GINA MCCARTHY STRIDES INTO the ocean-view ballroom at the Sea Crest Beach Hotel in Falmouth, plops down her green backpack, and glances out the window. The waves are angrily advancing on this last night in April, which feels as dreary as mid-January. “The water seems way closer than it was the last time I was here,” she says.
Maybe that’s because of climate change, the threat that McCarthy led the charge to confront as head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration. Or maybe it’s just high tide.
She is surrounded by a couple of hundred researchers and advocates from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a national nonprofit based in Cambridge. It’s a gathering of serious specialists whose usual concern appears to have morphed into clinical depression. After all, they’ve spent the last year watching McCarthy’s successor at the EPA, Scott Pruitt, aggressively work to reverse each of the Obama administration’s environmental initiatives, as if crossing off every last item on a grocery list before reaching the checkout.
Following her introduction, as the crowd gives her a standing ovation, the 5-foot-2, white-haired McCarthy bounds to the podium in her New Balance sneakers. “The Union of Concerned Scientists,” she begins, drawing out the adjective for effect. “I’ve always wondered, compared to what? The Union of I-Don’t-Give-a-S*** Scientists?”
Channeling that old Saturday Night Live skit where William Shatner implored a convention of Trekkies to “get a life,” McCarthy tells the crowd she isn’t interested in moping. She invokes a different SNL skit, saying she has no use for “Debbie Downers.”
“I agree we live in crazy-ass times,” she says. “But if we get hopeless, we lose. We’re in the fight of our lives. Get tough!”
McCarthy has always been known for her blunt, no-nonsense style. But as the 64-year-old new Harvard professor travels the country these days, feeling unencumbered because she’s out of government for the first time in nearly four decades, and dumbfounded by the demolition work going on at the EPA, she is letting loose even more. She now comes across as one part tent-revival preacher and one part take-your-lumps therapist.
Environmentalists love McCarthy for pushing through the Clean Power Plan, which set the first federal standards for power plants to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that is the main driver of global warming. They love her for the rules she championed to cut mercury emissions, rules to increase fuel efficiency in cars, and rules to protect rivers and streams that supply drinking water. Most of all, they love her for refusing to back down despite relentless pressure from the fossil fuel industry.
Born in Boston and raised in suburban Canton, McCarthy arrived in Washington with genuine bipartisan credentials, a Democrat who had served in the administrations of five pro-business Republican governors. Nonetheless, during her time running the EPA, critics painted her as a regulator run amok, a sort of Cruella de Rules. One pro-industry group even paid for mobile billboards to be driven around EPA headquarters with a message designed to use her bluntness against her: “Your Electricity Bill May Soon Skyrocket. McCarthy’s EPA Says: Suck it up.”
In her Falmouth talk, she admits how painful it is seeing Pruitt and President Trump work to roll back all the measures she is most proud of. But she offers several points of reassurance. First, she reminds the crowd that in order to undo a rule, you need to write a new one to replace it. “They’re friggin’ hard to get done, and this administration is not working hard.” It won’t help, she says, that Pruitt has alienated so much of the career staff at the EPA and that he is being forced to spend more and more time defending himself against allegations of rampant ethical violations. Second, any rollbacks are sure to face protracted legal challenges. “I can’t wait for this stuff to get to court,” she says. Of the administration’s rollbacks that have already made it before a judge, she says, “they’re like 1 for 9.” Third, Washington is less and less where the real action is happening, as cities and states step up on environmental regulation and the private sector steps in to capitalize on the explosive growth in renewable energy. “Clean energy is moving faster than anyone anticipated, and this administration is not being successful in its hit-or-miss strategy to move us back to coal,” she says. “You know why? It’s the economy, stupid!”
Before the crowd can get too comfortable, though, McCarthy dishes out some tough advice. Unlike most environmental leaders, she regularly calls out the excesses in her own camp. (In time, I would hear her criticism extend even to the beatified green activist Bill McKibben.) “I love you scientists dearly,” she tells the crowd, “but could you speak English?”
