Join former NYT Science Times editor David Corcoran for a discussion with former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy about bridging the gap between science and the public. Also, podcast host Kasha Patel talks with Undark’s Matters of Fact and Tracker columnist Michael Schulson about an ambitious new study with potentially major implications; and a group of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists take listeners aboard a tornado-chasing airplane.
Below are the individual segments and a full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity. You can also subscribe to the Undark podcast at iTunes.
Kasha Patel: Welcome back Undark listeners. I’m your host Kasha Patel. Outside of this podcast, though, I’m a science writer at NASA and I write about earth science.
Now, I bring up my day job only because one, brag, I’m employed. Two, it’s actually relevant to this episode. It’s always interesting when people hear that I work in the Earth Science Department because when they hear NASA, they think Mars and outer space but not necessarily about studying our environment. In fact, I get so many questions about Mars that I have to read the latest research about human exploration, not because my job requires it, but because society requires it.
Do you know how embarrassing it is when a seventh grader knows more about your company than you do? But, I don’t get it. Earth is my favorite planet because it’s the only one that has Wi-Fi as far as we know. Show me that on Mars and maybe I’ll change my mind.
So, this episode is going to be all about Earth’s environment. We’re going to take you inside a tornado chasing airplane and later, we’re going to talk to the former EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy.
First, I have some things that I want to talk about. Now, I read a lot of articles and studies about sustainability efforts. Some of them are just so unbelievable that I’m thinking, “This can’t possibly be real.” I want to know, “Okay, is Kasha really this gullible or is this something that a lot of people would find hard to believe?”
So, I’m going to bring on our guest, Michael Schulson. You guys might remember him as our media tracker columnist for Undark Magazine and I’m going to try to see if he can pick out which sustainability efforts are real and which ones aren’t.
Hey, Michael. Welcome back.
Michael Schulson: Hey, Kasha. Thanks for having me.
Kasha Patel: We’re going to play a game, Two Truths and a Lie.
Michael Schulson: Okay.
Kasha Patel: Remember how to play this game from when you were young?
Michael Schulson: Yeah. I feel like I’m a 14-year-old at summer camp doing an icebreaker, but I’m ready. I’m ready.
Kasha Patel: Oh, nice. Great, then we can make s’mores after this if you get it right.
Michael Schulson: Great.
Kasha Patel: Perfect. Okay. The first one. In response to a new law in Malibu, California banning plastic straws, the local Paradise Cove Beach Café announced it would begin using straws made out of pasta.
Michael Schulson: Okay.
Kasha Patel: Scenario number two, a group of motorcycle gang members are helping lead an amphibian breeding program to resurrect an endangered salamander.
Michael Schulson: Okay.
Kasha Patel: Scientists in Singapore have figured out a way to make a non-toxic, disposable battery using paper and a drop of your pee. The chemicals in urine, when added to copper chloride, magnesium, and copper, can produce as much power as a AA battery.
Michael Schulson: Wow. So, two of these are true?
Kasha Patel: Two of them are true, yes.
Michael Schulson: California. I think California’s the lie. California’s the lie.
Kasha Patel: Okay. Well, the answer is … Drum roll, please. That’s not a very good drum roll. The lie is a group of motorcycle members did not … They are not leading an amphibian breeding program.
Michael Schulson: I got it so wrong. I was deeply wrong.
Kasha Patel: It’s disappointing to hear.
Michael Schulson: I was excited about their work.
Kasha Patel: But, I can tell you that there is a group of unlikely members leading a breeding program for the salamanders…Nuns.
Michael Schulson: Oh, the nuns. You know, I honestly remembered seeing a story about salamanders in the news, which is partly why I figured this, but I clearly only saw the part about the salamanders and got nuns and motorcycle gang confused.
Kasha Patel: That’s an easy thing to do.
Michael Schulson: Wow. Okay. Well, so what does this mean for my reputation?
Kasha Patel: Well, Michael, you might never be Two Truths and a Lie champion, but that’s not really why we brought you here anyways. Let me ask you a question about your field of expertise. What scientific study caught your eye this month and how is it portrayed in the news?
