A Fearless Defender for Our Future

President and CEO Gina McCarthy started out as a public health agent in small-town Massachusetts, rose to become head of the EPA under Obama, and now guides NRDC into its next chapter.

NRDC’s new president and CEO, Gina McCarthy

Credit: Boston Globe/Getty

Gina McCarthy, the fourth person chosen to lead the Natural Resources Defense Council since its founding 50 years ago, served as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama. During her tenure from 2013 until 2017, she achieved critical safeguards for our health and our environment, including the Clean Water Rule, which greatly improved aspects of the 1972 Clean Water Act that had been in dire need of updating, and the Clean Power Plan, designed to slash emissions from coal-fired power plants, a critical tool to steer the United States toward fulfilling its climate commitments made during the Paris Agreement.

With these achievements (and many more) now imperiled, McCarthy joins NRDC to reenter the fight against the rollback of critical health and environmental protections; attacks on science and the law; polluters who disregard regulatory requirements and fail to meet their obligations to their neighbors; corporate bosses who seek to put profits before public health and the protection of our precious natural resources; and those local, state, and national leaders who deny or sow doubt about the threats posed by climate change. She also brings to the fight more than 30 years of experience advocating for people and the environment at the state, city, and community levels.

What are your earliest memories of connecting with nature and the environment in your native Boston?

As a kid, I never stayed indoors—ever. But honestly, nobody my age did. There was nothing to do indoors other than watch a black-and-white television with three channels. The attraction was all outdoors.

I remember ice skating on the pond near our house. We had to cut through farmland to get to the pond, and the farmer was always trying to shoot us with buckshot, but he never succeeded. We never really knew whether he was serious or just having fun watching us trip all over ourselves to get into the woods on the other side of his field.

And I remember going swimming in the summer. There was one place we could ride our bikes to get some relief from the summer heat. It was really just a small pond about a mile from our neighborhood, way off the beaten path in the woods. The water was clean, but it was a popular fishing hole so we had to be careful not to step on all the fishhooks. Maybe that was why our moms told us we couldn’t go there! Once in a while we would head to a beach in Boston Harbor when the summer heat got unbearable. It was in Dorchester, the neighborhood where my parents grew up. We loved to swim in the ocean but it wasn’t really the best water quality. When we got out of the water we would have tar balls stuck to our legs that we had to peel off. Today, Boston Harbor is clean, swimmable, and one of the major reasons why the City of Boston is a world-class place to visit and live.

But my favorite outdoor time was spent hiking in the Blue Hills Reservation, a beautiful urban state park just south of Boston. My dad would pack all the neighborhood kids into the car, and we’d go into the woods for hiking, exploring, turning over every log we could find to look at the bugs hiding below, making bows and arrows and shooting at one another when my dad wasn’t looking.

Blue Hills Reservation, Boston
Credit: Brian MacLean

When did you know that you wanted to make protecting the environment and public health your life’s work?

I actually intended to go into the health field when I went to graduate school at Tufts. I was really interested in how we might better deliver health care services to communities that had been left behind. People struggling to make ends meet, find safe places to live. and keep food on the table. After graduating, I worked in community health centers in Providence, Rhode Island. There were a lot of folks coming in every day, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what was bringing them in the door, not just how we might better care for them once they came in. I soon began to focus on the fact that so many of these people who were sick were suffering from environmental impacts: kids who had eaten lead paint, families without access to nutritious food, seniors who didn’t have a safe place to live. So my personal interest started to shift. I wanted to focus on how we keep people from getting sick rather than just how to care for them once the damage was done.

Soon I began working for a local board of health as its first full-time health agent. That was the start of my government service and my lifetime commitment to public health and environmental protection. For 40 years I have spent my workdays trying to figure out how to make sure that people have access to essential human needs—clean air and water, safe food, and clean and vibrant places to live, work, and play.

What were some of the greatest challenges and takeaways from your years fighting for environmental and public health protections at the community level?

