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Administrator Gina McCarthy, Remarks at Gordon College, As Prepared

11/03/2013
Thank you, President Lindsay, for that introduction and for welcoming me to Gordon College. Thank you also to Provost Curry and Reverend Hescox for being here and for your leadership of the Evangelical Environmental Network. I worked closely with EEN on a groundbreaking mercury rule a couple of years ago. It was a huge victory for our public health, and especially for the health of our children and families. So thank you both again.

And thank you all for having me here today. It’s great to be back home in Massachusetts. You certainly picked a great day to have me! I got to spend the weekend at home with my family. I got to celebrate the Red Sox win—even if my husband and kids were grateful I wasn’t wearing one of those fake pink beards as much as I wanted to.

And I’ve had a wonderful time so far here at Gordon. I know EPA and Gordon are collaborating on some great green chemistry initiatives. I’m very thankful to all of the EPA staff and Gordon faculty, especially Dr. Irv Levy, for making that happen.

You’re doing incredible things here. I toured the science center—it’s beautiful. I met with some students—who are truly inspiring. And I visited with folks in Frost Hall. You guys are a welcoming bunch! And talking to young people who care about the environment—sign me up! I’m a mom with three kids not much older than you. And I work on an issue that they and all of you deeply care about—and that defines our present and the future you will inherit.

So today, I’d like to talk about our shared purpose and common ground—and about our stewardship and responsibility to address a changing climate that affects us all, but especially the most vulnerable among us. And I’d like to talk about how your role, guided by your faith and what you learn here on campus, can truly make a difference. I’ll start by sharing how I got here and the values that have shaped my life and my vision for EPA.

I grew up in Boston in a lower-middle-class family. My father was a teacher for 40 years.

My mother waitressed, working in a few doughnut shops so she could earn some extra money.

When I was a kid, she’d drag me in at 4:30 a.m. to make these honey-dipped doughnuts called “honeydews.” They were ghastly things!

So we didn’t grow up with a lot of means—and we didn’t take a lot of trips. Our big adventure was going to the town next door. But me and my sister, who’s now a teacher, did spend a lot time outdoors—mainly because our parents didn’t let us stay in the house! But our school overlooked the Plymouth Rubber factory. And instead of playing outside, we had to shut the windows because of the smell coming from the factory. We always wondered what we were being exposed to.

I also remember the Boston Harbor and Charles River very clearly, mainly because you simply didn’t go in the Boston Harbor and you simply didn’t go in the Charles River. In fact, I remember swimming at a beach near Boston Harbor and oil would stick to my skin. When you got out, you’d have to dry and clean yourself off simultaneously. Pretty gross, ask your parents about it.

Ever since those early years, I was interested in the connection between our environment and our health. So I went off to college at UMass Boston and studied anthropology. I then earned a Masters in Environmental Health Engineering and Planning from Tufts. As you can tell, my New England accent never left me – nor did the sense of service my parents taught me and interest in environmental public health that felt like a calling.

I started in public health at the local level in Canton, Massachusetts, 45 miles south of here. At my first job, we uncovered a PCB-contamination problem that had become a serious cancer concern for a nearby neighborhood. I then took a job in Stoughton helping to clean up industrial sites and improving drinking water systems.

These early experiences got me very connected to the idea that health of our environment is inextricably linked to the health of our families—and best served at the local level. I took that notion to heart over the course of nearly 30 years of state government service in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

I worked with representatives of both parties. I worked with everyone from advocates to industry folks, faith leaders and NGOs, and scientists and students. I went to a lot of community and city council meetings hearing folks out. And I loved it. I came from a culture in which people thought public service was the best thing anyone could do with their life. It has never been about making money—which I can confirm because I haven’t been tremendously successful with that! But it was genuinely about service. It was about our shared responsibility and stewardship.

So to serve as EPA Administrator at this particular time is tough to put into words. I’ve always felt that what EPA does matters. Its mission to protect public health and our environment is part of my moral fiber. For 40 years EPA has been doing incredible work. We’ve been strengthening toxin and chemical safety. We’ve been helping cities and towns invest in water and green infrastructure. And our focus on environmental justice has seen vital results through enforcement actions that hold polluters accountable, protect us against health hazards, and defend the public health. And everything we do is through the lens of engaging folks in local communities, just like I did back in the day in Canton and Stoughton. That’s really how EPA stays visible and vigilant, but also engaged with what’s happening on the ground.

And without planning that I’d be in job like this, somehow that longstanding moral fiber to do the right thing has led me to confront one of the great moral issues of our time—climate change. Climate change is real. It is happening. And we must act now to avoid its most devastating consequences.

Earlier this summer President Obama spoke about this challenge and moral calling to college students like you. It was a speech by a president that I’d had been dreaming about for many years. It took courage and strength. And it reaffirmed what he said in his second inaugural address, that America must lead the transition toward a sustainable energy future to “
preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.”

