Biden’s climate chief Gina McCarthy on mobilizing “armies of people” to cut emissions

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President Biden’s national climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, speaks to reporters in Wilmington, Delaware, on December 19, 2020. | Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

In an interview with Vox, McCarthy explains what it will take to marshal the power of the federal government on climate.

Getting the United States back in the Paris climate agreement was the easy part. Now comes the hard part.

In President Joe Biden’s administration, White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy is the person responsible for setting the United States’ new goal for reducing its emissions. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to get the US to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In late April, McCarthy — working in tandem with her international counterpart, White House climate envoy John Kerry — is expected to announce the new US emissions target ahead of the next United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

In many ways, Biden’s White House has learned what not to do from previous administrations. President Donald Trump focused much of his anti-climate action through executive orders and cutting regulations — things that were changed by a stroke of a pen once Biden took office. Even Trump’s attempt to end the Clean Power Plan was hung up in the courts.

For this reason, the Biden administration is far more focused on making concrete changes: constructing a raft of electric vehicle charging stations around the nation, building energy-efficient homes and offices, and increasing the number of solar and wind farms to power clean energy in the country.

Physical changes like these are “hard to roll back,” a White House official told me.

Actually hitting these goals will take a lot of quick work from every single government agency, plus powerful outside utilities, industry, and unions that employ hundreds of thousands of people and are still hesitant to transition away from fossil fuels.

“The job I have is really about making sure that climate and equity and job growth are really considerations across the whole of government,” McCarthy told me in a recent interview.

McCarthy’s leadership is crucial because the federal government’s actions (or inaction) to combat climate change matter enormously; after all, it’s America’s largest employer. The US military alone emits more emissions and purchases more fuel than many other developed nations. The federal government changing its energy spending habits has a big impact, but it can also spur the private businesses it contracts with to change.

“We’re talking to the auto companies about electric vehicles, how we can begin to make investments of our own through our budgets and procurement, to actually buy the kind of vehicles that the federal government should be driving,” McCarthy said. “To actually use our federal buildings as opportunities for weatherization and energy efficiency; you look at housing opportunities that way.”

The 66-year-old McCarthy told me she won’t just be “hunkered down in my office talking to the various agencies.” She’s also communicating frequently with lawmakers on Capitol Hill ahead of the launch of Biden’s green infrastructure package in March, and has been busy calling union leaders and America’s business community.

“There are already a number of climate bills that are on the table; some have bipartisan support, so I expect Congress to be very active in this area,” she told me. “But you can bet we’re not going to simply rely on Congress to act.”

I recently spoke with McCarthy on the phone about the Biden administration’s vision for a clean energy economy, how to put forgotten coal communities back to work, and how to boost unionization rates to ensure that energy jobs actually do pay high wages.

Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ella Nilsen

Yours is a new role, so what is your vision for what your office does?

White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy

It’s pretty broad. The job I have is really about making sure that climate and equity and job growth are really considerations across the whole of government.

So it does mean that I’m not just hunkered down in my office talking to the various agencies — which we frankly are doing — to make sure every tool we can identify to advance clean energy is available to us and on the table. But I’m also reaching out to folks on the Hill; obviously, they matter. I’m talking to folks in the business community, the regulatory community, investors.

I think at this point, climate seems to be such a core issue in many sectors. It’s no longer just a few people trying to convince others that climate change is real and work needs to happen on it. It seems to be that lots of people are reaching out to us, giving us the best ideas of how they think we can address the climate crisis in a way that’s going to advance and stabilize our economy, and grow jobs and, frankly, make our world a little more just and healthy. Everyone had ideas, and we’re open to all of them.

Ella Nilsen

BuzzFeed News reporting revealed that over 800 staffers left the EPA under the Trump administration. Which federal agencies have the furthest to go to rebuild after Trump and then get to the emissions targets you’re envisioning, and how long could that take?

Gina McCarthy

Let me step back. During the transition period when the advance teams went out and started working with the transition teams in the various agencies, it became very quickly understood that the agencies were more disadvantaged and, frankly, devastated than anyone had anticipated. You’re right, there’s a lot of people that left federal service. A lot of that was related to the prior administration’s denial — not just of climate science but science in general — and the political interference with traditionally expert roles in telling us what the science and the facts are.

It’s been very difficult for the agencies, and there needs to be some rebuild here. But the good news is there’s been a lot of effort across the agencies to continue to be prepared for the next administration — now this administration — to be able to take steps forward. And a lot of the work that we did before [Trump’s] administration tried to roll it back has now become available to us again, and new ideas are coming to the fore.

Wanting to be part of the solutions here, that’s going to drive the future in a way with the values that President Biden has articulated, which is to address climate but do it in a way that recognizes that people need jobs today. They need good food on the table. There’s clear understanding that clean energy is the path to grow those jobs of the future. His commitment to environmental justice, to think about equity in all decisions.

We have armies of people who care about climate these days, way more than we had 40 years ago. Who aren’t just relying on us but doing their own work, and it’s going to be a great opportunity for progress moving forward.

Ella Nilsen

Any good ideas in particular that stand out?

Gina McCarthy

Well, none that we haven’t already talked about publicly. If you look at the executive orders, we’ve set up a real path forward and identified work that we’re going to do together. We’re actually looking at great job opportunities that we’re hoping to provide with our new civilian Climate Corps, that’s going to be an exciting opportunity.

