Climate Change, Human Health, and National Advocacy: Former EPA Administrator Tells Us to Speak up

This spring, the Harvard Global Health Institute hosted a symposium entitled “Human Health in a Changing Climate” with series of panelists who spoke about the effects of changing environmental conditions on human health. The event’s keynote speaker was Gina McCarthy, Former Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama.

McCarthy began the symposium by summarizing that what experts believe is responsible for the collapse of the Mayan civilization was a result of its inability to solve systemic resource-depletion. McCarthy quoted: “Their attention was focused on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting walls, I mean monuments, competing with each other, and extracting enough food from the presence to support all those activities.” Then, amidst laughter, she said, “does this sound familiar to anybody?”

Photo Credits: Emily Cuccarese
McCarthy further talked about the complications of long-term thinking in a political system with a four-year turnover rate. Though she noted that the next four years will likely involve backsliding in environmental policy, she reassured the audience that her message was not a demoralizing one.

And it wasn’t. Besides riddling her speech with light-hearted humor, McCarthy delivered a message of hope by pin-pointing the way that climate science has made its way into American policy in the past eight years and then arguing that its incredible momentum can no longer be reversed.

McCarthy reminded the audience that regardless of the current administration’s position on climate science, the successful community and state-level activism strategies must continue to be used. Vertical and horizontal pushes forced the federal government to create clean energy policies. From lawsuits against the federal government to the creation of the Regional Greenhouse Grass Initiative and a cap-and-trade program, McCarthy outlined the ways in which sustainable energy and energy efficiency have seeped into the national agenda. She also emphasized the leverage tools of good government, including the incorporation of auto-manufacturers into the cap-and-trade program and the re-framing of the “environmental” message into “climate impact” and finally into “human health,” “national security problem” and “the future of our economy.” By presenting climate change within a framework of marketable solutions rather than the “risks and detriments of climate change,” the federal government was able to convince climate science opponents into accepting the remarkable potentials for change.

Photo Credits: Emily Cuccarese
McCarthy reassured the audience that the gains that have been made in renewable energy and energy efficiency will continue to influence public policy for years to come. “The clean energy train, “McCarthy stated, “has left the station.”. To emphasize this argument, she listed some of the impressive feats that have resulted from the strategic work done by local and federal governments in the past eight years. The average cost of wind energy has been reduced by 61%; the average cost of solar energy has been reduced by 81%; 2.5 million people are employed in clean energy, and another 1.9 million are employed in energy efficiency. Sustainable energy is the future, and it is indeed the most fiscally-responsible one.  

Of course, those who discredit the science have much to lose; today, vulnerable communities are being targeted by large corporations into believing that renewable energy sources are an “elite liberal plot” to take away minority jobs in minority communities. The efforts of community organizers and politicians must be diligently oriented towards refuting these anti-science strategies. Most importantly, McCarthy argued, scientists must also learn to speak to the public and to act alongside activists and policy-makers. The politicization of science means that researchers are responsible for developing trust within the public and delivering the message of climate science to those who feel removed from it. “Who is going to speak to keep science out of the politics and keep the politics out of science? You have to stop being comfortable in ivory towers, and you have to act as a public citizen who is well-informed.”

Photo Credits: Emily Cuccarese
McCarthy’s message is important for us students, as well. As undergraduates, we are the moral voice of our universities; we have the potential to influence our professors and peers, and we have the collective voice to shape the mission of the institutions in which we learn.  We can call on scientists to be activists, and we can motivate each other to be activists as well. Today more than ever, it is our responsibility to hold future decision-makers accountable – to hold ourselves accountable. As McCarthy said: “When the federal government doesn’t act, that doesn’t mean that the United States of America doesn’t.” Climate science is the future of all of us; this is our opportunity to speak.


Missed the event? Watch Gina McCarthy and others here.


Daniela Muhleisen is interested in the way that non-communicable diseases like mental illnesses affect the burden of disease around the world, how funding agencies justify cost-effective strategies for treatment, and the ways in which stigma and social constructs overlap -- and often interfere -- with the the allocation of funds and the availability of resources for  mental health care. At Harvard, she am the Co-President of the Harvard Global Mental Health Coalition and the Education Director for the Harvard Undergraduate Global Health Forum, where she leads global health workshops and discussions at a local  high school in Cambridge. Daniela is also a member of the Harvard Global Health and Aids Coalition and the Student Labor Action Movement. Besides global health, she loves poetry workshops,  Eastern European studies, and pineapple tea.