Michael Schulson: This particular paper is titled, “A Process for Capturing CO2 From the Atmosphere.” It’s basically using a giant bank of fans and a series of chemical processes to take CO2 and turn it into something … Well, it’s still CO2, but to turn it into something else.
Kasha Patel: Why did it go so viral? Well, first of all, would you say it went viral?
Michael Schulson: I would say that as 23-page studies about obscure chemical reactions go, this one went pretty viral. Yeah.
I think the specific study partly played into … It played into fear and hope at the same time. It is taking a process for capturing carbon dioxide, which is causing climate change and causing a lot of anxieties for people and it’s showing a way to take this carbon dioxide and, not only take it out of the atmosphere, but also turn it into fuel, which could then be burned.
Kasha Patel: So, earlier you said that they’re trying to take … You said chemical processes but also fans. Do you mean like a blowing fan?
Michael Schulson: Giant blowing fans. Imagine tons and tons of air conditioning units that have been stacked up that are sucking air out and then channeling them into this complex series of chemical processes. The fans are there because you need to actually get the air into the system.
Kasha Patel: Are you joking right now ’cause this sounds way too simple of a solution?
Michael Schulson: The fan part maybe is probably the simplest part. Then, you’ve got to do a ton of other things. That process is not necessarily that innovative. Other engineers, other researchers are working on ways to do this and have developed ways to do this. What made this paper unusual or what made it so noteworthy was that they had found a way to do it, but the researchers are saying that they’ve found a way to do it that’s a lot cheaper than what anybody else has managed to do.
Kasha Patel: There have been some articles out there saying that this is an end-all-be-all solution, but there is a lot of exaggerated coverage of this study, right?
Michael Schulson: Yeah. There’s definitely coverage that says things along the line of, “Hey, maybe this is going to save the world.” Headline in the Atlantic was, “Climate Change Can Be Stopped by Turning Air Into Gasoline,” which that’s what they’re trying to do basically is turn a gas in air into fuel. But, whether that will single-handedly stop climate change is a little bit of a harder question, and there was certainly coverage along those lines. Hey, a bunch of engineers have figured out a way to suck all the carbon out of the air, turn it to gas, and save the planet.
Kasha Patel: What do you think went well here with this coverage?
Michael Schulson: It was tricky because it’s an exciting story, but it’s also very much an economic story and a politics story. I think the best pieces talked about economics and talked about politics and talked about, “Okay, so this fancy technology exists. What do we do with it?”
I actually talked to Professor David Keith, who teaches applied physics at Harvard’s School of Engineering and was the main author of this study.
David Keith: I guess overall I hope the coverage was really good. One thing you definitely notice is a gap between headline and article and, as you know, in media often it’s not the same person that writes both. So, there’s some cases where the author actually wrote quite a careful sensible story, but the title said something like, “Solar Geoengineering Saves the Whole World” or “It’s Better Than Sliced Bread,” and “We Don’t Have to Worry About Climate Change Anymore,” and some complete nonsense. The article actually is quite sensible. I think there were a lot of those.
Kasha Patel: Sometimes they hit the mark. Sometimes they miss it, but I’m interested to hear is there a lesson to learn here?
Michael Schulson: I think two lessons come to mind. One is that there’s clearly a lot of demand for coverage like this and there’s a lot of demand for stories about what to do in the face of something that’s vast and complicated and anxiety-inducing. On the flip side of that, maybe a second lesson is that it’s vast and complicated and while it’s easy to gravitate towards saying, “This is a solution,” finding that nuance, while sometimes challenging, is really important, especially, I think, when talking about technologies that really do offer a huge amount of promise but that also are part of these kinds of vast networks of science, technology, and money that seem to power a lot of progress.
Kasha Patel: Well, Michael, it was a pleasure. As always, I look forward to talking to you next month.
Michael Schulson: I’m looking forward to it too. Thanks, Kasha.
Kasha Patel: Bye.
