By: Shannon Reilly
On Friday, Miami welcomed Gina McCarthy, former Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to campus to deliver a keynote address in celebration of the Institute for the Environment and Sustainability’s 50th anniversary. Students and faculty gathered in Wilks Theater for the lecture, as did a large number of visiting alumni of Miami’s IES program.
Cynthia Sonich-Mullin, an IES alum who worked closely with Gina McCarthy, introduced the speaker. Sonich-Mullin, too, has an extensive background in environmental and public health policy, an end that was fostered by IES. In fact, a requirement set by the IES department encouraged her to take on an internship with the EPA during her time at Miami, which took her on a journey in health policy that brought her to the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland and a risk assessment lab for the federal government.
McCarthy spoke of her passion for protecting public health and fighting for health equity. She was the 13th head of the EPA, serving from 2013 to 2017 under President Barack Obama. A few highlights of her accomplished career include signing the Clean Power Plan and developing a multi-state greenhouse gas initiative. McCarthy made it clear that she was far from being done, joking with the audience that she didn’t yet trust the younger generation to finish the job. Both her humorous rhetoric and accomplishments reflected the energy and optimism she brings to a subject that can often feel crushed by policy changes and bleak scientific reports.
McCarthy’s hopeful outlook and determination to take on the issue of climate change are supported by her history and knowledge about the operations of public policy in the United States. She reflected back on her childhood in Boston where she witnessed pollution in the Lawrence River from nearby adjacent textile factories. She boasted about her generation’s achievements in recognizing these injustices and reversing pollution like that in her own community, and she encouraged the audience to “put courage and faith behind our ability to innovate.” When faced with the challenge of rollbacks on regulations at the federal level, she assured the audience that these were nothing new and in the long term, unimportant. She joked about the inertia characteristic of the federal government, but was excited about local and state-level actions to reduce greenhouse emissions and restore damaged environments.
Gina McCarthy stressed the importance of recognizing that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was first and foremost a public health agency. Throughout her talk, she came back to the idea that portraying the agency in this way helps make the issue of climate change more personal for people that find it difficult to connect with far-away environmental symbols like glaciers and rainforests, but who are still concerned with the health of their families and grandchildren.
Another takeaway from McCarthy’s keynote lecture was the unequal distribution of climate change impacts and the need for political participation to fuel a change. She called for recognition of this environmental injustice as she stated that “pollution is not an equal opportunity killer,” with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan as a heartbreaking example.
The end of the lecture summarized her belief in the ability of the student generation to address climate change, support complemented by her humor and unwavering confidence she herself displayed in the face of global challenges. She asked the audience to stay inspired and to recite three things she held to be true: “One: climate change is real. Two: man-made emissions caused it. Three: that’s why women need to rule the world.”
It was an honor and privilege to listen to such a confident, fearless woman that has done so much to combat climate change and protect the health of Americans, a woman who took the time to share what she has learned through her career in public environmental health with Miami while also shedding light on her own inspirations and aspirations.
Cover photo courtesy of Shannon Reilly