White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy spoke about looking at climate change activism as an opportunity for innovation rather than a barrier to growth at a virtual JFK Jr. Forum hosted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics on Monday.
Returning from the United Nations 2021 Climate Change Conference, McCarthy discussed her role in representing the United States' position on climate change at an international level, as well as the Biden administration’s approach to climate policy in its newly passed infrastructure bill and the role of “young people” in environmental advocacy.
McCarthy, chair of U.S. President Joe Biden’s National Climate Task Force, formerly headed the Environmental Protection Agency under former U.S. president Barack Obama and also served as a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, where she directed its Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment.
McCarthy said she believes the conference enabled the Biden administration to reaffirm its focus on “tackling” climate change.
“The greatest accomplishment, I think, was to make sure that the rest of the world knew that President Biden and his administration was fully committed to the challenge of climate change,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy also said she believes it is important to shift the narrative of climate activism from “a sacrifice” to a “hopeful path forward.”
“The country that races to achieve these goals will be the winner, not the loser,” she said. “It is an opportunity. It is how we’re going to grow economically. It is how we’re going to make the world healthier and preserve it for our future.”
McCarthy said the intersection of public health and climate change has played a role in her life since she attended grammar school across the street from a rubber company.
“Everyday they would manufacture rubber, and at certain points in time the smell would just knock you off your socks,” she said. “I do know pollution when I smell it, and it just never left me.”
McCarthy argued that the U.S. has an “outsized responsibility” to combat climate change domestically by lowering greenhouse gas emissions before “pointing fingers at other countries."
Turning to the recently passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, McCarthy said the administration was committed to using “every penny and every program” in the bill “with environmental justice in mind.”
For the last 10 minutes of the virtual event, former U.S. Rep. Philip R. Sharp (D-Ind.), who also previously served as director of the IOP, joined the forum.
Sharp said he believes policies are “only part of the solution” to climate change, calling “non-government entities” — such as universities and climate activists — “incredible accelerators.”
McCarthy urged climate activists to be “impatient” and “vocal."