By Ed Brennen
Growing up in the Greater Boston area in the early 1960s, Gina McCarthy remembers riding in the family car through Lowell and Lawrence and being struck by the unusual colors of the Merrimack River.
“Depending on what they were doing in the mills, the river ran bright red or bright green or bright orange,” she recalls. “The inclination was to just discharge whatever you didn’t want into the nearest river.”
A half-century later, McCarthy found herself leading the federal agency responsible for protecting all of the country’s rivers and natural resources — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. After working for three decades in environmental affairs at the local and state level, McCarthy served as President Obama’s EPA administrator from 2013 until this past January, when she handed the reins over to the Trump administration.
Less than a month after the transition, McCarthy was on campus, sharing her thoughts on the future of the environment with more than 100 political science and public health students during a standing-room only guest lecture at the O’Leary Learning Commons.
McCarthy’s message was simple: Just because the Merrimack isn’t running bright orange today, don’t think it’s always been that way — or that it will always stay that way.
“Much of the challenge we face today is that there’s a little apathy among folks who say, ‘Why do we keep pushing? Don’t worry about things. We’re all set. Now let’s focus on the economy rather than the environment,’ ” said McCarthy, who majored in social anthropology at UMass Boston before earning a master’s in environmental health engineering and planning and policy from Tufts University. “My view is, if you don’t have a good environment, then you actually don’t have a good economy — certainly not one that’s sustainable.”
Given President Trump’s reported plans to roll back many policies on climate and water pollution that McCarthy helped implement, her lecture was titled “Dismantling the EPA: Hazardous to Your Health?” Her answer was a resounding “yes,” followed by some words of reassurance.
“I am extraordinarily hopeful about the work we got done at the EPA and how well it is going to stand the test of time,” said McCarthy, who cited the Clean Power Plan and its role in the 2016 Paris Agreement as one of the agency’s key achievements. “We’re already five years ahead of where we were going to be, so if we lose four years, we can still get it back and still make progress. Do I like it? No. Would it tick me off? Yeah.”
During the Q&A session, Shawn Nagle, a freshman civil engineering major and political science minor from Everett, asked McCarthy if environmentalists need to rebrand their message to focus less on the gloom and doom of climate change and more on the concept of “winning” that seems to resonate in politics.
“That’s a really thoughtful question,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think we can win if all we do is fight. I don’t know if it’s a rebranding issue or a different way of managing the arguments … Just because you are right doesn’t mean everybody accepts what you say as being right. You need to personalize the information and allow it to be understood in a way that people can make it actionable. And climate scientists were hideous at this for a long time.”
Afterward, Nagle said he was happy with McCarthy’s response — and her talk in general.
“Even though I’m a Trump supporter, I still believe in the environment,” he said. “One of the big obstacles is convincing other Trump supporters how much helping the environment can benefit our economy and our country. She really encapsulated the grand sense of winning, which these people respond to. If we can capture just how much we can win or benefit from this as a country, then it would be a lot easier in making it a non-partisan issue.”
The guest lecture was arranged by Jeffrey Gerson, associate professor of political science and gender studies, who had McCarthy speak to his class on a video-conference last year while still with the EPA. McCarthy’s ties to the university date back to the 1990s, when she served as Executive Director of the Administrative Council for the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA) — which established the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at UMass Lowell.
“Gina has been an incredible friend to UMass Lowell and to the people of Massachusetts throughout her career,” Prof. Craig Slatin said in introducing McCarthy. “Thanks to her support over the years, there are many programs here at UMass Lowell such as TURI that have achieved leadership internationally.”
McCarthy cited two UMass Lowell alumni that she worked with at the EPA — Margo Oge ’72, ’75 and Peter Tsirigotis ’73 — as two “of the most effective bureaucrats in the world.”
“Both of them came from Greece not knowing a word of English, both graduated from UMass Lowell, and both have made a world of difference at the EPA,” she said. “So be proud of where you are. Do not tell me that life is dire. It is not. It is hopeful. You are the hope. Stand up and kick ass. We did — now it’s your turn.”