Former EPA Chief Gina McCarthy Launches Center for Climate, Health and the Environment At Harvard
Recognizing the serious threats climate change poses to public health, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently launched C-CHANGE: the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is at the helm. Speakers at a launch event included John Holdren, former Science Advisor to President Obama; and John Kerry, former U.S. Secretary of State and a key architect of the Paris Agreement. Host Steve Curwood sat down with Gina McCarthy to discuss her vision and why she’s optimistic about the future.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has just unveiled a new initiative, C-CHANGE. That’s the letter C and change. Dean Michelle Williams recruited former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to take a departmental initiative school-wide.
BERNSTEIN: My name is Ari Bernstein. I’m delighted to welcome you to the launch of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
CURWOOD: Pediatrician Ari Bernstein is the co-director of the new center, and, as he welcomed the crowd, he highlighted core problems they plan to tackle.
BERNSTEIN: The first is the toxification of our planet, with pollution of air, fresh water and oceans at levels today that are unprecedented around the world. The second is climate change, which despite having been identified as the greatest health threat to humanity in the century, too few people realize its importance to their own health.
CURWOOD: The C-Change launch reunited some veterans of President Obama’s environment team, including former Presidential Science advisor and Harvard Professor John Holdren.
HOLDREN: Climate is the envelope within which all other environmental conditions and processes that affect our well-being must function.
CURWOOD: Professor Holdren says science explains how disrupting the climate leads to heatwaves, to wildfires, to floods, to sea level rise. Yet he notes the Trump White House still has no science advisor or council on science and technology.
HOLDREN: Something that President Obama understood very clearly and it appears President Trump does not understand so clearly is that science is crucial to moving the needle on virtually every national priority on the list. C-CHANGE is going to be in the business of keeping science and scientists relevant. I think nothing could be more important than that.
CURWOOD: Former Secretary of State John Kerry, a chief architect of the Paris Climate Agreement and another member of the Obama green team, took the occasion to sound an alarm.
KERRY: I find it…it’s not just incredible, it’s near criminal in the level of negligence that it represents which is to have a president of the United States who literally discards, disavows, and shows a complete disinterest in facts and in science and pulling out of the Paris Agreement is contrary to every fact. So, to have a president and an EPA director who are not just avoiding the realities of climate but who are avoiding all sense of responsibility to the future is beyond stunning. Lives will be lost!
CURWOOD: And former EPA head Gina McCarthy believes that in tackling the health problems related to climate change, C-CHANGE will build from Harvard’s legacy of life-saving research.
MCCARTHY: Pollution keeps people down. Clean healthy lives raises people up, it gives them a voice in their own future. That’s what science can do, that’s what our work is going to try to support. Thank you very much.
MCCARTHY: This is wicked fun, isn’t it? I love launches! Where’s the champagne?
[APPLAUSE, AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
CURWOOD: We didn’t have any champagne when we pulled Gina McCarthy aside.
CURWOOD: So, what's your new title? Are you Professor, or are you Administrator, or are you Madam? What do I call you?
MCCARTHY: [LAUGHS] Gina would be best, but I am a full-time professor here at Harvard, and I'm also the director of a new center that we’re launching today called the Harvard Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment. We thought it was important to recognize at the School of Public Health that climate change is the biggest public health challenge that we face, and we wanted to put a different spin and face on climate change and its connection to public health. We need people to understand that climate change impacts them, their families, their kids' future. But also we thought that with so much resources that are going to have to be directed towards addressing climate change, why not try to not just fix the planet in the future, but let's fix public health today. We have some real challenges, and if you bring climate change down to size, it's nothing but carbon pollution. This school has attacked pollution for decades, identified it as a public health problem, helped design solutions. That's what we need to bring to the table today. Let's connect the dots. Let's make it manageable. Let's not scare people. Let's actually use this as an investment opportunity to do both. It's a great two-fer. My mother woulda loved it.
CURWOOD: So, what do you do on Day One to bring people in?
