What has the environmental movement accomplished since the first Earth Day in 1970? Where is the movement headed? In this episode of Today in Public Health, we talked to Gina McCarthy, former head of the Environmental Protection Administration under president Obama. Here, she reflects on the strides we’ve made, and the need to frame climate change as a public health crisis going forward. At the time of this podcast, McCarthy was chair of the Board of Advisors at the Harvard Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE)—today, she is the White House National Climate Advisor.
David Levin: You’re listening to Harvard Chan: This Week in Health. I’m David Levin.
Gina McCarthy: It is 50 years since the first earth day. So what better time is it to talk about the planet and our health?
David Levin: That’s Gina McCarthy, the former head of Harvard Chan’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, or C-CHANGE. She’s also former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama.
Today, things do look a lot different than in 1970, when the first Earth day took place. The communities where we live are cleaner and safer overall… but we are still facing a major challenge to public health—and that’s climate change. It’s effects aren’t always obvious, but they’re slowly altering our world. Changing climate brings problems like sea level rise. Droughts. More intense storms. And most notably, a rise in global pandemics, like the one we’re facing right now.
In this episode, we talked to Dr. McCarthy about how far the world has come since the first Earth Day, how we can better protect its environments in the future.
David Levin: I’m wondering—as far as environmental issues are concerned, what’s changed between then and now. How far have we come and what new challenges do we face?
Gina McCarthy: Well, there’s a lot that has changed, not least of which is how old I’ve gotten in those 50 years [laughs], but perhaps more importantly for everybody is to look back, and at least for folks my age, we can remember what the world looked like here in the United States. We can remember that Orange County down in California looked like it was called the Orange because of its air quality, not just the citrus it was producing. And we can remember what Pittsburgh used to look like. And we can remember the litter on the side of the road, you know, we can remember not just the air problems, but the water quality problems we were facing. You know, we were pretty new then to environmental challenges and they were in your face.
I used to work in and live in the Boston area, really almost all my life. And when I was a kid, we would swim in Boston Harbor, but you’d have to come out and pick the little oil spots off your skin. Right? You know, the tar was sticking to you. It was just not the place where anybody wanted to be. But that’s where we had to swim and those things have changed. And now Boston Harbor is, is an amazing place and the Harbor is seen as the engine that really drives economic vitality, not just in Boston but the region. And so we’ve learned, I think, how to clean up the air considerably, how to keep our water quality good. It doesn’t mean we don’t have continued challenges cause we do—it’s a big lesson for us, I think in climate change, about the differences between then and now, which we can tout and say, we did this before, we can do it again. But it’s also recognizing the unique challenges of climate change, which don’t have the visceral sort of feel about them that all the pollution back in the fifties and sixties did.
David Levin: I’m really glad you said that because I, I’d love to know why you think it’s so important to frame climate change as a public health issue now. How could that help change the way people perceive the problem?
Gina McCarthy: Yeah, I think that’s been one of the challenges that we have faced is that, you know, we bought into fossil fuel at the transition of the industrial revolution and we know now a lot more than we did then about the health impact that fossil fuels have imposed, particularly the burning of it, which has been the source of the energy generation now for centuries. And we need to really rethink that. But the challenge that we have with climate change is, you know, it, you can’t see it and feel it and taste it. We have basically spent decades trying to explain it to people from a science perspective, but if people can’t see it, it’s hard to buy into it. Especially when you’re talking about changing the entire way in which civilization has relied on to produce energy for us. I mean, you know, that’s going to be a hard sell no matter what. And also we’ve talked about it as if it’s about the planet, not people. And the planet really doesn’t care that we have forced it to change the way wind works and the way the oceans manage themselves. People do. And so it’s really a human issue, not a planetary issue. And lastly, we keep talking about it as, as what’s going to happen in 2030, 2050, 2100 so people can’t see it, feel it, taste it, they feel like it’s too big a problem to recognize cause they don’t know how to fix it.