In addition to declaring war on confusing jargon, she calls for a wholesale recasting of the climate-change argument, which is clearly not reaching the people it needs to persuade. She wants to move the focus away from plants, animals, and the health of the planet, and toward the dire threat that global warming and pollution pose to the well-being of children. “I’m tired of climate change being projected as polar bears, or EPA being looked at as the birds-and-bunnies agency,” she says. “I work for children, for human beings.” Earth, she says, will be fine no matter what happens. Planets are survivors. Our main concern should be the ability of our descendants to thrive here.
A PhD energy analyst by the name of Jeremy Richardson approaches the microphone and asks her, “How can we reach new audiences and not just speak in an echo chamber?” He explains that he comes from a three-generation family of coal miners in West Virginia.
McCarthy says the nation needs to invest in an economy that works for rural and urban America. To do that, she says, we’ve got to figure out how to talk with each other again, rather than at one another. She recalls the practice of asking her young staffers at the EPA if they would be spending a holiday break with family, and frequently being told, “No, I’m not going home. My parents don’t talk to me anymore,” because of political differences.
“We have to get over it!” McCarthy thunders.
She urges environmentalists to double down on science while also avoiding smugness and self-righteousness. Instead of trying to win the argument, win the war. Broaden the base by focusing on outcomes — cleaner air, lower consumer bills, healthier children. “Tell people we have a path to the future that is good, whether or not they believe in climate change.” That seems like the central challenge for this nation to make progress that is both significant and sustained.
As the session is breaking up, I pull Richardson aside to ask about his coal miner relatives. Can they be persuaded to support policies to stem climate change if so many people in West Virginia associate environmental regulation with preachy, Whole Foods–shopping East Coasters unable to empathize with the struggle to make a mortgage payment after a coal mine closes?
That, he says, is exactly the image many of his relatives have. He’s not sure how they can be converted, but if they met McCarthy, he’s confident they’d be willing at least to hear her out. “She is so real, and she frames it so well.”
Can Gina McCarthy help save the planet for our grandkids, one straight-talking conversation at a time?
* * *
FROM TOM CLANCY spy novels to Masterpiece Mystery! on PBS, McCarthy loves mysteries. One morning in May during the week I spend traveling with her, I meet her for the buffet breakfast at our Holiday Inn Express. When I arrive, she is eager to show me the page she had read earlier and dog-eared in Point of Contact, one of the latest “Clancy” novels in a series being kept alive five years after the author’s departure to that great paperback rack in the sky.
The passage finds hero Jack Ryan Jr. in Singapore with a typhoon fast approaching. He listens to a BBC interview with an Australian professor who “claims that global climate change is wreaking havoc with ocean temperatures,” causing erratic, extreme weather events like this typhoon. The professor “called for an emergency climate summit to address the crisis of manmade global warming. Jack snapped off the radio. Why did everything have to be political?”
A better question: How did we get to the point where preserving our ability to live on this planet is seen as just another partisan issue that breaks down along the familiar fault lines of party and class? After all, at the dawn of the last century, it was a Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, who saw himself as conservationist-in-chief, protecting a staggering 230 million acres of land — about the size of Texas, Utah, and New York combined. And the president who signed the EPA into law was none other than Richard Nixon. (“Best. President. Ever,” McCarthy often quips to get a rise out of liberal crowds.)
Science writer Rachel Carson helped trigger the modern era of environmental regulation with her 1962 book Silent Spring, which exposed the dark side of DDT and other “miracle” chemicals. The book was a stinging indictment of the environmental wreckage made possible when government allowed industry to police itself. Silent Spring helped pave the way for Earth Day and the EPA.
How did the industry try to discredit Carson? By painting her as an out-of-touch elitist who cared more about plants and birds than expanding the economy and saving lives from disease. It mattered little that Carson had grown up poor in rural Pennsylvania, in a house with no running water, with a mother who had to sell the family china to cover Rachel’s college tuition.
By the time Ronald Reagan entered the White House, mounting business resentment made the EPA a prime target in his “government is the problem” era. Reagan reflected the newer breed of Western/Sunbelt Republicans who viewed the natural landscape as something to be defeated — so that subdivisions and shopping malls could be built in the desert — as opposed to the Eastern establishment Republicans, who viewed the environment as something to be protected. (In fairness, Eastern states had done most of their plundering by the time the conservation movement took hold.) To head the EPA, Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch (mother of the future Supreme Court justice), who wasted little time in defanging the agency and trying to roll back regulations from the 1970s.