Working as the local health agent in Canton, Massachusetts, back in the early 1980s was the hardest job I ever had. At that point in time, federal environmental laws and statutes were just starting to be enacted at the state level. So when I arrived in Canton, there was nothing in place that was really sufficient to address any of the pollution problems that led to the start of our environmental movement. I was in my mid 20s, just out of graduate school, and all of a sudden I was dealing with contaminated wells, uncontrolled hazardous waste sites, a cancer scare, and the TV cameras that followed. Meanwhile, I was responsible for overseeing perc tests for septic systems, conducting restaurant and housing inspections, developing civil defense plans, spearheading well regulations and right-to-know bylaws. I was the classic jack-of-all-trades and master of none. But I worked hard, learned a lot, and loved every minute of it.

That job taught me that for every issue you tackle, there are many different constituencies, so it’s important out of the gate to ask yourself a number of key questions: Who will care most about this issue and why? How do I reach out and talk to people who have equities in an issue in ways that will be productive and encourage engagement? How do I stop myself from running away from a problem that I don’t immediately know how to fix and simply admit it and work my way through it?

Years later, you would take these important lessons with you to the EPA. How will your experience there serve you in your new job as NRDC’s president and CEO?

I have had a wealth of experience in public service and have grown to understand how government at all levels can work well, and I have seen times when government has fallen short. I want to share those lessons learned with the advocacy community. When you deal with complex challenges that will take years, if not decades, to resolve, it is important to not let yourself be frozen in place while you struggle to find the ultimate answer. When health is at risk, you have to take action based on the best science and technical information you have, be transparent about what you know and don’t know, and do everything you can based on the information in hand. And oftentimes progress can lead to more progress, the problem can become more manageable, and solutions arise.

McCarthy speaking at a press conference during her time as EPA administrator under President Obama
Credit: Saul Loeb/Getty

What, in your opinion, is unusual or unique about the environmental moment we find ourselves in right now?

The progress we’ve made in environmental protection since I was a little kid jumping into Boston Harbor has been remarkable. But today that progress is under threat. Not only that, but the very science we’ve relied on to make that progress is being questioned and attacked at every level.

Back then we were dealing with problems you could see—ones that were very clear and understandable. Now we have the challenge of climate change, which is different. It’s a fundamental threat to our health, our safety, and our natural resources. But it’s a threat that people can’t always see or feel or taste directly, and no single individual can put their finger on a dial and turn it back. So it requires a level of communication and constituency building that we’ve never faced before. Meanwhile, there are folks in Washington who simply deny that it exists. And big money from fossil fuel constituencies is fostering doubt in the science and outright denial in order to slow down progress and delay climate action domestically and internationally.

So we’re at a difficult point in time. We have to not only protect the progress we’ve made but also address issues that are much more complex than we have ever faced before.

A woman and children in Simi Valley during the Easy Fire in California, October 2019
Credit: Frederic J. Brown/Getty

How do you believe NRDC can rise to this challenge in the months and years to come?

I’ve worked and interacted with just about every advocacy group imaginable, and to be honest, NRDC was the only advocacy organization I would have considered joining when I left EPA.

The litigation team is extraordinarily competent and has an incredible track record. I was on the receiving end of many NRDC lawsuits myself. And while I can’t say I welcomed them, exactly, I recognized that they were a crucial part of the checks and balances that give voice to the public and hold government accountable. Through those lawsuits, NRDC helped move the country forward, and I fully expect litigation will continue to play a big role in meeting our mission. We are simply not going to stop the federal backsliding and meet our goals by wishing and communicating and cajoling alone. We have to implement rules and we have to enforce rules. We have to respect the law—and use it to our maximum advantage—if we hope to protect our future and our kids’ future.

We also have to be smart about how we build constituencies. That’s where policy comes in. Who are your friends? Who are your partners? How do you get broader engagement on these issues? NRDC has always thought and acted strategically, not just litigiously. Every tool is essential if we hope to drive the momentum we need to expand our base and meet our goals.

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