At a time when the White House has taken aim at a number of environmental-protection policies, former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy offered reasons for hope in an Oct. 11 campus talk.

While saying that she’s never witnessed the amount of partisanship currently shown in this country, McCarthy said, both Democrats and Republicans “care about our kids” and this is what we need to remember.

“A clean, healthy environment is not a luxury, it’s a human right,” said McCarthy, who is now a fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It needs to be delivered no matter who is in Washington.”

President Donald Trump’s administration has targeted climate-change efforts put in place during the Obama administration; McCarthy said the most embarrassing action was the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. “The decision that was made was contrary not just to the science, but it was contrary to the wishes of the business community as a whole in the United States; it was contrary to this country’s economic and national security interests,” she said.

McCarthy added, however, that the administration has not taken the steps necessary to roll back these rules. “Almost everything I’ve said to you is not a final decision being made that will stand contrary to science and the law,” she said, “because pronouncements don’t change things. It takes a rule to undo a rule.”

“If you want to get rid of and rollback all of the rules we put into place over the past eight years, guess what you have to do? It takes a rule to undo a rule. I’m going to tell you something you may not know—rules are incredibly wickedly hard to do. It requires teamwork, it requires a career staff who know the law, that understands the decisions that have been made in courts over time. It requires science to be paid attention to. It requires the law to be followed. It requires facts to be gathered. It requires everybody to come together to think big thoughts and apply them in little ways,” she said.

“There is no way that this administration has done anything close to that amount of work that tells me that they are going to be successful in rolling back any rule that the prior administration put into place because we followed the science, we followed the law, we gathered the facts.”

McCarthy urged her audience of about 75 people to continue working at the grassroots level, to support city and local officials when they agree with their work, and to “comment on the work being done on the federal level that you disagree and agree with.”  

“We can be upset about what’s going on in Washington, but we have to maintain a tremendous sense of hope,” McCarthy said. “When the United States in Washington is asleep, that’s when we have to wake up.”

Asked how academics can improve their communication with the EPA, McCarthy said researchers need to translate their work into language that an audience outside of their community can understand. “You’ve got to tell me what this means in language that I can understand,” she said. “And when you do, you can readily translate this into policy. We have maintained a code of silence around research that needs to be broken.”