But Milton-born, Connecticut-raised Republican George H. W. Bush reversed course when he entered the Oval Office. McCarthy credits Bush the elder for his environmental record, particularly the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, which she leaned on heavily in her own work curbing carbon pollution.
Environmentalists are far less fond of his son. George W. Bush had a lot more Texas than Connecticut in him, and a lot more fossil fuel champions in his Cabinet.
Still, there was hope for support that crossed party lines. In 2006, about 100 prominent Evangelical Christian leaders signed on to the Evangelical Climate Initiative. They emphatically affirmed that climate change is real and called for cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, warning that “millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.” That same year, Bush’s Democratic opponent in the 2000 election, Al Gore, attracted worldwide attention to the issue with his documentary An Inconvenient Truth.
As late as 2008, some bipartisanship around climate change remained. Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and former Republican speaker Newt Gingrich filmed a commercial together while sitting on a couch in front of the Capitol. Looking into the camera, Gingrich said, “We do agree our country must take action to address climate change.”
The Rev. Mitch Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, says powerful interests pushed to fracture that consensus by turning climate into a culture-war issue. “People took the things that conservatives are against, like big government and Al Gore, and spread disinformation to try to protect their vast interests in the fossil fuel industry.”
Both Democrats and Republicans, he says, eventually went along with blowing up this bipartisan approach because they discovered they could each use climate change as a wedge issue to rally their bases. By 2011, when he was running for president, Gingrich said, “Sitting on the couch with Nancy Pelosi is the dumbest single thing I’ve done in the last few years.”
Like McCarthy, Hescox argues that bipartisanship on climate is still possible. He and McCarthy proved that by joining forces to push through tough standards lowering mercury and other toxins in the air.
He tells me that his partner in this effort could not be further from the arrogant, job-killing bureaucrat that industry critics painted her to be. In fact, he says, “Gina McCarthy is the most likable, unpretentious person that I’ve ever met in my life.”
The son and grandson of coal miners, Hescox spent 14 years working in the coal industry before he joined the ministry. “Gina and I probably disagree on a lot of different policies,” he says. “I’m a prolife Christian. She’s, I’m sure, more progressive.” He has never asked McCarthy her stance on abortion, but she had already told me she’s been prochoice for as long as she can remember. “She is prochoice and you’re prolife,” I tell Hescox, “yet you came together out of a shared concern for the dangers that mercury poses to both children and fetuses?”
“That’s right,” he replies. “You use the word fetus and we refer to them as unborn children, but the concern is the same.”
Like McCarthy, Hescox frames climate change in terms of its effect on children’s health, and they both think other advocates and political leaders should do the same. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a progressive grandparent or a conservative one,” he says. “We’re literally killing our kids in this country, and fossil fuels and petrochemicals are the number one reason.”
* * *
MCCARTHY IS KEYNOTING a conference on sustainability at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, in a brick campus center that once housed an underwear factory. After an enthusiastic introduction by the college president, and a standing ovation before she’s uttered her first word, she looks out at the crowd, wide-eyed. “Jeesh, McGeesh,” she cracks. “I better not suck, huh?”
The campus is in Oshawa, a city with a long history as an automaker hub — the Detroit of Canada — but still McCarthy can’t help herself. “I apologize. I know you still have some auto industry jobs,” she says. “I love the auto industry. They just drive me absolutely crazy.” She reminds the crowd that President Obama bailed out American automakers, which were on the ropes because they weren’t making the kind of vehicles Americans wanted. The president pushed them to make more fuel-efficient vehicles, and they agreed. “We held hands and sang ‘Feelings,’ ” she says, “And everything has been great since then.” They sold a ton of cars, paid back the government, and added lots of jobs. Yet now, with a new administration in Washington, the carmakers are suddenly determined to go back to their old, inefficient ways. “This is absolutely ridiculous.”