Our next guest traveled with a group of tornado chasers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is a mouthful so we just call them NOAA. Let’s welcome our intrepid traveler, Morgan Levey.
Thanks for joining us, Morgan.
Morgan Levey: Thank you.
Kasha Patel: So, Morgan, you and the researchers traveled to the Southeast United States to study tornadoes, which is interesting to me because when I think of tornadoes, I think of, “Oh, I’m not in Kansas anymore.”
Morgan Levey: Yeah, and I think you’re totally right in thinking that the Great Plains is really known for these big, killer tornadoes. And, it is, but the Southeast also actually endures a high number of deadly tornadoes each year.
NOAA has this project called Vortex Southeast where they use trucks on the ground, but they also use airplanes to chase these tornadoes because the tornadoes form so quickly that airplanes actually can get to them pretty rapidly and stay out of danger’s way by doing these crazy maneuvers.
Kasha Patel: You actually had the opportunity to be in one of those airplanes, right?
Morgan Levey: I did. We ended up seeing two tornadoes from the air actually.
Kasha Patel: Wow! So, I’ve only seen footage of tornadoes from the ground. What’s a tornado look like from the aerial view?
Morgan Levey: I can actually only speak to the first tornado because during the second tornado I was getting sick for the umpteenth time-
Kasha Patel: Oh, no!
Morgan Levey: … on the flight. When you look out the window, it’s this big, grey mass is the storm. And, the tornado’s this little point that comes down and touches Earth. What made is really obvious for us was that both tornadoes took out transformers, so you could see this bright flash on the ground and it was clear that it was caused by a tornado.
Kasha Patel: Cool. Well, let’s take a listen.
Ian Sears: Oh, there’s a transformer. It just went! You see the transformer blow up?
Speaker 6: Yeah.
Morgan Levey: That’s Ian Sears, a meteorologist with the Hurricane Hunter flight crew. Twenty-five hundred feet below us bright light just flashed on the ground, the trademark sign of a tornado ripping through an electrical transformer.
We’re in a P-3 aircraft over northeastern Louisiana and we’re doing what most airplanes avoid, trying to chase down a tornado.
Ian Sears: Goes against all reason for what you should be doing with an airplane that’s for sure. It is a good mission though and I really believe that the information that we are collecting is helping to save lives.
Morgan Levey: This flight is part of a project focused on studying how tornadoes form in the southeastern United States aptly called Vortex Southeast. We’re flying back and forth across the front edge of a supercell, the kind of rotating thunderstorm that produces tornadoes.
The plane, a four-engine, turboprop airplane named Kermit, is a flying laboratory. Kermit’s decked out with radar instruments. One on the nose, another underneath that scans horizontally, and two tail Doppler radars, which scan the storm vertically as we fly by.
Ian Sears: You’re getting these cross angles that are giving you this really fine resolution of the storms and you can see the rotation in the storms. We had a really neat instance the other night where you could actually see the tornado sticking out of the storm in the radar.
Morgan Levey: Scientists can then use this data to create a 3D map of the storm’s internal structure and learn exactly what conditions lead to a tornado.
Conrad Ziegler: So, I think the key question that we pose in our Vortex Southeast research is to establish a baseline for the types of internal air circulations that we have in strong storms in the Southeast, how these compare to the Great Plains thunderstorms that we have a bit more familiarity about.
Morgan Levey: That’s Conrad Ziegler, the lead scientist at Vortex Southeast. When most people think of deadly tornadoes, they tend to think the Great Plains, Oklahoma, Kansas.
Conrad Ziegler: However, the Southeast also has a tornado problem.
Morgan Levey: Last year, tornadoes killed 35 people in the U.S. and 25 of those deaths were in the Southeast.
Scott Worsham: Compared to the Plains, we have a more compact or dense population.
Morgan Levey: That’s Scott Worsham, he’s an emergency management officer in Huntsville, Alabama. The dense population means it’s more likely for humans to be in the path of any tornado that develops.
While the physics of severe storms are the same everywhere, tornadoes in the Southeast tend to develop quickly and without much warning. They happen at night when people are asleep and in the cooler part of the year. In 2012, Mobile, Alabama had a deadly tornado on Christmas.
