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Gina McCarthy '76 served as EPA administrator from 2013-2017. Image by: Colleen Locke
November 3, 2017

Former EPA chief Gina McCarthy ’76 returns to UMass Boston to talk climate change

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  • Boston
Panel reflects on John F. Kennedy’s vision for innovation on 100th anniversary of his birth

UMass Boston alumna and former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy ’76 returned to campus Monday for a panel looking at climate change challenges and opportunities.

The program was sponsored by the McCormack Graduate School, UMass Boston’s Sustainable Solutions Lab, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. MGS Dean David W. Cash moderated the discussion with McCarthy and Greentown Labs Executive Director and CEO Emily Reichert.

McCarthy said climate change needs to be treated as a public health challenge — a fight  for clean air and safe water not in the distant future but now — and that the messaging needs to change.

“I think one of the major mistakes we’ve made on climate change is that the environmental community early on posed it as an issue where the main visual they presented was polar bears,” McCarthy said. “We have not been able to get rid of that as the visual. It’s really not about polar bears. It’s about our kids. I want a visual of my kids, my three adult children and hopefully my future grandchildren because that’s really what’s at stake.”

McCarthy and Reichert both talked about the importance of grassroots organizing in changing the mindset around climate change.

“What I would encourage the students in this room… to think about is the problems ahead of us related to climate change are hard. At the same time, we’re making amazing progress, but it is OK and in fact, it’s a pretty amazing thing to focus on solving a really hard problem. It means you’re part of something bigger than just doing a job,” Reichert said.

McCarthy said another problem is that climate change has become part of one party’s agenda.

“President Kennedy once said, ‘Let us not be blind to our differences-- but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. … For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.’

“We have lost faith and our ability to connect people by focusing on what we all care about and what our common values are. When we can do that and relate it to climate change, it won’t matter what any one person in D.C. says. We’ll be able to generate the energy we need to remember that this country is by, for, we all about the people here, and that’s what we have to remind ourselves,” McCarthy said.

The panel was framed in the context of the former president’s vision for innovation on the 100th anniversary of his death. On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy outlined his goals for the space program in a speech at Rice University. The campus and community watched some of that speech before Monday’s panel discussion.

“Why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal?” the president asked. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Kennedy’s grandson, Jack Schlossberg, said the lesson of this speech relates to the environmental issues of today.

“The basic message is that challenges are opportunities, and we’re lucky to be a part of the generation that has a chance to solve the hardest problem of all time,” Schlossberg said. “We’re in a better position. We know what’s causing climate change, greenhouse gas emissions. We know what the solution is, energy policy, and we have the renewable technology to replace fossil fuels. So what we’re missing is the political will to implement solutions.”

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