“What’s really frustrating is that every single one of these carmakers is going to be producing electric cars like crazy, they’re just not selling them here,” she says. “They’re selling them in China, because China is demanding clean cars.”
After years of not caring about the environment, China is now all in on pushing green technology, she reports, warning that the United States will move backward at its own peril. As an adviser for the past year to Pegasus Capital, a private equity firm that focuses on green investments, she says she has even greater appreciation for the private sector’s role in propelling progress on climate. “Whoever wins in the clean energy race is going to be the strongest country in the world.”
A slim older man approaches the audience microphone. “Hi, Gina. I love your Boston accent,” he says, adding, for some reason, “Did you grow up in Boston?”
At pretty much every stop, McCarthy gets a Boston accent comment. (It’s unclear what this Canadian man thought her answer was going to be. Milwaukee?) At an event at the John F. Kennedy Library, a member of the Kennedy family approached her to say, “Gina, your accent is wild.” As McCarthy puts it, “When you have a Kennedy making fun of your accent, you know you’re in trouble.”
Public-policy types like to talk about her accent the way they like to talk about former Obama energy secretary Ernie Moniz’s hair, as an endearing trait that helps her stand out from all the other Beltway bureaucrats. Like Moniz, she has leveraged it for her own benefit. Even Obama joked about it when he named her EPA administrator, cracking, “Now, you wouldn’t know from talking to her, but Gina is from Boston.”
Hers is a familiar Boston accent, with an incorrigible “r” that goes AWOL in words like part and occasionally photobombs the end of words like idea. McCarthy jokes that one of her most lasting contributions will probably be having introduced the r-free pronunciation of cahbon to the climate-change debate. She is now director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, or C-CHANGE, at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. When she says her employer’s name, she usually opts for an exaggerated HAH-vahd, she jokes, because “it annoys people there.”
How strong is her Boston accent? Hear for yourself
Although it has been frequently reported that McCarthy grew up in South Boston or Dorchester, her family moved south of the city to Canton when she was just a toddler, the youngest of three girls. The family would return to her parents’ home turf of Dorchester to go to the beach, and McCarthy still remembers wiping oil off her legs after wading in polluted Boston Harbor.
Her actual first name is Regina — Latin for queen. She’s pretty sure her father, a Latin teacher for the Boston Public Schools, selected it. Regardless, she says, “I never acted very queen-like.” That was especially true after one of her parochial school nuns smacked her while McCarthy stood in the milk line in the third grade. The nun accused her, unfairly, of talking. “That changed me,” she says. “After that, I was a little friskier. I wasn’t as obedient, though I was careful not to get caught.”
She majored in anthropology at UMass Boston. She would work the breakfast shift as a waitress at the Holiday Inn in Dedham before heading to campus, often arriving in class smelling like bacon and eggs. The smell couldn’t have been too bad, since that’s where she met her future husband, Ken McCarey.
Her family suffered a tragedy when her oldest sister, a studious 24-year-old nurse, was killed by a drunk driver as she drove home from the hospital.
After graduating from college in 1976, McCarthy struggled to find a career, juggling jobs as a waitress and lab tech, and working the switchboard at Children’s Hospital. She got interested in health policy and earned a master’s from Tufts, eventually landing a job as the health agent for her hometown of Canton. By then, she and McCarey were married and living in town.
Her first foray into state government came when Mike Dukakis appointed her to a hazardous waste safety council. Every governor she served after that was a Republican — four in Massachusetts (Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift, and Mitt Romney), followed by Jodi Rell in Connecticut.
She and her husband had a son and two daughters. She became the head of Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection when their youngest was a junior in high school. Rather than move the family, she got a studio apartment in Hartford and came home twice a week.
When she worked in Washington, serving as an assistant EPA administrator in Obama’s first term before being elevated to the top job at the start of his second term, she continued the practice of renting a small apartment near her office but keeping home base in Boston. She and her husband, who works from home and would spend long stretches with her in D.C., moved from Canton to Jamaica Plain seven years ago. Although she grew up in a devout Catholic family, she lost interest in regularly attending Mass after the clergy sex abuse crisis. When she moved to JP, she and her husband attended the Unitarian church for a while, but these days she finds more spiritual uplift taking a long walk around Jamaica Pond.
