As EPA administrator under former president Barack Obama, Gina McCarthy crafted a slate of ambitious policies to curb planet-warming carbon pollution. But since Trump took office, she has seen much of her work undone. McCarthy may be discouraged, but she is not defeated. She recently spoke to Nexus Media about environmental inequality, government corruption, and how she has drawn inspiration from the growing youth climate movement. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s difficult to talk about inequality and climate change because those are both very abstract concepts. Where do you see climate change worsening inequality in real and visible ways?
I see inequality and climate change being directly related to the fact that climate change is really caused by a pollutant — it’s carbon pollution. Throughout the 40-plus years that I have been working on pollution issues, they have never been fair.
If you look at poor areas and urban areas, those are the ones where you have [more heat] because they tend to have less green space, fewer trees lining the roadways, and more air pollution. And when you have heat and air pollution, you have more ozone, which always impacts those most vulnerable, particularly kids with asthma and elderly that are experiencing both cardiac and lung problems.
Why do you think inequality doesn’t feature more prominently in the conversation about climate change?
I think it’s beginning to. I think young people are honed in on this issue. They see this as a fundamental issue of fairness.
There’s an inherent inequity in our democracy right now where it responds to the needs of the rich over the absolute priority needs of the poor. And there’s a rejection of that among young people. They don’t want it. They don’t believe it’s fair. They don’t believe it’s just. And they know that climate change is doing nothing but making those inequities more severe.
What recent changes at the EPA could exacerbate inequality?
The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which we call MATS. They have decided that the cost of moving forward with that rule — which has already been complied with, which reduces mercury and other toxics in our air, mostly in urban areas, mostly surrounding coal-fired power plants — they’ve decided that it’s no longer cost-beneficial.
They have made that decision solely on the basis of a ridiculously limited cost-benefit analysis, which doesn’t look at the full range of benefits, particularly for the communities that need it the most.
They’re doing this in order to allow utilities to simply stop using equipment they have already invested in — with taxpayer dollars, in many instances — equipment that reduces toxic contaminants, equipment that has a disproportionate benefit to communities of color. It’s just abhorrent to do this in the way they’re doing it. And it really gives away their hand.
They’re simply interested in rolling back any pollution standards, and they know that those pollution standards are designed to protect those most vulnerable.
You have said that Trump won’t get away with everything. What will he get away with?
He’s already getting away with the inertia he has put into the system.
When he rolls back [an environmental protection], if you can immediately go to court and get an injunction against that rollback, that’s fine. And that’s happened on many instances.
But there are a lot of [rollbacks] that won’t respond immediately to challenges in the courts. They are going to be deliberated. Some may go all the way to the Supreme Court.
It has created a level of tremendous uncertainty [for businesses], and it’s only going to add to our inability to jumpstart actions that are essential, not just to protect our planet, but to protect our immediate health.
A lot of people who think about climate change have said we can’t solve this problem without a radical disruption to the status quo — Naomi Klein, for example. Is that something that you believe?
I still am a firm believer in capitalism. I just want a capitalistic system that’s run right, where the rules are fair, and where equity is one of the profound foundations of that system. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe I’ve seen too much outside of our democracy that I didn’t like, but I believe the United States can still be a leader with our democratic system. I just think we’re falling apart because corruption has built its way into the system and because those in power, like the fossil fuel industry, want to continue to remain there.
How can people respond?
One of the reasons I was so excited about the climate strike is that, hopefully, it is a wake-up call to people my age and to the parents of those children. Sometimes you need to listen to the kids, and you need to stop and think about what you’re doing.
It’s about investing in companies and buying products from companies that share our values. It’s about demanding that schools and universities divest of fossil fuels and invest in the things that share our values.
If we want to win on the climate crisis, we need to build hope. We need to change reality at every level and then demand at the federal level that they get back into the game.
If a politician today is worried they may not get voted back into office, my suggestion to them is they better get moving on climate because the next generation is not going to tolerate it. And frankly, neither is mine anymore. The solutions are there. We can make them happen.