro Lamothe-Molina who has spent the five last years studying a lingering question about HIV: Why do some people with the virus never get sick?


That’s coming up next week, but in the meantime you can always listen to older interview by subscribing on iTunes or Stitcher, or listening at

May 11, 2017 — In this week’s podcast we share an in-depth interview with Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and currently a Menschel Senior Leadership Fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. During her nearly four years at the helm of the EPA McCarthy helped spearhead the Obama Administration’s efforts to address climate change and increase use of renewable sources of energy. McCarthy has become a vocal advocate for the need to address climate change—and has called on scientists to be more outspoken on the issue. We spoke with McCarthy about the EPA’s critical role in protecting the public’s health, the challenges the agency faces in protecting our water and air—especially in the wake of Flint’s water crisis, and why we should view climate change as an opportunity for innovation.

You can subscribe to this podcast by visiting iTunes, listen to it by following us on Soundcloud, and stream it on the Stitcher app.