Former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, OFD, urges action on climate change

Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator and a Dorchester native, left, spoke on a panel that included Greentown Labs CEO Emily Reichert on Monday at UMass Boston. Bernadette Darcy photo

Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, a Dorchester native, was the featured speaker on Tuesday at a UMass Boston event that focused on climate change and clean energy. The panel discussion— “Clean Energy is Today’s Moon Shot”— also featured Emily Reichert, the CEO of Greentown Labs, and David Cash, dean of UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Study.

The discussion drew parallels between President Kennedy’s call to pioneer space travel and the current debate about fighting climate change. It focused on the nature of clean energy benefits and the campaign that will be required to pursue them successfully.

The event kicked off with a screening of John F. Kennedy’s “Moon Speech,” delivered in 1962 at Rice University.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win,” Kennedy said.

JFK’s words were the cornerstone for the afternoon’s discussion. His grandson, Jack Schlossberg, introduced the session by reflecting on his grandfather’s words.

“The lesson of that speech is really an important one when thinking of environmental issues,” Schlossberg said. “The basic message is that challenges are opportunities. We are lucky to be the generation that has the chance to solve the hardest problem of all time.”

McCarthy, who served as the EPA chief under President Obama from 2013 under last year, is a 1976 graduate of UMass Boston who gave the university’s commencement address in 2015. She served as an advisor to several Massachusetts governors before taking charge as Connecticut’s top environmental commissioner.

Climate scientists— as many as 97 percent of them, according to some reports— agree that climate change is primarily influenced by human activity. However, only half of Americans believe that climate change is a real threat to the US. And the Trump administration intends to repeal the Clean Power Plan enacted by the Obama administration, which was passed as a way to combat climate change.

That’s a mistake, McCarthy said. She argues that there is “absolute clarity” that climate change is real and must be met with immediate action.
Pollution of the atmosphere via excessive greenhouse gas emissions has resulted not only in an abnormal rise in temperature, she noted, but also in a variety of extreme weather events, including hurricanes, flooding, and devastating forest fires.

“The most important thing is now we do have inexpensive renewables that actually compete in the market against fossil energy—in particular, against coal,” McCarthy said.

“One of the major mistakes we’ve made on climate change is that early on the environmental community posed it as a [non-human] issue...representing it with the visual of polar bears,” McCarthy said. “We have not been able to get rid of that as the visual. It’s really not about polar bears. It’s about our kids.”

“[Climate change] is personal because it is the greatest public health challenge we face,” she added. “It’s going to exacerbate all of the challenges of us living safely right here on this coastline.”

As the director of Greentown Labs—the largest clean energy technology incubator in the nation—Reichert works with scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to support the development of green technology that combats climate change. Greentown seeks to reduce carbon emissions by promoting renewable and clean energy options that reduce environmental waste and pollution in the atmosphere.

Reichert believes that for the technology to truly be received by communities, their members need to clearly comprehend the issues at hand and understand the ways in which climate change affects them.

“Why is it that people don’t do something or that they don’t want to believe that climate change is somehow affecting them?” Reichert asked. “I think it’s just often not top of mind for people, unfortunately.”