Gina McCarthy: A return to bi-partisanship in environmentalism?


Update: After 136 days, Gina McCarthy was finally confirmed as EPA Administrator on July 18, 2013.

Last week brought very welcome news that Senator David Vitter (R-LA) does not support using a filibuster to block the confirmation of Gina McCarthy to be EPA Administrator. Vitter had been McCarthy’s chief inquisitor during the confirmation process – asking for written answers to more than 700 questions – and many thought he’d try to use the Senate rules to block a vote on her nomination. If McCarthy had lost her opportunity to serve based on partisanship, it would have carried more than the usual Washington irony, given her stellar bipartisan credentials.

We are often so invested in the politics of the moment that we forget things haven’t always been this way. Environmental issues used to be far more bi-partisan than they seem today. President Nixon and Democrats in Congress were partners in creating the major landmarks of our environmental law, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the EPA itself. In 1990, a major revision of the Clean Air Act -- which created the highly successful cap-and-trade policy for sulfur dioxide -- was passed 401-21 in the House and 89-10 in the Senate, and signed by President Bush.

But somewhere along the way, things changed. While there are areas of common ground, many high profile environmental issues have become partisan wedges, with the two parties disagreeing even on the fundamentals of science.

Like a lot things in Congress, McCarthy’s nomination has been caught up in these partisan skirmishes, despite the fact that she personifies that old bi-partisan spirit. And if she is confirmed by the Senate this week her tenure at EPA might help us return, at least a little bit, to a more civil national dialogue on environmental issues. Or, at least, it should.

McCarthy is truly a non-partisan expert. Before being hired by President Obama to run the air division of EPA in his first term, she worked for several Republican governors. In fact, you can almost imagine if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 election, he might have picked her to run EPA – because he was one of those GOP governors she served.

For me, the most interesting thing about McCarthy’s professional history is that she didn’t have to change her views based on the political party of the person who appointed her. Her science-based, common-sense approach to the environment fit comfortably in both Republican and Democratic administrations. In both cases she listened to environmentalists and businesses, trying to achieve the cleanest air and water at the lowest cost for everyone. The way McCarthy put it recently, “I’ve worked for Republicans, I’ve worked for Democrats and I’ve worked with those who, frankly, could care less about party affiliation, and who simply care about rolling up their sleeves and figuring out how to move forward in a common sense, responsible manner that is consistent with the law, and with the science.”

I don’t expect Gina McCarthy’s approval for the EPA job will erase the ideological and partisan divisions over the environment. There are serious philosophical, regional, and economic divisions on these issues – and no area of policy, it seems, can fully escape the highly partisan nature of American politics.* But McCarthy’s path does show us what is possible. I hope her honest, straightforward, non-political approach is adopted by more people in Washington.

*Things are not as bad as they were in the 1790’s or 1850’s, but we could definitely use some more civility in politics.

Keith Gaby

Keith Gaby

Explores the intersection of politics and climate change.

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"Last week brought very welcome news that Senator David Vitter (D-LA)"

David Vitter is not a Democrat.

Thank you, that was a typo, and it has since been corrected above.

What if the science tells her that after 15 years of flat global temps that current " CO2 is the culprit "climate models are hopelessly inaccurate?

The Prez says it is a gas to be feared. The EPA agrees. Can bipartisan Gina reverse course? I don't think so. If crazies from the Environmental Defense Fund think she is bipartisan, then we will be living in caves one year later than if another enviro lunatic took the position.

Let me add that after some more research,Gina is a certifiable liar. According to a Forbes magazine article, she has lied to Congress on two separate occasions. This is what we have come to expect from our current political leadership. A slippery snake offspring of a career in the government bureaucracy.

Mr. Ohr seems to strongly disagree with the view of the National Academy of Sciences and all other leading American scientific organizations that carbon pollution is warming our climate. Given that, I don't think there's anything I can say to change his mind. But on Gina McCarthy, I would like to note that in addition to support from us crazies at EDF, she served 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts, as well as other Republican governors, and has been praised by a wide range of business leaders for her balanced, common-sense approach.


Thank you for the polite reply. I understand that climate models say that CO2 is the cause of global warming but there has been no discernible rise in global temps since 1998 despite continued increases in atmospheric CO2 levels. Sooooo, shouldn't the models be modified in light of the observed evidence? If the correlations are in fact faulty, then projections of future global temps based on them are also wrong. If any Academy of Science member disagrees with that, I would certainly like to meet him.

Thank you for raising this issue, Fred, I think it's causing some confusion. While the rate of warming of the atmosphere has slowed over the past 15 years, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the blanket of greenhouse gases has continued to thicken around the Earth. Twice before in the past 100 years, longer slowdowns occurred and after each, the warming trend resumed at a faster pace than before the slowdown. Several recent studies strongly suggest that this time will be no different, because the unrealized warming is temporarily being absorbed in the oceans. It's important to realize that while the climate system is complex and there will always be specific issues for scientists to puzzle over, that doesn't undermine the decades of experimental and observational data establishing a clear link between greenhouse gas pollution and rising global temperatures. Even the scientists who have raised the issue you mention are not questioning the overall fact of pollution-caused climate change. And remember that during the 15 years you're talking about, we had 13 of the hottest years on record. In other words, the temperatures seem to have temporarily plateaued at record levels, which is hardly an indication that climate change isn't happening. All branches of science, from medicine to geology, have unanswered questions -- but we don't take that as evidence that genetics or plate tectonics are false.

For a fuller discussion of this issues, see these earlier posts:

Please see recent issue of The Economist. It reviews not yet published IPCC report which lowers temp forecasts by 28-35% for a range of atmospheric concentrations of CO2. My point precisely. The climate models are inaccurate and real world observation will cause adjustments based on the a failure of temps to reach forecasted levels. Yet, we have a President wedded to the concept that aour economy must be turned on its head to avoid a global warming catastrophe. I call him and others of like mind reality deniers. Good to see the IPCC making appropriate adjustments.

Yes, everyone should read that Economist article about the upcoming IPCC report. It begins with a climate expert saying, “THAT report is going to scare the wits out of everyone.” The President’s plan is an important first step, but in the long run not enough even under an optimistic scenario. If you’re unsure whether a disaster is going to be epic or just monumental, it’s unwise to respond by ignoring the danger altogether. So we need to get started — fast.