Energy & Environment

Gina McCarthy forges new path as White House climate lead

Environmentalists are excited that President-elect Joe Biden is expected to tap Gina McCarthy to coordinate the White House’s climate effort, which they say will help him take a whole of government approach to climate change.

A heavy-hitter within the environmental world, few have doubts McCarthy, a former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head, is up to the task of filling the newly created role pressing the government to tackle climate change from top to bottom.

In creating the job, Biden took the advice of numerous groups that have been jockeying for such a position since before he earned the nomination.

Evergreen Action, a climate group formed by former aides of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, has called for the role to be a powerful one, “acting with the full power and authority of the presidency” and endowed with staff and the ability to influence both budgets and program implementation.

Climate 21, a group formed by a who’s who of former high-level government officials and environmental academics, called for a National Climate Council with a West Wing leader who “has direct access to and is trusted by the president of the United States.”

The Biden team has instead made McCarthy the White House climate policy coordinator, a role that will not require Senate confirmation.

However, it has yet to detail any formal structure that might accompany the position, noting only that her domestic role is designed to match the international one given to former Secretary of State John Kerry.

With her new role not well defined, many suspect McCarthy will be the one to shape it, and she has thus far suggested she sees the job as a broad one.

“Every department in the Biden administration should be centering climate action and clean energy in their federal policies and investments. And they should do it in a way that continues to advance labor interests and environmental justice in communities across the country,” she wrote on Twitter earlier this month.

McCarthy currently heads the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the nation’s largest environmental groups. 

She also ran the EPA for the last four years of the Obama administration, overseeing the agency as it rolled out some of its most ambitious and controversial environmental policies, including the Waters of the United States rule and the Clean Power Plan, both of which have since faced lengthy court battles.

Conservatives have largely been quiet on the concept of a domestic climate role, though many have been critical of McCarthy. 

During her time at the EPA, industry groups were frequently critical of what they called overreaching regulation and brought a number of court challenges on EPA policies.

But supporters say her work leading major policy battles makes her a good fit for the job.

“This is really kind of a whole of government approach, and having Gina McCarthy in a role where she is helping to coordinate and harmonize and elevate climate across agencies I think is a critical piece of the Biden strategy,” John Morton, who served as the Obama administration’s senior director for energy and climate change at the National Security Council, told The Hill.

David Doniger with the NRDC, who spoke to The Hill before McCarthy’s selection was reported, said the role could help close gaps he saw during a stint with the Clinton White House.

“There are a lot of power centers and a lot of agenda items, so if this was just everybody’s job or if this was just a part of everybody’s job or it was not clear who had the lead on this topic, it’d diminish the focus. You really need a leader, someone whose job it is to really focus on this and engage everyone else,” he said.

But Brett Hartl, policy director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said it’s not clear the office will have much power beyond what already exists at the White House.

“Signing memos are issuing laudatory statements — those can be wiped away very easily and ignored,” he said, arguing McCarthy should ensure agencies stay laser focused on making sure existing agencies work as quickly as possible to reverse a number of rollbacks that were finalized under the Trump administration.

“Whatever the job is, they should spend all their time cracking the whip to make agencies go as fast as possible,” he said. “Meetings, round tables with agencies, blah blah blah, that’s not going to help. We need to get agencies to go as fast as possible 100 percent of the time.”

Those agencies may not just include her former agency and others with a major environmental role but could also include others like the departments of Agriculture, Treasury, State and Transportation.

“What McCarthy brings is, amongst other things, a real understanding of how regulation can be done effectively and how it impacts the different sectors that are being regulated and having someone with that skill set and understanding in the White House … is a really important step,” said Josh Freed, founder of the Climate and Energy Program at Third Way, a center-left think tank.

Part of the confusion around McCarthy’s White House role is how it will balance tasks alongside Kerry, who will have a seat on the National Security Council.

Morton, who’s now a partner at climate change-focused advisory firm Pollination, said that one of the biggest initial tasks for the Biden White House climate team will be setting the country’s commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the world stage.

Countries are expected to update their emissions reduction commitments at a 2021 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, and while Kerry may deliver the U.S. announcement, actually reducing the emissions will require domestic policy action — something he expects McCarthy to have a “significant hand” in shaping. 

“As international climate envoy, he may be the one who ultimately puts forward the U.S. decarbonization plan at the COP in November,” Morton said of Kerry. “But 90 percent of the legwork and the thinking and the strategy and planning that goes into that will come from domestic agencies and priorities.”

Tags Biden transition Climate change EPA Gina McCarthy Global warming Jay Inslee Joe Biden John Kerry

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