In the White House, Fighting for the Environment

Gina McCarthy, AG81, is the National Climate Advisor, continuing a long career of work focused on solutions to environmental issues

When President Joe Biden first asked Gina McCarthy, AG81, to join his White House team to tackle the climate crisis, she was skeptical.

As someone who had spent 40 years fighting for environmental sustainability—as a state regulator, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Barack Obama, and as CEO and president of the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council—she had to know that Biden was serious about making the kind of investments that could make a difference in climate first. 

But when Biden “made the connection between climate and health and environmental and racial justice, and he framed it in terms of what needed to be done after the pandemic for job growth, it just—it owned me,” she told the New York Times. “It got me out of the drudgery of climate always being a planetary burden and a horrible potential future and brought it into a framing that to me, energized it.”

Last spring, the White House announced that McCarthy would be appointed the country’s first-ever White House National Climate Advisor—the top-ranking official in the administration overseeing everything having to do with climate. Environmentalists celebrated the pick with’s Bill McKibben tweeting that she was an “inspired choice.” 

She “knows the issues,” McKibben said. “She’s funny and tough and I’m pretty sure she understands we’re out of time.” The youth activist organization Sunrise Movement was similarly enthusiastic, with its national spokesperson saying McCarthy was “among our initial picks for the role because she understands the urgency of the latest science and the need to use every tool available in the executive branch to stop the climate crisis.”

But McCarthy is far from a bomb-thrower. In her decades working in government, she has always had a broad view of environmental progress, earning a reputation as a no-nonsense negotiator with an intense work ethic, who knows how to slice through bureaucracies to get things done. On the state level in Connecticut and Massachusetts, five out of the six governors with whom she worked were Republicans, and her straightforward style has been as equally respected by business leaders as activists.

When McCarthy was tapped for her latest position, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachuetts) told Vox she was “tough as nails and smart” and someone who “gets it at a technical, dirt-under-your-fingernails level. But she also understands politics. Gina’s creative in a very practical way.”

As McCarthy herself told a Tufts publication in a 2009 interview, “I think Tufts taught me to be a terrible bureaucrat. I don’t separate health issues from environmental issues or environmental issues from energy issues. I try to see it from the standpoint of human beings and what they need to have a sustainable world. I ended up in the environmental world because I saw the most direct overlap between what is happening in peoples’ health and the pollution they were being exposed to.” 

From Town Public Health Officer to the White House

Regina “Gina” McCarthy was born in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton and grew up in an Irish working-class family in nearby Canton. She earned a degree at University of Massachusetts–Boston in anthropology, which she credits with helping her see issues from multiple points of view.

Motivated to go into public service, she earned a joint M.S. degree in environmental health engineering and planning and policy at Tufts, at the same time that she worked in Canton municipal government as a public health officer. Those early experiences showed her the impact of the environment on people’s health and livelihood, as she worked to combat hazardous waste and curb air pollution in a string of appointments as a state official advising on environmental issues in Massachusetts. 

After leading Connecticut’s state environmental protection agency, in 2013, McCarthy was tapped by Barack Obama to become the 13th administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. With Obama’s blessing, she pushed to transform the agency to more explicitly make the connection between the environment and public health. 

Under her tenure, the agency enacted the Clean Power Plan, setting the first standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants, as well as new regulations to conserve water resources and improve chemical safety. When Donald Trump was elected president four years later, she told demoralized civil servants to “keep your asses in your seats” as the new administration worked to undermine many of the policies she enacted. McCarthy worked from the outside through the NRDC to sue the administration more than 100 times—winning nine cases out of 10 to protect her work.

Now back in the White House, she has worked to not only reinstate her legacy but expand it, with an ambitious goal set by the administration to reduce greenhouse emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2035, and to net zero by 2050. McCarthy admits that’s a tall order. “We have to move quickly, there is no question about it,” she told the Washington Post

But she insists that America has undergone a sea change, with clean energy now outcompeting fossil fuels on price and offering opportunities for workers as well. “Climate change can be a kitchen-table issue if you talk about it from the standpoint of what kind of jobs are we going to create? How do we make sure we’re investing in every community? How do we make sure we are not leaving workers behind? What kind of future do you want for your children?” said McCarthy.

With that kind of broad-ranging perspective, McCarthy hopes she can cut through the red tape in Washington and make the kind of practical progress she’s been known for, helping make investments to ultimately cut emissions while cutting costs, creating jobs, and improving health. 

Already, the administration has pushed forward new environmental justice regulations to steer 40 percent of federal funds to overlooked communities and allocated $5 billion for half a million new electric vehicle charging stations across the country.

At the same time, it continues to push Congress on new tax breaks and incentives to support clean energy and transportation through its Build Back Better plan. “We have set big goals for ourselves on clean energy,” McCarthy said at a recent Politico event. “And you can actually see them coming alive now.”

Michael Blanding is a Boston-based freelance writer.

Back to Top