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Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator and first-ever White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy discussed President Joe Biden’s climate policies and obstacles to further legislation during a Wednesday lecture.
McCarthy — who was joined by James H. Stock, the University’s vice provost for climate and sustainability and a professor of political economy — delivered the Warren and Anita Manshel Lecture in American Foreign Policy.
More than 50 people attended McCarthy’s talk, which was co-sponsored by the Office of Sustainability and Climate and the Weatherhead Research Cluster on Climate Change and hosted in Smith Campus Center.
McCarthy opened her lecture with praise for the Biden administration’s stance on climate change.
“After 20 years of local and state efforts that I have participated in to try new ideas, new policies, things to think about, strategies, Joe Biden knew the solution — that we needed to make any progress on climate fast — was already there for us to grab,” she said. “He was simply fearless in making his position clear and driving that change at every opportunity that he had available.”
McCarthy then explained the “pillars” of President Biden’s policies, which she said include creating millions of jobs and reducing Americans’ energy bills. These plans, she said, persuaded her to leave her position as CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy organization.
“I just couldn’t say no, because I knew that it would provide an opportunity for us to actually elevate this issue in a way that would immediately get our country excited, especially to young people that have been fighting so hard,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said she believes she saw this opportunity when Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act last summer. Under the legislation, the federal government will invest hundreds of billions of dollars over the next 10 years to reduce the cost of renewable energy.
“I’m really proud of the work that got done,” McCarthy said, listing other recent climate legislation. “That is what is going to actually drive us towards a cleaner and healthier future for American workers and for their families.”
McCarthy emphasized the importance of the U.S.’ role in addressing global climate change.
“This is good, but our future is still at stake. And we have to work every single day, make all the money, and work with companies all across the globe so that everybody can see that there is an opportunity for them,” she said.
Following the lecture, McCarthy entered into discussion with Stock.
McCarthy first responded to a question about the pushback that may come with increasing regulation on coal production from the Supreme Court and Congress.
“If we make our decisions based on this Supreme Court, we will do absolutely nothing,” she said.
McCarthy also expressed disappointment with the Biden administration’s failure to limit drilling on federal land.
“Look, we are dealing with laws that are 100 years old; they are irrelevant today,” she said. “The courts are not going to be friendly to any change in the status quo.”
McCarthy said the Supreme Court’s inaction explains why the administration has focused so heavily on the private sector and demand side.
“If our clean energy strategies can compete effectively against fossil fuels, that’s where the soft underbelly of change has to live,” she said.
Stock also asked McCarthy what Harvard can do to contribute to sustainability.
“I am a big believer in divestment, pure and simple,” McCarthy said.
She added that Harvard should also attempt to purchase goods for University operations carefully and maximize energy efficiency.
McCarthy concluded by emphasizing the unique role students play in the sustainability movement.
“I honestly don’t know anyone in Washington, anyone in the White House, that does not believe that the young people are the driver of change,” she said.
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