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Fighting the fight against climate change

Former EPA chief Gina McCarthy, a Canton native, will be the keynote speaker for the 100th annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Boston this weekend. She is taking a new job this week as president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which she’ll balance with her teaching schedule at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The daughter of a school teacher, she came of age before Doppler radar, 10-day weather forecasts, and sophisticated orbiting satellites capable of detecting hurricanes as they form off of Africa and take deadly aim at our Atlantic coast.

As a little girl growing up in Canton she had a favorite TV weatherman: Don Kent, the longtime WBZ-TV forecaster who informed generations of New Englanders about gathering autumn storms, warm summer sunshine, and the icy winds of winter.

And recently, as meteorologists from around the country assembled in Boston for their annual convention, Gina McCarthy took center stage, carrying an even darker forecast than those of epic storms like the Blizzard of ’78, which she keenly remembers.


It’s nothing less than an urgent bulletin.

Our planet is warming. It’s not an opinion. It’s real.

And the consequences are more dire than canceled school classes or thousands of cars stranded on highways from Marshfield to Marblehead.

“The big deal is that global warming is changing the entire system of the way energy is distributed in the planet,’’ McCarthy told me the other day at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where she is a professor.

“Our climate is temperate. It’s not going to be anymore. The climate isn’t tomorrow. Or five years from now. The climate is forever. It’s a system of change over 30 to 40 years. So you are literally going to see places that flourish as farmlands today that will be deserts tomorrow. This is an entire shift in how the globe’s going to look if we don’t do something about it.’’

Gina McCarthy intends to do something about it.

And those who know her track record — her long and well-earned reputation for no-nonsense, plain-spoken advocacy, her tenacity in the face of nay-sayers or climate-change deniers — say she is a formidable weather system all her own.


Inexorable. Relentless. Blunt.

“Gina is a rock star,’’ said Jenni L. Evans, president of the American Meteorological Society. “We see climate change. It’s there. She will talk about how to think about it. How do we give people a sense of self-determination and not a sense that they should slit their wrists?’’

There is nothing academic or hypothetical about this. Evans grew up in Australia, parts of which have been blackened by historic wildfires.

Last year, record temperatures were broken in France and Germany. Greenland’s ice sheet saw historic melting. Average global temperatures were the second highest on record, less than one-tenth of a degree cooler than 2016.

So Evans knows what hangs in the balance.

And so does McCarthy, who has made this work the centerpiece of her professional life.

As a young woman, she was the health agent for Canton’s Board of Health. Governor Michael Dukakis named her to a hazardous waste facility site safety council. After that, she served four Republican governors in Massachusetts and one in Connecticut, Jodi Rell.

In March 2013, President Obama nominated McCarthy as the nation’s 13th administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, which she led until 2017, becoming the chief architect of Obama’s plan to combat climate change.

And now, the Natural Resources Defense Council has named McCarthy as its president and chief executive, calling her one of the most effective environmental champions of the modern era.

The challenges, particularly in the age of Donald Trump, are daunting.


According to a recent New York Times analysis, Trump has rolled back more than 90 environmental rules and regulations, raising the prospects for a significant increase in greenhouse gases. That means dirtier air. It means weaker auto pollution standards. It means looser rules governing toxic industrial emissions.

“We haven’t reached the point of no return, but we don’t have as much time as we thought we had,’’ said Mitch Bernard, NRDC’s chief counsel. “The next 10 years will be critical in terms of trying to avert the most severe catastrophes from the changing climate.

“Gina is going to try to mobilize the energy and enthusiasm that is out there, especially among young people, for appropriate and vigorous action on climate. Climate change is not out there on the horizon. It’s creating misery and huge health problems.’’

Still, amid all those storm clouds, McCarthy finds a way to be optimistic. For one thing, she’s shut off the endless cable TV chatter, a limitless electronic feedback loop of bad news, an echo chamber that serves only to reinforce embedded political views on the right and the left.

And then she looks for silver linings.

“The environment has had tremendous improvement,’’ said McCarthy, who, at age 65, is old enough to remember wiping oily residue off her legs after taking a dip in a polluted Boston Harbor. “But it didn’t improve by people saying, ‘We can’t do it.’ It improved by saying, ‘OK, we’ve got to do it.’ That’s my attitude. I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to claim defeat.


“I’m not going to focus on President Trump and his nonsense, which I know I can’t fix right now. We can fight it. And one of the reasons to go to NRDC is because that’s what they do. They fight it every day so we can get into the courts. And in most cases, we’re winning.”

During the Trump presidency, the NRDC has sued the federal government 96 times, fighting his administration on issues ranging from efficiency standards for lightbulbs to endangered species. Its track record? The NRDC says it has emerged victorious in 54 of the 59 cases so far resolved.

“Those are pretty good odds,’’ McCarthy told me. “I’m optimistic because they don’t govern well. So even on the stuff they’re rolling back in the courts they think they’ve stacked, we can win.’’

What does McCarthy want? More electric cars and buses. Energy efficient lightbulbs and toilets. More trees and playgrounds. Public transportation systems that work. Farms that don’t contaminate drinking water supplies.

“I need people to be motivated to act,’’ she said. “Not to be hiding out in their closets.’’

There are no closets in her future. No sandy beaches either.

Retirement, she told me, will have to wait.

“I can’t let it go,’’ she said. “How do I do that? I don’t just have three kids, I have two grandchildren. And I listen to the young people now. And they’re all debating, and many of them deciding not to have children. That breaks my heart. They don’t see a future.’’


From across the table, she shook her head slowly and sadly. And then, with resolve, added this:

“So somehow the energy they’re generating needs to be channeled into something more meaningful than giving up. I just think we have to figure out where the positive energy is. It’s out there. We’ve got to nurture that and at some point you’re going to see people who, like this president, prey on people’s most negative thoughts and amplify those as if that’s a path to the future.

“And I’m not going to buy that. And I’m never going to buy that. And I’m never going to stop fighting it.’’

And then, with all those forecasters calling for unusually warm January weather, Gina McCarthy left for her next appointment.

And her next fight.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher @globe.com.