Obama’s last EPA director is still optimistic despite everything Trump says

Faith in the system.
Faith in the system.
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency from 2013 to 2017, believes that Donald Trump’s efforts to rollback environmental standards are unlikely to succeed. When it comes to the environment, many misunderstand that the Trump administration’s announcements are just that—announcements that haven’t translated into action, McCarthy said at the Financial Times’s climate finance conference in London today.

The final rules put in place during the Obama administration, such as the Clean Power Plan, were “solidly done,” said McCarthy, now a professor of public health at Harvard University. “They were based on science and the law and I think it’s going to take a lot to undo them.” For Obama-era rules to be revoked, they need to be replaced with new rules. McCarthy doesn’t see much chance of this happening.

“They actually have rules coming out of EPA on both the car rules and the utility sector whose major accomplishment is they’ve figured out how to cost the industry more, how to cost consumers more money, and at the same time have more premature deaths as a result,” she said. “So it’s not exactly a winning formula when you go to the courts.”

McCarthy stressed that its a long process to change environmental rules and the legal system is succeeding as check on regulators. Attempts to tear down scientifically sound legislation won’t succeed in court, she said.

For example, efforts by agencies under Trump to ignore the social cost of carbon (SCC) when looking at infrastructure and other investments were rejected by the courts. (Though Trump officials are still trying to lower the SCC, an important measure used for climate policy.) Courts also rejected the Trump administration’s efforts to delay the implementation of an Obama rule limiting methane leaks from oil and natural gas drilling on federal land. “If you are in governance you need to govern and you need to follow the laws and when you don’t you get whacked,” McCarthy said. “They are getting whacked all over the place.”

That said, McCarthy wouldn’t underestimate the challenges faced by career staff at the EPA. “The way that the US works is that the career staff is hanging in there,” she said. “It’s not pretty and it’s way more destructive on the agency that I ever anticipated, to be very honest with you. There is a concerted attack on science and scientists that really is quite unprecedented.”

Ultimately, McCarthy believes the US will be successful in reducing emissions because market forces are driving the shift to a low-carbon future. Meanwhile, governments at the state and local levels are still making efforts to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. “Because the Trump administration wants to deny climate change, and reality, and fact in most instances, the rest of the US is working very hard… to make the systemic changes that will continue to allow us to move forward when the administration shifts and not to lose significant ground in the meantime.”

The mid-term election next month will be a defining signal whether the efforts to rollback environmental standards will be long- or short-term, she said. Regardless, there will be a price put on carbon in the US, she added: “The question is going to be when.”