And people feel disempowered to fix it cause nobody’s talking to them about really what they can do in their lives now that, that are better for them. And, and we need to put a real human face on this issue. And I’ve been working in the pollution field and I see climate as nothing more than carbon pollution, methane pollution. This is standard ways in which we can think about making change happen. And, and nobody actually addressed pollution challenges over the years and less. It became a personal issue to them. And health drives action. People care about their health, they in particular care about their health for their children. And I think the science here at the school of public health needs to get out into the ether and discussed more because it makes that link for people. It makes climate change real personal relevant because it talks about what it means for you and your family, not what it means about the planet are far away time.
David Levin: So can you describe what C-CHANGE and Harvard Chan are doing to combat the climate crisis? And not just in terms of studying it or in terms of communicating about it, but, but in terms of real action?
Gina McCarthy: Well, you know, we are actually at the center for climate health and the global environment focused on bringing new people to the table, advancing engagement, not just talking about what we know, but talking about what can be done, talking about what actions can be taken. And I think in many ways, more importantly what we’re trying to work at the community level and the state and the city level and regional level to make people understand that the solutions climate change are available to us. They need to ask for them. And in many cases they need to demand them.
And that if they did, the solutions would make the world a healthier end, a more just place. So there is no way that we should be shying away from this challenge because we’re worried about the future, what the future might bring. Exactly opposite. We need to embrace the challenge because we’re worried about what the future may bring. And so part of this, this discussion // is to look at how you communicate climate change. How do you reach and motivate a broad movement of human beings at the community level that will demand more of decision makers and of themselves? What are the solutions? How do we drive these? // we have to be more sophisticated in thinking that if science is published in a peer reviewed journal, will anybody read it or will everybody read it? And we know that it’s the former, not the latter. And we need to be able to then communicate what it means to us in a message that makes it personal to us. So you won’t be able to reach the audience you’re talking to in a personal way. So it’s storytelling.
David Levin: That’s particularly interesting to me, especially as a science writer.
Gina McCarthy: Yeah. [Laughs] …I’m sorry, I don’t mean to denigrate your job in any way.
David Levin: Not at all. Not at all. I mean the world was built on stories.
Gina McCarthy: Yes.
David Levin: But I’m wondering, you know, when it comes to developing your own narrative about climate change, what, where does storytelling come into this and why is it so powerful for, you know, moving the needle and getting real change to occur?
Gina McCarthy: You know, I think in many ways the storytelling aspect is the way in which people actually learn today. You know, you’re inundated with information. You have to catch people at a glimpse to pay attention to whatever you’re saying. You know, you always in the end even remember broad systemic problems like the environment in the, in the sixties and seventies as a place-based issue, as a human issue. You don’t remember the number of, of particulate matter that you have in Beijing today. You remember the fact that people walk around in masks there every day. And we saw the same thing happening when I went to San Francisco when // the paradise fire was burning, people were walking down the streets in San Francisco and in the hotels with heavy duty masks on their face.
I never ever thought in the United States of America after 40 years of trying to clean the air, that that would be something I would ever see. And, and so it’s just all about relating to people. It’s all about making it real. It’s all about putting that image in front of their face that says, that could be me. That could be me. And that makes people sit up and wonder what I can do about it. And if that face is a young person and we can make the case that it’s about our kids’ future, then I’m hoping that it will be more than one or two people that begin to take notice and act. But we need to turn from anger and angst to recognizing the challenge, and being hopeful that we as individuals and as members of a community in a democracy and a world order can move this ball forward.
David Levin: But when it comes to making something personal, and you know, you mentioned a lot of the, the early images from the environmental movement were place-based—but we’re facing a much bigger global crisis now. So how do you start to translate some of that into a global problem, when it hits every place?
Gina McCarthy: Yeah, I think it’s a good question and // the reason why it’s most challenging is because none of us as individuals can fix the planet. We can’t reverse what what has already happened as a result of the accumulation of CO2 in our atmosphere. We can’t go backwards. We can’t make the things that we’re seeing today stop. We can adapt to those which we have to do, which is a very powerful way to engage people. When you do maps like the union of concerned scientists are doing, and others, and maps that the school of public health is generating, you can actually see what it means for your community and your home. You can see that change is happening and hopefully we can engage people in the positive response to that.