After her talk in Ontario, as she is making her way out the door, a woman stops to ask about Obama. McCarthy recalls how he pulled her aside before they announced the Clean Power Plan and thanked her for helping him tackle climate change and thereby meet his obligation to his daughters.
Never one to leave on a serious, possibly self-serving moment, McCarthy follows that up with an anecdote about trying to take a selfie with Obama. “I was struggling with my phone and said, ‘Hmm, this isn’t working,’ and he said, ‘Gina, I think you’ve already taken about 11 pictures.’ ”
McCarthy taps the Canadian woman on the arm. “I’d had a couple of glasses of wine.”
* * *
Chatting with Bill Maher
A FREQUENT GUEST on the HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher, McCarthy made her most recent appearance in March. “I always love having you on,” he said at the start of the interview, “because you are a straight shooter.”
Yet the lovefest took a weird turn when the comedian recounted his ordeal trying to replace his garage door, which required multiple government inspections at his home in Southern California.
McCarthy flashed a look that said Why in the world are you asking me about your garage door? Maher quickly changed the subject.
When I ask McCarthy about it later, I suggest that Maher was trying to use his frustrating experience to explain why so many Americans think government can be needlessly onerous and ineffectual, tying up the wrong people in costly bureaucracy while allowing the biggest players with the most political juice to do whatever they want. As firmly as she believes that regulations protect people, she concedes that sometimes “government overcorrects. To address a problem that affects 2 percent of the people, it ends up wasting the time of and trying the patience of the other 98 percent.”
She reminds me that she spent almost three decades working at the local and state levels. Back then, she says, “I could not stand the EPA!” In her experience, too often “the EPA was not flexible enough and not trusting enough of the states.” That’s why she pushed to make the agency more efficient and responsive, such as saving states and industry time and money by moving from a paper to an electronic system for tracking hazardous waste shipments.
Her biggest regret from her tenure involves the drinking water disaster in Flint, Michigan. “There were real concerns in that community that we should have been more sensitive to hear,” she says. “We chose to listen more to the state than to the community.”
Although most of her critics came from the right, she drew one notable adversary from the left. Laurence Tribe, one of Obama’s mentors at Harvard Law School, famously said of McCarthy’s beloved Clean Power Plan, “I don’t think burning the Constitution instead of coal will really be a way of saving the environment.” Then again, Tribe said that while representing the world’s biggest private-sector coal company in a lawsuit challenging the plan. It is now before the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit, and McCarthy says she is confident it will be upheld (assuming it is not repealed and replaced first).
Perhaps more interesting is McCarthy’s willingness to call out the giants in the environmental movement. During her Toronto talk, she said that while she is fond of activist Bill McKibben, she thinks the alarmist approach that he and other leaders take can be counterproductive. “They say if you don’t do something in three years, it’s over!” she says. “Did they ever work in government? Does anything get done in government in three years?”
Most people, she stresses, don’t get motivated by fear. “They do what mice do when they’re scared. They stand still. They go into denial mode. We have to get to solutions.”
She warns against all-or-nothing inflexibility. She cites a recent study estimating that more than 1 million people in India are dying prematurely each year because of pollution, much of it from traditional cookstoves that burn biomass like wood, charcoal, and animal dung. McCarthy supports the Indian prime minister’s plan to connect the stoves of 50 million families to cleaner natural gas. Yet some Western environmental groups blasted the plan because, even though natural gas is cleaner, it is still a fossil fuel.
Opposing a compromise step that could help save millions of lives simply because it doesn’t go far enough, she argues, feeds into the caricature of environmentalists as arrogant and out of touch.
The next day, McCarthy is at MIT, meeting with a group of Knight Science Journalism Program fellows. She explains that she wants her center at Harvard to be a bridge, getting news of the important research that scientists are doing out into the real world, in language that nonscientists can understand. (McCarthy tells me she is so sure her work at Harvard can make a difference that she withdrew herself from consideration to be the next chancellor of her cherished alma mater, UMass Boston.)
