Earth Week Interviews with EPA Administrators Gina McCarthy and William Reilly

This week, The Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy produced a special double episode of its excellent Columbia Energy Exchange podcast, in which their Founding Director, Jason Bordoff, interviewed two champions of the environmental movement — one Republican, one Democrat. With the Center’s permission, we have excerpted each of them below.

Earth Day At 50: Reflections from William Reilly – Listen to the full podcast here.

JB:  Tell us and our listeners what you remember about the first Earth Day.

WR:  I was a month old at the Council on Environmental Quality in the Executive Office of the President of President Nixon, at that time, the Council was created by the National Environmental Policy Act on the first of January 1970.  When President Nixon, upon signing that Act, declared that the coming decade would be the decade of the environment.  And…the country was poised to improve its environment, people were frustrated by a lot of different things pollution in rivers, heavy non-attainment in air quality in the cities.  Deep, almost impenetrable air in some of our cities for much of the time, specifically Los Angeles and Houston. 

And there was an impatience in the land and it affected everybody.  And as I look back on it there was a combination of impatience and ambition, but also joy.  It was not to my knowledge even though that people buried automobiles and protested and had vengeful caricatures of pollution causes and the malefactors that they identified, everybody was involved. Judges, lawyers took it very seriously that they took these statutes actually more seriously than their authors.  

And the time was obviously right for it, the president was very receptive to it, President Nixon, in running in 1968 had noticed that the environment was number three in the concerns of American voters after the War in Vietnam and the economy…And he willingly signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act finally and the Endangered Species Act…Safe Drinking Water Law and…[the] Toxic Substances Control Act, it was a real panoply and encyclopedia of new protections for different aspects of the environment and against different threats.  It was a marvelous time to watch a movement grow spontaneously and compel the passions of really everybody.

Earth Day at 50: Reflections from Gina McCarthy – Listen to the full podcast here

JB:  We have seen things start to change.  We’re seeing some of the larger oil and gas companies promising net-zero targets by 2050.  You’re seeing other companies like Delta and Microsoft promising to decarbonize; financial institutions like BlackRock saying they’ll account for the climate.  How important is that? The idea that it doesn’t even matter what the federal government does because states and cities and businesses can get us where we need to go.  Does that signal that some sort of cultural shift is starting?

GM:  It definitely is a good sign that you are seeing companies and investment firms get the hint that they are on the wrong side of the equation, that the scale is tipping.  All of the surveys that are done and the research tells us that’s the case.  Unfortunately, it’s because now climate change’s impacts are becoming just about as visible as the pollution in Boston Harbor and those smokestacks we used to have way back when.  A lot is changing and it’s more difficult to deny. Now it’s about taking the solutions we have and driving them home and forcing the business and private sector community recalibrating how they make money today and in the future — how they can be on the right side of this now.

I do think there is lots of visibility around this issue now.  I do think there’s a lot of pressure. And I do think young people have made a difference.  I think groups like the Extinction Rebellion have made a big difference…So it is changing, but honestly, it is too early to assume that because people are making promises, that action is going to follow…We just got a commitment from Shell to do more.  But if you look at what the fossil fuel companies are actually doing, it is a minor percentage of a percentage point that is changing at this point.  It is good talk, but they are going to have to walk it….

JB:  When you look back now on the environmental movement from decades ago and the extent to which you could find bipartisan agreement, how do we get some of that back in order to make progress on climate?

GM:  I actually worked for six governors in total and five of them were Republicans.  We did not have this kind of split.  Clearly the Republican Party has always been focused on the economy and there has always been a question as to whether there is a dichotomy between environment and economy instead of synergy, which is how many of us look at it when it is done right…You have now a pervasiveness of anti-government or so small that you can hardly see it government and to me, that is really disturbing.

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