City of Boston’s doing a lot of work. We need it to be visible work. We need to understand they’re planting trees. Ooh, how bad is that? You know, they’re building more playgrounds for our kids to play and that’s a sad thing, right? w the things that you want to do to address climate actually are pretty cool things to do. Let’s get rid of the traffic challenge that we face. So these are all adaptive strategies to a changing world. Which if you look at it will make our world a better place in a safer place. But, but the real thing I think it does is it again does what we had available to us readily and in spades in the fifties and sixties. It just makes all this stuff real. It just makes it real. And today, you know, I’m just tired of images of polar bears. I love them dearly. // but really it, it needs to be replaced by our kids and it’s not about the future for them—It’s about the today for them. And if we can make that case, then that’s what stories allow you to do. It allows you to put your face on another person’s human face and understand that even though we all // individually can’t fix this problem, it’s impossible to fix without all of our engagement. And that’s the big challenge. There’s no easy fixes, // but without everybody rowing, we’re not going to get anywhere in this race.
David Levin: So when you’re talking about community engagement pushing back against climate change, can that shift—I mean I think there’s a lot of a sense of, // whatever we do is going to be a drop in the bucket. So how can community engagement on a local level help shift policy on a high enough level to really make a difference globally?
Gina McCarthy: Yeah. Well if you, if you start with the challenges we are facing today to our health, you know, I’m not suggesting that anybody just look through a health lens and make decisions or just look through a kind of climate lens and make decisions. I’m suggesting you look through both. So if what we have to do is tell people that that climate change is real, it’s happening, we need to take action. I think there’s a lot of people that would act on that, recognizing that it’s a group exercise here, not a single individual that’s going to change anything. But there’s also a lot more people that would react to the health concerns that will understand that it’s them personally and they have to act. There’s this lovely synergy, however, between the two where you can get benefits that go well beyond any either of those two individually.
Climate change will not get fixed by an individual community, but it will never be fixed without individual communities. It is an opportunity to act where you develop systems and approaches that then can multiply if we talk about it and communicate it to others. And that’s exactly how a democratic government actually works. It starts at the bottom up. We didn’t fix the fifties’ and sixties’ problems without federal intervention based on what communities did and what they knew and how we had to do it. So everything starts at the bottom up. But on the health issues, you know what? Everything we do for climate benefits health, and vice versa, if we do this right. So there is every reason for those curmudgeons who don’t like to talk about climate change to pay attention to the science that this university delivers to tell you that you are the health problem and you can fix it and you can do exactly the same thing to fix those that you would do for climate change.
So I’m not a purist who demands that people pinky swear that they get that climate change is real. If they want to participate just from a health perspective and say, you know, air quality is really bad; electric cars can take care of this, let’s just move in that direction. Or if we put biking and walking trails through a city, it makes my city more vibrant and it keeps people healthy. If red meat isn’t good for me from a climate perspective and I don’t believe in climate change, then maybe ought to lower red meat cause it’s lousy for your health.
There are so many ways in which you just have to meet people where they are and not debate something that they can’t get their heads around. And so that’s why being at the school of public health, I’m like a kid in a candy store. Cause no matter what audience I talk to, I can relate to that audience, you know? And we can get to the same understanding of the actions that will make a better future. And I think that the greatest frustration I have is the failure to not recognize that there are always going to be people who don’t believe in climate change, but there are vastly more that do. So let’s deal with that. Let’s figure that out. Let’s look at our common solutions. And let’s just focus on those.
David Levin: Meaning the common solutions that everyone can sort of get on board with; that, this is actually going to affect my health?
Gina McCarthy: Right. But you know, there’s still a lot of folks that are denying climate change, but much less so. And so a lot of what we, that I’m seeing now is the dynamic isn’t so much about denying climate change, even for the fossil fuel companies because the data is quite prevalent. Instead it’s about, you know, electric vehicles adjust for rich people. You know, so why should anybody in an environmental justice community one out support that?