We know that climate change is about the destructive impacts of extreme weather. We know it’s about our economy—about crop shortages and higher food prices; less tourism in snowcapped states and disaster relief in flooded ones. But you especially know the moral obligation attached to climate change—it’s about who’s most affected by these destructive impacts, those who are least able to do anything about them.

We’ve seen the story play out all too often. From New Orleans to New Jersey to countries in Asia and Africa to everywhere in between—when massive floods and super storms hit, it’s the poor who are most likely to be displaced, more likely to experience resulting food and water scarcity. We’ve seen the story play out too often when it comes to our health, especially for our children.

Across the world, carbon pollution and greenhouse gases cause hotter weather and higher levels of smog. That means longer allergy seasons, more heat-related deaths, and higher rates of asthma and respiratory disease, particularly among children. So we know a changing climate affects our health and wellbeing. We know we need to act, but the challenge is how.

The good news is the President outlined commonsense actions we can take in that climate speech this summer. Those critical steps include cutting carbon pollution, investing in clean energy, and wasting less energy in our homes and neighborhoods. It includes leveling the playing field in industry and protecting the public’s health. And EPA has an important role to play in all of this. As you may know, we’ve proposed carbon pollution standards for new power plants—and next year we’ll propose guidelines for states to deal with existing power plants. Less carbon pollution means less hot weather and less smog—which means fewer lung and heart complications and fewer asthma attacks.

And these commonsense standards help put Americans back to work, spark clean energy innovation, and save families and businesses on energy costs. As part of the process for developing the standards for existing power plants, EPA has led vigorous outreach and engagement with a range of stakeholders. We’re working with everyone from industry leaders to bipartisan elected officials to the general public. We’re hosting 11 public listening sessions across the country at each EPA Regional Office and at our Headquarters in Washington. These are in addition to the numerous stakeholder meetings our regional staff convene and attend. And we also have an open comment period for anyone to offer their thoughts and ideas.

But the outreach and public engagement goes much deeper and further. As has been the case throughout my career in public service, I meet with everyone I can. In helping develop these important standards, in the last few weeks and months alone I’ve met with industry CEOs—including coal, oil, and natural gas executives. I’ve met with Governors and state energy and environment leaders from across the country.

All throughout I remain committed to a transparent process that leads to the best and most pragmatic, commonsense way to reduce carbon pollution and move forward into a 21
st Century sustainable energy economy. And these efforts to reduce carbon pollution, build on our clean energy investments that have nearly doubled renewable energy generation from sources like wind and solar. Meanwhile, our vehicle fuel efficiency standards have—no pun intended—driven us toward less pollution and less energy waste. By the end of the next decade, our cars and trucks will go twice as far on a single gallon of gas. That’s a game changer.

And another critical step we’re taking is helping cities and towns prepare for extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent. Last week we observed the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. It shattered a lot of lives and livelihoods. But it also showed a lot of faith in each other through comfort and care shown by friends and strangers alike.

And so its destructive aftermath renewed our work to come together to prepare for next time. At EPA that means modernizing our water infrastructure. And it means building more resilient communities to help cities better adapt to a changing climate.

Reducing carbon pollution and investing in clean energy, wasting less energy, and building climate resilience—these are concrete steps we’re taking to address climate change. This is the path toward a more sustainable and healthy environment today and in the future.

But we can’t get there without you.

This campus is just beautiful and how your care for it is remarkable. It shows your deep faith. It shows your deep respect for environment which we all share. And it’s why your generation—my children’s generation—gives me so much hope for the future. You understand the urgency. You understand local living has a global impact.

That’s why I have faith that your generation will work with more cities and states—and countries—to set energy efficiency targets and clean energy standards. I have faith that you’ll drive the innovation that understands our economic and environmental interests can coexist and future jobs can be created. I really do have faith in your generation.

So let me close as I started—by thanking you.

The world’s resources are limited and its ecosystems are fragile. But they are bountiful and sustainable. And our shared purpose and common ground, our stewardship and responsibility are as strong as ever. Today our children can play outside during recess instead of closing the school house window. They can safely swim in the Boston Harbor and in the Charles River. There’s more we can do, but there’s now clear understanding that our health is inextricably linked to our environment.

So my parting advice for the inevitable challenges you’ll face is to never forget why you’re doing this work in the first place. Public service is something we can all do—regardless of privilege or wealth, background, gender, or age. We are called to serve.

And what’s keeps me going are the values of hard work, responsibility, and stewardship passed down to me from my parents. They are the same ones my husband and I are passing down to our children. They push me forward. And what gives me strength is the awe of our natural wonders, or as one my favorite authors Rachel Carson wrote
, “those who contemplate the beauty of Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

So thank you all again. Thank you for your faithful and
enduring strength. I’m honored to be here.

Thank you.