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Climate Czar Revived Amid Warmer World, Rising Equity Concerns

Dec. 16, 2020, 7:20 PM

A domestic climate czar returns to the White House to grapple with a world that has only gotten warmer over the last decade—even as environmental justice concerns have risen to the forefront of President-elect Joe Biden’s climate agenda.

Observers said addressing both issues will be crucial to the success of Gina McCarthy, who is reported to be Biden’s choice for domestic climate policy adviser. McCarthy is arriving more than a decade after President Barack Obama tapped another former Environmental Protection Agency head, Carol Browner, as the first White House climate czar.

McCarthy ran the EPA during Obama’s second term, and shepherded Obama’s signature climate policy effort, the Clean Power Plan, which the U.S. Supreme Court stayed in 2016. She came on board just as Obama was focusing on actions his agencies could take to get around congressional stalemate. That experience should prove helpful as Biden faces a closely-divided Congress, observers said.

A White House domestic policy czar “is absolutely essential to ensure that all federal agencies are working together to create millions of good jobs and address environmental injustices, as we reduce carbon pollution to achieve net-zero emissions,” said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation.

Biden has vowed to move the U.S. to a 100% clean energy grid by 2035, and hit net-zero emissions no later than 2050.

While racial equity and environmental justice issues bubbled up in the Obama era, they are front and center in Biden’s pledges to find climate solutions, including ensuring policies address low-income and minority communities’ vulnerability to severe storms, rising heat, and other climate-related changes. Climate solutions will have to include actions to ensure vulnerable communities aren’t left behind, said O’Mara, among those eyed by the Biden transition team to head the EPA.

Leaving No Gap

Mustafa Ali, who ran the EPA’s environmental justice office, said such equity issues will be elevated for the climate czar post as Biden vowed to integrate those equity concerns across his cabinet.

“There is going to be an environmental justice component to domestic and international climate issue—and in my mind, if you are going to make that investment in climate but not EJ, you are going to leave a gap in the process,” he said.

Browner, who had been President Bill Clinton’s EPA administrator for two terms, coordinated energy and climate policy during Obama’s push for an ill-fated cap-and-trade bill but left after just two years.

Congressional Republicans were critical of her role, arguing it was an end run around congressional accountability and Senate confirmation. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), member of the caucus leadership, revived those concerns Wednesday.

“The punishing regulations of the Obama administration hurt Wyoming workers and stifled America’s economy,” he said in a statement. Free market innovation and “not the appointment of countless unchecked czars will help protect our environment without punishing our economy.”

While the climate czar adviser won’t need Senate confirmation, McCarthy could almost certainly expect to be called to testify over Biden’s climate agenda, particularly if Republicans maintain Senate control after the Georgia runoff race next month.

Experience Praised

The purported pick drew praise from many environmental groups, including a strong endorsement from Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshini Prakash.

“Gina has been a partner and ally to Sunrise in pushing Joe Biden to adopt and champion a climate plan that was bigger, bolder, more ambitious, more worker-centered, and more rooted in environmental justice,” Prakash said."Gina went out of her way to make sure that my ideas were heard and centered because she understands the critical importance of listening to young climate activists.”

The Boston native has been president and chief executive officer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, since January. She also draws on years of experience in public health and state environmental agencies, including in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Before her confirmation to run EPA in 2013, McCarthy headed the EPA Office of Air and Radiation.

She has also pointed to her experience addressing environmental justice issues while at the EPA. More stringent limits on power plants’ carbon emissions, strengthening resilience against climate impacts, and pushing for more jobs in clean energy were all aimed at least in part at helping low-income communities of color, McCarthy said during a 2014 speech at the National Action Network Breakfast.

Polluted air and water are “holding back millions of African-Americans fighting for middle class security, because the first few rungs of any ladder of opportunity are clean air to breathe and clean water to drink,” she said during a videotaped address that same year for the Hip Hop Caucus’ climate change tour to historically Black colleges and universities.

More recently, she said Biden garnered Black community support because he linked systemic racism and climate justice.

“What president had ever felt that that was the strategy to use?” she said at a Nov. 12 Indiana University roundtable.

But “people understood from Covid-19 that not everybody is equally impacted by a public health emergency like this, and they know who’s left behind: frontline, fenceline communities; Black, brown, indigenous low-income communities.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergindustry.com; Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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