We’re going to look at our oil and gas sector, at all those wells that had been abandoned that are spewing methane, and hopefully that provides an opportunity for some job transition into that work so that we can keep and get people back to work. We’re talking to the auto companies already. We have to get 2035 to zero in emissions in the power sector. You can bet we’re having those conversations already, because there’s real opportunity to make investments in that sector that are going to launch some tremendous job growth. In renewable energy, clean energy, energy efficiency.

We’re talking to the auto companies about electric vehicles, how we can begin to make investments of our own through our budgets and procurement, to actually buy the kind of vehicles that the federal government should be driving. To actually use our federal buildings as opportunities for weatherization and energy efficiency. So there’s just a wealth of economic opportunities that we can capture that are going to take a real chunk out of the challenge of climate change.

Ella Nilsen

Unionization rates in renewable energies like wind and solar are lower than fossil fuel industry jobs. Why aren’t there more good-paying union wind and solar jobs, and how do you increase that number?

Gina McCarthy

You’re going to see us integrating that issue into investment opportunities and how we send all the right signals to folks that we want them not just to have a job, but a good-paying union job. We’re going to be tackling that issue; President Biden does not think that’s a secondary consideration.

Clean energy is a broad sector. You will find that there are some entry-level positions that are available, like putting solar on top of rooftops, that aren’t as good-paying as others, but we also have in the queue a lot of big projects, like Vineyard Wind [a New England offshore wind project that, if completed, would be the first utility-size offshore wind farm]. We just sent a signal a few days ago to say that permit is no longer going to be on hold, we’re going to move it forward. It’s sending those kinds of signals. We have utility-scale solar that needs opportunities for transmission connections and others.

We’re going to look for opportunities for great-paying clean energy jobs and push those along. Not just through [federal] procurement but through a variety of projects that may be lingering, permits we can issue, ways in which we can make transmission lines … as we look at broadband access and advancement.

Ella Nilsen

What is Congress’s role in President Biden’s climate plan, and what can your administration do without Congress?

Gina McCarthy

There are already a number of climate bills that are on the table; some have bipartisan support, so I expect Congress to be very active in this area. But you can bet we’re not going to simply rely on Congress to act.

That’s why I wanted to point out the fact that the federal government spends a considerable amount of money every single year. If we use our procurement, our process to advance clean energy in the kind of jobs we want to grow, that’s going to attract private sector investment and leverage that moving forward. We’re looking at all the programs that are available and how we might use those to tweak additional private sector investment in areas we really need.

We have to look at better housing for people. Why wouldn’t we want to make it healthier, why wouldn’t we want to weatherize, why wouldn’t we want to advance energy efficiency, and use opportunities in our programs to do all of that? So there’s lots we can do already with our own budget and how we spend it, but also the procurement process — move that forward.

Ella Nilsen

States and cities are going to be critical in actually implementing Biden’s climate policies. Certain states like California and Colorado are way ahead of the federal government in terms of implementing innovative climate policy. Some are really behind. How can you encourage a more uniform implementation of Biden’s climate policies across the board?

Gina McCarthy

First of all, I’d just say that states and cities have been the engines of both innovation and deployment of existing opportunities for the past four years. They have been a remarkable success; it’s like 25 states have renewable energy or clean energy standards. We’re talking about hundreds of cities. The very last thing I would ever do as someone who worked at the state level for more than 20 years is forget about them.

They are the ones that are going to bring new ideas to the table; we’re going to look at what’s been successful in those states, what’s had actual bipartisan support. Because don’t forget, clean energy’s been cheaper and more competitive in most regions across the country, which is why clean energy has really been growing jobs at three times the pace of other sectors before this pandemic hit, and I expect will rally the same again.

We’re going to look at what works there, what’s transferrable and appropriate to think about for national standards, and how do we keep providing resources to states and cities through the federal budget and through procurement so they have opportunities to innovate.

I think there’s remarkable opportunity also as we look at our national commitment under the Paris agreement, to look at how far states and cities have gone, and what we can expect moving forward from that. Because it isn’t just about the federal government acting; this is about recognizing that the future is about what’s good for our nation, what’s good for our states and our cities. So I’m really excited about the continued work here.

Ella Nilsen

Biden’s plan mentions “making an unprecedented investment” in coal and fossil fuel communities that have been left behind. What does an “unprecedented investment” look like?

Gina McCarthy

That is the job of a task force that is just beginning to meet … I’m going to co-chair that with Brian Deese, who is the chair of the National Economic Council.

The one thing we’ve learned is a person’s job is important and it’s also closely aligned with where they live, what community they want to live in. Our challenge is going to be to make sure that we’re reaching out to those communities, identifying the job opportunities available to them in their areas and growing those.

I’ll give you just a couple of examples. You’ve seen the executive order identifying opportunities for us to actually put people to work with skills that they already have. Oil and gas wells are spewing methane now, which is a superpollutant. We can work with those communities to put people to work repairing and closing those wells. That’s a huge benefit to climate, and it’s a huge opportunity because we have thousands of those wells. The same could be said for coal mines that have never been properly dealt with. So we do have opportunities in the brownfield area, we have opportunities in infrastructure investments that we’re going to make.

There should be no shortage of job opportunities. I think the question is how do we make sure that those opportunities are both good-paying and union, because in many cases those are the jobs that people are most worried about, and we don’t want to ask people to sacrifice at a time when we simply need to regrow our economy — and don’t shoot for small growth, shoot for big growth.

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