MCCARTHY: Well, we are doing a number of things. One is we're doing obviously outreach now. The center has had a great amount of people that have invested and done work in it. We're trying to extend the opportunity for this to be a school-wide center, so it's not just about environmental health challenges. It's about the full range of public health impacts that this school looks at, everything from not just air pollution but communicable disease, infectious diseases, population issues, how you build buildings and make them safe and clean. It's about nutrition and what does that mean for a low carbon future, where are we going to get our protein, how are you gonna grow it? And the whole role of the center is to really make that science actionable and bring it to people who can do something with it.
CURWOOD: OK, so how do you cut through the fog? What do you want to do with kids?
MCCARTHY: You know, kids are very special little creatures. They are absolutely more vulnerable to all sources of pollution because their bodies behave differently. So, one of the tasks is to understand how do we reduce air pollution and reduce the impacts of climate in ways that are going to keep our kids healthy today and also advance our interest in stabilizing the planet.
CURWOOD: How do you drive a research effort in this area? You know, folks in the academy tend to… well, they want to study what they want to study.
MCCARTHY: One of the ways in which the center can work is to sit down with the scientists and identify what they're learning, and we can do indirect focus research as well, to make sure that it is absolutely on target. You know, scientists went into this business because they cared about public health, not just as an intellectual exercise, which is why I'm here. None of this is going to be about pie-in-the-sky ideas. It is going to be, what do we know, how do we get that information out to the public, they can make choices themselves, and also get it to other decision-makers. Because, Steve, you and I know there's ebbs and flows at the federal level. We're at one of the biggest ebbs that I think I've ever seen, but I do think that people can step up and want to step up. We're seeing it in states. We're seeing it in cities. We're seeing it in the private sector. And if that's where the action is, then I'm sitting in a pretty sweet spot right now.
CURWOOD: If there was one research project that you could see get going around healthy kids and the question of climate change, what would be the one that you would want to start right now?
MCCARTHY: Actually there is some associations that are being seen in the research community between exposures to particulate matter, the small particulate matter in the air right now, that looks like it's impacting the neurological systems of our kids as well as our adults. So, there are hints that there's a connection between autism and dementia, and exposure to significant levels of air pollution. I think we deserve to bring that to ground. We're beginning to see that there are actually changes in the fetus when the mother is exposed to air pollution, changes that result in higher blood pressure for kids when they’re born. These are big-deal issues, and I don't need government to translate that for normal human beings.
CURWOOD: And of course, those particulates get belched out of the smoke stacks of coal-fired power plants, out of the tailpipes of diesel and other fossil-fuel vehicles. So, there are multipliers there. So, better fuel economy would make for smarter Americans?
MCCARTHY: [LAUGHS] That's a really good way of tying some dots. You know, I think my argument would be that if you look at climate change through the lens of public health, then you can identify significant opportunities to make the world a healthier place, to protect our kids' health today while we look at how we create a more sustainable and just future. Steve, the information that I'm reading -- and it's nice to not just have to read rules all the time, frankly! -- but the stuff that I'm reading is really telling me that we are facing like nine million people across the world every year dying from exposure to traditional pollutants, and that's just the handful that we can quantify. So you have 1.1 million people that are estimated to die every year in New Delhi prematurely, because of air pollution. Now, if we want India to participate in climate change actions, why wouldn't we tell them to look at the sources that are impacting those 1.1 million people? Because if you do, you'll see that the sources are the coal-fired power plants and the old primitive cookstoves, which are burning coal and dung and other things that are available. And you would focus your attention there, which is the biggest two-fer of our lives, right? I can actually show India that by being a good world citizen in correcting a problem that they think pretty much the developed world has created -- which they're not wrong about -- and I can tell them how to get there in ways that make their communities healthier, that lift their people out of poverty, that give them a voice. That's how democracy will be secured. That's how national security will be secured. That is a future that we can grab today.
CURWOOD: Indeed. Talk to me about what you want to do around buildings.
