State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Obama’s Climate Legacy Depends on EPA’s Gina McCarthy

By Melissa Seto

Photo: Environmental Protection Agency, United States Government
Photo: Environmental Protection Agency

Despite strong scientific consensus about the effect of greenhouse gases on climate and even a plea from former Republican EPA administrators for climate action, many Republican congressmen continue to seek ways to prohibit or stall greenhouse gas regulations. Consequently, President Obama has opted to use the Environmental Protection Agency to push forward crucial environmental policies.

Thus, Obama’s climate change legacy will depend heavily on newly confirmed EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. McCarthy’s EPA will determine whether the climate agenda laid out by Obama in his speech at Georgetown University in June will either succeed at reducing carbon emissions or drown in lawsuits. Her agency will need to implement national regulations in some unwelcoming states and defend these policies against polluters who challenge them in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

McCarthy is well aware of these challenges. In her first policy speech at Harvard Law School on July 30, she answered Obama’s call for the EPA to work with local governments, communities and businesses to develop rules that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants. Moreover, McCarthy proved that she and Obama were on the same page by echoing his claim that Americans should not have to choose between the environment and the economy. Instead, the American economy can benefit from developing cleaner technologies that adhere to new carbon standards: “We can harness the American entrepreneurial spirit, develop new technologies and create new jobs, while at the same time reduce carbon pollution as the stewards that our children expect us to be.”

What should we “expect” from Gina McCarthy?

McCarthy has over 30 years of experience serving in environmental agencies at the state and federal level. During this time, she worked with members from both sides of the aisle, including advising former Massachusetts Governor Romney on energy and climate. As assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation since 2009, she helped implement some important air standards. For example, the first-ever mercury and air toxics emission limit on power plants that she helped pass in 2011 is expected to prevent thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks and asthma attacks every year. Furthermore, the carbon pollution standards she helped issue jointly with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s fuel economy standards will save more than six billion barrels of oil and reduce more than 3,100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2025. We can also expect McCarthy to push forward the plan for national limits on carbon pollution from new power plants that she proposed in March 2012.

Not only does the new EPA administrator know how to maneuver the system to get new emission standards passed, but she has also proven that she can deal with partisan politics. Before she was confirmed as the new administrator, she faced more than 1,000 questions in 136 days from Senate Republicans. However, she will face even more political backlash now that she is the head of what is arguably the Republicans’ most-hated administration. Many Republicans fear that she will continue to wage her predecessor Lisa P. Jackson’s and Obama’s “war on coal.” They claim that McCarthy’s EPA will help carry out Obama’s so-called desire to replace coal with natural gas and renewable energy and thereby shut down coal plants that employ many of their constituents. Moreover, despite scientific consensus about the greenhouse gas warming effect, she will have to answer criticism from Republicans, such as House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member David Vitter (R-La.), about the EPA’s supposed lack of transparency with the science behind its air regulations. If she wants to successfully implement national carbon emission standards, she will have to find a way to navigate a highly politicized Washington.

McCarthy will also play a key role in leading the EPA’s Keystone XL Pipeline review. President Obama promised in his climate speech that he would not approve the pipeline unless the environmental impact review shows that it won’t “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” In response to a question about the EPA’s role in the Keystone pipeline debate, McCarthy indicated that the best thing the EPA could do was act as an “honest commentator” on the environmental impact statement. McCarthy added that the EPA won’t have all the answers to whether Keystone is good for the American people, but it should act as the mediator of all the opinions voiced throughout the review process.

As demonstrated most aptly by her previous air regulation achievements as the assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation, Gina McCarthy’s record in public service indicates that she can effectively work with both environmental and industrial advocates and pass important environmental regulations. Nevertheless, her biggest challenge yet is to lead the U.S. and arguably the rest of the world in setting carbon emissions standards. Her success will not only determine Obama’s climate legacy but perhaps also affect the rate of future climate change.


Melissa Seto is an intern at the Columbia Climate Center and environmental science major at Columbia College. She has also done research on the Arctic Switchyard project at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. 

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