After the MIT meeting, Deborah Blum, the Pulitzer Prize–winning director of the Knight program, tells me she was doing “mental cartwheels” while listening to McCarthy. “As someone who’s spent her entire career trying to get information out of the academic bubble, I feel that couldn’t be more important.”
What makes Blum so hopeful about McCarthy’s campaign is her rare combination of subject mastery and tough, “no-BS” style. Blum argues that climate-change deniers and their powerful industry backers have been very effective in painting “those who care about environmental protection as spoiled elitists who have already gotten theirs and don’t have to worry about people in the trenches who have jobs affected by environmental regulations.”
It’s manipulative and misleading, she says, though she adds, “Do I think there is an element of privilege to environmental concerns? Yes.”
McCarthy is so valuable because she can drive change by leveraging both her credibility with scientists and her ability to connect with regular people. “You have to compromise if you want to win,” Blum says. “And I’m interested in winning.”
* * *
THIS, MCCARTHY TELLS ONE CROWD, is how her mornings begin these days. She gets up and her husband, who has been watching too much MSNBC, will be waiting for her at the stairs so he can vent to her about the latest outrage from Team Trump. “Did you see the tweet?” he’ll ask.
And she’ll reply, “Ken, shut up! Let’s get some coffee and play with our puppy.” Her puppy, she tells the crowd, “is wicked cute.” It’s all part of her effort to stay positive.
A few days after that talk, I invite myself over to her home for some in-person fact checking.
She’s not lying about the puppy. Rory, all of 7 months and 7 pounds, is an adorable black Shih Tzu mix they got as a rescue. She runs around the house, and up and down my calves, with such uninterrupted intensity that I wonder why McCarthy hasn’t hooked her up to a turbine to power the lamps.
That night happens to be McCarthy’s 64th birthday. Her two daughters, who live in the Boston area — 32-year-old Maggie, employed by an energy- efficiency tech company, and 30-year-old Julie, a nurse at Boston Children’s Hospital — have come over along with their partners to celebrate.
As for Gina’s description of her husband waiting for her every morning to vent about Trump news, Ken insists that’s simply not true. “Some mornings, like today, I leave the house before she gets up,” he says, laughing.
Ken, who has spent his career in the wholesale flower business, never paid much attention to politics until Gina went to D.C. When I ask him if his media diet is full of MSNBC’s round-the-clock impeachment countdown, he says he’s tried to reduce his daily intake. “When nobody else is around, I admit I will put MSNBC on.”
Despite the no-Debbie-Downer mantra that Gina preaches on the road, I wonder if she ever finds herself feeling dejected watching what’s happening at the EPA. “Yeah,” she concedes. “I’m just not the kind of person who shares those moments.”
Mostly, though, she reminds herself to take the long view, which she finds easier to do now that she is surrounded by so many students. “You can’t hang around with young people and be depressed,” she says.
In their family, Ken says, Gina has always served as the house optimist, the one who repeatedly reminds their kids that “change is good.” He invoked that message recently in a note to their son, Dan, a public interest lawyer in New York, who recently changed jobs, “Don’t forget what your mom always says,” he wrote. “Change is good. It just isn’t easy.”
I ask Gina if what’s now happening in Washington is testing her pro-change belief. “I’m hoping this is a blip on a really big radar screen,” she says. “I don’t think you can allow a minority of people to turn everything back. The only way that will happen is if we all give up on what we stood for.”
When it comes to the most existential kind of change — to our climate — she insists we can handle it, just as we handled other pollutants. “It’s carbon pollution.” We’ll have no choice but to spend a lot of money on adaptation. So why not do it in a way that makes public health better, such as planning creatively for the kinds of buildings we construct and the nutrition we provide for an estimated 9.6 billion people in a low-carbon future?
So much of the climate-change forecasting is keyed to one date. “We always talk about what we need to do by 2050,” she says. That date has taken on even more urgency for her ever since she found out she is going to be a grandmother. (Dan and his wife are expecting a boy in August.) “By 2050, my grandson is going to be 32,” she says. “Thinking about that told me how quickly time is going by. We’ve got to get moving.”
It won’t be easy, but if we finally confront the climate threat the way we should have long ago, we might produce the kind of change that leads to something good.Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.