Instead of saying electric vehicles now work, let’s figure out how we can work together to make sure they’re accessible to everybody and the benefits that that provides. And let’s not put buses out that, that in, in Massachusetts that head to Concord and Lexington that are electric, let’s put those around Roxbury. Dudley square, the area near where the Harvard school of public health is because that’s where the bad air quality is, you know? So there is, there’s no downside to thinking like that. And, and so the, there are just many things that I think we would like to argue from a principled perspective when, when it’s really just taking the science and making the smartest decisions you can.
For example, energy efficient light bulbs or water efficient toilets. Need I say more? I mean, those are all things that save people money. If you look at renewable energy today, it’s not winning because theoretically we have to worry about climate change. That’s a good reason to do it. But the real reason is it’s cheaper. You know, ‘cause we invested in it and it got cheaper and there’s opportunities now to deliver less expensive energy that’s also clean for you. Now there are fanatics like me who pushed really hard to make sure that energy efficiency was treated as a resource in the energy sector and that renewable energy got the attention it needed because we knew that it would pose significant problems over time. And it is proven to be very, very correct. But, but we don’t, we don’t want to negate the fact or make it a secondary consideration that these issues are economically the best thing for people to do.
Because for many years we’ve had to struggle saying that the right thing to do may be a bit more expensive, but you’ve gotta suck it up—where it comes to climate, that’s absolutely not true. We have solutions that are brilliantly accessible, that with the kind of governance and policy structure that we hope // others will raise up to a broader level. We will be able to make the case economically from a health perspective or from a climate perspective. And we just, we just have to move because time is, is not on our side with any of these issues.
David Levin: So what reasons do we have to be optimistic in the of face of climate change? It’s really easy to be kind of doom and gloom, but…
Gina McCarthy: Well, you know, // there are challenges with staying hopeful. Let me put it that way. // But what people need to focus on is // looking below that at the organizing that’s going on in the United States and in other countries, including Brazil, // looking at how we preserve land, including the Amazon to be the carbon sink it needs to be, to be the vital source of biodiversity for the world that it needs to be. And there are folks in the United States at the community level that are working hard and succeeding. We have 25 States that have governors who have, have promised to meet the climate cord agreements and, and they’re moving forward to try to get to the numbers that science demands in 2030 and 2050.
We have, you know, mayors that are doing amazing work, not just on promising but on delivering. And we now have young people so that if you didn’t feel climate change and the health consequences of that nipping at your conscience, then you better be prepared for your children to make sure that that your conscience is tweaked, and tweaked good. Because they are just not going to stop. So the way I see climate change actually emerging here is with some wonderful opportunities to have the same thing happen in climate that happened back 50 years ago during the first Earth Day in the movements there—is that it was a bottoms up approach, not relying on the federal government to be the first act because it never is. And it now also has a whole two generations of young people who are simply not going to tolerate this anymore and they are taking to the streets. People are marching, people are upset. And for me that’s usually hopeful sign that this is no longer just the purview of scientists and policy makers.
This information is now the purview of young people and they know that it’s their future and they’re going to tell us that it’s not just what we need to do for science or for health, they’re going to tell us it’s our moral responsibility to act. And that is an argument that’s going to be hard to deny. And, and I think you’ll see that young people will continue to push us as they should. And I think you’ll see that people my age and others are gonna join in those marches, in those movements. Cause it’s about time.
Climate change is real. Climate change is the biggest public health challenge of our time. //climate change can be turned into the biggest public health opportunity of our time. And // the Harvard school of public health is, is here, not just to produce the best science that makes the link between climate change and health, but we are here to produce students who understand it, who come here because they want to know these issues and are going to help drive that movement moving forward. Our science is, has always, in my world, changed it. It’s been what I’ve relied on to address air pollution and nutrition issues for decades. Now. We’re going to tackle the issue of climate change. We’re going to produce and explain and communicate the science. We know we’re going to train our students on how to engage in these issues and effectively go out and not just protest, but to figure out how to protest in a way that turns the anxiety into hope and the science into action.
David Levin: Fantastic. Well, Dr. McCarthy, thanks so much for joining me today.
Gina McCarthy: Thank you, David.
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