MCCARTHY: Well, I think we all know that there has been a movement called the green buildings, which has been a great movement. It's an opportunity to recognize that buildings contribute somewhere in the vicinity of 30 percent of the greenhouse gases, are actually being generated by energy that is used in buildings. And so there's been a great movement to make them tighter, to make them more efficient, to think about how we can adjust to a very urbanized area which is what the world is going into. But what -- the dimension we want to add to that is a healthy buildings dimension. If you're going to go green, what you're gonna have to recognize is, you better take care of the indoor air quality, or you are going to simply make people sick while you make those buildings green. Nobody wants that, and there are tremendous opportunities today. We already know that indoor air is a challenge, but we know that there's monitoring that can speak to your HVAC system that can make that air flow where it's needed, when it's needed. We are tracking what that means not just for the health of the people in it, but -- and this is important, Steve -- but their productivity. So, if I really want to make the case for businesses everywhere to start looking, not just at greening their buildings but making them more healthy, we can turn that into an investment for them, not a cost. That's what we have to do with everything. We've succeeded in the clean energy market in the United States. It's taken off like crazy because clean energy is cheaper, and it's smarter, it's in the market, it's built into the system. That's what we need to do with buildings too.
CURWOOD: So, what about healthy cities and climate? This is an initiative you have with your center.
MCCARTHY: Yeah, well, this is a really a great initiative because it's focused on cities where most of the action is these days. Mayors are stepping up, they're making commitments. They want the international community to know that we’re all still in. So, it's great to have California, it's great to have RGGI here in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, but we need that action to be spread all over. That's where mayors come in. They can't hide from the challenge of climate change, and they’re not. One of the things they're beginning to do is to make commitments to mitigate climate, not just commitments to adapt and invest in resilient cities. And so we want to work with them because we have ways -- for example, they're investing pretty heavily in electric buses, which is great for the transportation sector, but it's also great if those buses go in the communities that are most vulnerable because they are already facing significant air pollution. So, why wouldn't you put those buses in those most vulnerable communities, so that a mayor can make an announcement that's not just, I'm spending taxpayer dollars for the future. He can say, I'm investing in the communities today that need those air pollution reductions the most.
CURWOOD: So, let's look ahead to the Paris Climate Agreement. There's another big session coming up this year in December in Poland. What will you be saying there? You have an opportunity to talk to the world about these initiatives there.
MCCARTHY: I think I want to tell people that the U.S. is still in. Secondly, that the work that we’re doing today, it provides opportunities for solutions to climate change that can improve their lives, that can help them build a stronger economy. It's unacceptable and it's not just to have that many millions of people in poverty, particularly the most heavily hit -- which are the most vulnerable and disenfranchised -- not being considered as a central component of a sustainable development strategy, and I think we owe it to the world and I think we benefit every time another country gets healthier.
CURWOOD: So, at Harvard, you are launching this Center for Climate Health and the Global Environment, really re-versioning something that's been going on for a number of years. And it seems like you've gotten the old gang together. You have President Obama's former science advisor John Holdren, you have his Secretary of State John Kerry, who was such a leader in the whole Paris process, and you have, uh, what's her name? Gina McCarthy, ran the EPA?
MCCARTHY: Yes, she did. Really well, I might add. [LAUGHS]
CURWOOD: So, government in exile here?
MCCARTHY: You know, one of the things that was most ingenious about the strategy that President Obama took on climate change was that for the first time -- and I've been working on climate change for a long time at the state level -- for the first time, climate change was seen as more than just the planet is unhealthy. It was more than just focusing on polar bears.
CURWOOD: I don't see polar bears on your literature here.
MCCARTHY: Well, we do love them but they're invested in elsewhere. But he really made it the case that he needed his entire administration to work together because climate change impacted everything. It impacted our public health, our national security, our economic growth. He saw it as both a challenge and an opportunity. I'm going to keep that attitude, and I think I worked with John Holdren because he was the president's main science advisor in the White House. I worked with John Kerry because he's been focused on these issues for so long, and what we knew was that the U.S. had to deliver really strong actions on climate, which we succeeded at doing at EPA because of the great people there. And we knew that John Kerry could carry that with the president and turn it into an international agreement. And we were extraordinarily proud of that, and I want that pride to continue. I want the people to understand that this is not about what's happening in Washington. It's about real life, real people, our kids' future. If we can get that message, if we can keep optimistic, then I think that we can make some terrific reductions in the kind of pollution that's impacting our lives today and our future tomorrow.
CURWOOD: Gina McCarthy is the former EPA administrator and now leads the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Professor, thanks for taking the time with us today.
MCCARTHY: Wonderful to talk to you again, Steve. Thanks.
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