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Q&A: Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on New Air Pollution Regulations—and Women’s Roles in Bringing Them About

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From our collaborating partner “Living on Earth,” public radio’s environmental news magazine, an interview by associate producer Aynsley O’Neill with Gina McCarthy, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the first-ever White House National Climate Advisor. She’s currently the Managing Co-Chair of America Is All In. 

Some of the most common pollutants in our air are ultra-fine particles known as PM2.5, which are mostly emitted during the combustion of solid and liquid fossil fuels, like coal and gasoline. 

Inhalation of these tiny particulates can have adverse health impacts like cardiovascular disease and asthma. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it is reducing the allowable amount of fine particulate matter in the air. This update of a decade-old rule lowers PM2.5 from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to 9 micrograms per cubic meter. 

EPA experts hope this decision will lessen the negative health effects associated with exposure to PM 2.5, which is often felt most brutally in low income communities where industrial and other high-emission facilities are clustered. 

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Among the supporters of this rule is Gina McCarthy, former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as the first White House national climate advisor. 

I spend a great deal of my time trying to get people to focus on the intersect of air quality and climate change because both of them are really the result of our dependence on fossil fuels,” McCarthy said. “That is what is contributing to the air quality challenges across the world.”

McCarthy is currently the managing co-chair of America Is All In, a coalition of U.S. leaders in support of climate change, and recently spoke with Living on Earth about the new regulations. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

AYNSLEY O’NEILL: What exactly has the EPA changed here when it comes to particulate matter pollution?

GINA McCARTHY: They took a close look at the regulatory standards that were in place to try to reduce particulate matter, in particular the PM2.5, which is very small, and very impactful on health. They brought their scientists together, and they decided that they need to tighten that standard in order to protect both health and welfare. I’m excited about it, frankly, because I don’t think people realize just how impactful air pollution is. 

Folks are looking at premature deaths in the U.S., which is somewhere in the order of 350,000. But honestly, if you take a look across the world, we’re talking about 7 million premature deaths. And if you look at the impacts from the climate disasters that we’ve been seeing, that far surpasses a couple of million people every year. So we are facing some real challenges, and it’s important to understand that EPA’s job is to reduce those emissions as much as it can under the law. Tightening the PM standard is a significant opportunity to get emissions down and to save literally thousands, if not millions, of lives.

O’NEILL: What are some of the health impacts, and how are these strengthened standards going to better protect the communities across America?

McCARTHY: Particulate matter impacts not just air quality, it impacts human health in a variety of ways. Obviously, if you’re breathing in PM2.5, you could have lung damage, impacted breathing, asthma, but it goes well beyond that. It also impacts your heart and your vascular system. The impacts are particularly focused on young people, on people with other disabilities. These are challenges that are stealing and robbing lives early, rather than letting people live healthy lives. 

PM2.5 is how big the particle is. When we’re looking at PM10, you’re looking at a less-challenging pollutant, because it doesn’t quite go into your body in the same way that those small particles can, which means they are probably doing far more damage to your body than the damages that we can identify. But it’s associated with debilitating diseases, and premature death, which is all any of us should need to know.

O’NEILL: I want to take a look at this from an economic angle. In what ways does it impact our economy? How does it hurt economic growth?

McCARTHY: We now know, on the basis of this rulemaking, that we have significant, millions of dollars in benefits that will result from this change and regulation. I’m excited about the opportunities that it’s showing to make our lives better, and to have those put into raw data on what it means for human beings and our economy. 

The interesting thing about a lot of the changes that we’re seeing today in the tightening of regulations is that we can not only define it in cold hard cash, if you will. But we can also define it in terms of illnesses that have been reduced. And we can put not just numbers on this, but faces on it. We know the communities that will be better off as a result of these changes.

O’NEILL: You’re the co-chair of America Is All In. Please tell us a little bit about that organization and the kind of projects it works on.

McCARTHY: America Is All In is a part of Bloomberg Philanthropies. Mike Bloomberg started this organization some time ago, but its primary mission right now is to recognize that if we want the federal government to change, we have to move from the bottom up to make change happen. 

It’s all about taking the benefits that we’re seeing and the opportunities that have opened up as a result of the Inflation Reduction Act, which is billions of dollars in investments in clean energy and the transition away from our dependence on fossil fuels. It’s taking those opportunities and going to communities all across the country to explain to them that these opportunities are theirs for the taking, that we have both red and blue states that are benefiting from looking at all of the opportunities in the Inflation Reduction Act that will help with this transition to clean energy. 

The most important thing that you need to know is that a lot of the investments that the private sector is making to grab the opportunities in the Inflation Reduction Act are going to red states. And I think that’s a great measure of success, and a measure of the stability that the Inflation Reduction Act is going to enjoy over the next eight more years. 

So far, we’ve seen $310 billion of investment from the private sector that has been promised to move forward in industries and transportation and housing sectors. We’ve seen 388 projects and 211,000 new clean energy jobs being created.

O’NEILL: What examples have you seen of communities who are taking advantage of these opportunities presented in the Inflation Reduction Act?

McCARTHY: Let me give you one example: Governor Mills in Maine. When this passed, she said to herself, heat pumps, I like heat pumps. In Maine, you want to have heat for everybody. She put not just the Inflation Reduction Act investments on the table to actually help to reduce the costs, but she put in state dollars as well. Now, somewhere between 90 percent  and 100 percent of the homes in the great state of Maine have heat pumps. That is a game changer. 

In Massachusetts, we have a group that’s been looking at every community having a heat pump, and how they could use that to provide the lowest energy costs to any community in Massachusetts. 

In many of the cities across the U.S., we’re seeing a lot of investment in solar in homes, and shifts in industrial practice. We’re seeing a lot of new industries that are being created. We’re seeing updates on steel, and cement factories, by looking at the opportunities that hydrogen provides to lower the emissions from those technologies. We’re finding ways of reducing that pollution so that as they’re producing products, they’re being competitive with other countries for the lowest pollution. There’s so many exciting things happening.

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O’NEILL: March is Women’s History Month. I learned recently that the EPA has a nickname: It is sometimes known as the “She-PA.” Tell us a little bit about the role that women have played historically in pushing for climate action.

McCARTHY: Women have been historically on the mark related to the environment in general. So we do call EPA, the “She-PA.” We say it with pride, and we say it in truth. 

Women have been tremendous leaders in the environmental movement and at EPA. I think we all understand that Rachel Carson really set that movement. It started the environmental movement for real, and we have folks at EPA who really are following in her footsteps, and it wasn’t a matter of whether they were Republican or Democrat. 

We had Christine Todd Whitman, who came in as a Republican. She did a terrific job at EPA. We have folks like Carol Browner, who was so amazing at dealing with air quality and pushing the envelope for cleaner and cleaner air. If not for her, we wouldn’t be having these conversations about tightening PM2.5 down to nine. 

I find that women don’t give up. They always keep their eye on the ball, which is, I need a better life. For myself. I need a better job for women in general. I need my kids, and in my case, my five grandchildren, to have a healthy world. That’s what we fight for. But they do it collaboratively. They do it by talking to one another. They form groups together so they can be both annoying and successful at being annoying. And I just love it. 

If you look at communities of color, if you look at communities that are struggling with poverty, go look at the individuals who are leading the charge. Go look at all of the small NGOs that are fighting the fight in environmental justice communities. You will quickly see that the vast majority of the people fighting this battle are women, and they’re doing it for their own communities, and they’re doing it all the way to the top.

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