And, the Southeast doesn’t have the wide open spaces of the Great Plains. It’s wooded with hilly terrain that makes it harder to see tornadoes coming.
Scott Worsham: Anything that will allow us to see indications that a tornado is about to occur so we can get the warning out quicker is going to be beneficial to us.
Morgan Levey: That’s the angle of Vortex Southeast, for scientists to observe and document the small features of a storm that mean a tornado is on its way, to give emergency managers and the public more warning.
Kim Elmore: The things that happen here in the Southeast, even within energetic storms like this, tend to be more subtle.
Morgan Levey: That’s Kim Elmore, the radar scientist on board the flight. He’s trying to explain how hard it is to predict storms here.
Kim Elmore: It’s like when you’re petting a cat and the cat is all happy and purring and then it’s had enough and it turns around and scratches your hand and takes off. Unless you know the cat really well, you don’t see it coming.
Morgan Levey: We’re chatting in a picnic table at the back of the plane while we fly from Huntsville, Alabama to a line of storms near Shreveport, Louisiana. Chasing the storm from the air lets the team slip in close when a storm develops and dodge unpredictable danger.
Conrad Ziegler: Shreveport radar we are seeing what I would say is the first detectable supercell.
Morgan Levey: It’s about two hours into the flight when we reach our first storm cell and the lapping dance begins. Ziegler’s speaking through the headphones.
Conrad Ziegler: It’s more intense this part northeast of Shreveport.
Jessica Williams: Okay, so how about 10 miles or so?
Conrad Ziegler: Yep, okay. That sounds good.
Jessica Williams: Okay.
Morgan Levey: The women’s voice belongs to Jessica Williams. She’s a meteorologist and the mission’s flight director. Williams is the liaison between the scientists and the pilot. She understands the weather and what the plane is and isn’t capable of flying through.
Jessica Williams: We have two on these missions because it’s scary. It’s more dangerous.
Morgan Levey: On these flights, they use two flight directors because the weather is so tricky to navigate around. This crew normally flies through hurricanes, through the eye wall of some of the most devastating storms on the planet, and they’ve all told me that flying through a hurricane is logistically easier than chasing tornadoes. Elmore.
Kim Elmore: When we’re going after these storms, it’s not a straight shot at all. We saw, we’re doing turns and back and forth and adjusting ourselves all the time.
Jessica Williams: So, you’re flying out to what’s going to be a line that isn’t even there yet and then this stuff starts popping up and it’s popping up not where you expected it to be. You just pick one and fly back and forth, and you pick another one and fly back and forth.
Okay, we’ll keep working this line.
Morgan Levey: Working this line means taking a lap of the front edge of the storm. In order to maximize the radar’s time scanning the storm, the pilot does these quick bank turns. At the end of a storm line, he puts the wing down 30 to 45 degrees and completely reverses course. This happens every five minutes.
I was warned about the turbulence on this flight. I got sick 30 minutes in and we were nowhere near a storm. These quick bank turns are a whole new challenge for my stomach and I get sick again.
Conrad Ziegler: There’s nothing else.
Kim Elmore: We’ve been sitting here all afternoon.
Conrad Ziegler: Right.
Kim Elmore: Hell, I don’t know.
Conrad Ziegler: Well, yeah. No.
Morgan Levey: It’s hard to hear, but Ziegler said, “There’s nothing else,” and Elmore said, “We’ve been sitting here all afternoon.” It’s a little over three hours into the flight and the weather isn’t cooperating. While we found a few storms to lap, they haven’t been as severe as forecasted.
Everyone is frustrated. They’re out here with expensive equipment and a huge team to support this mission. Every second they spend in the air without tracking a severe storm feels like a waste of energy and resources. Finally, a little over four hours into the flight, we spot our first tornado.
Ian Sears: Oh, there’s a transformer. It just went! You see the transformer-
Morgan Levey: The one that took out the transformer at the beginning of the story.
Conrad Ziegler: Fantastic. Okay, I’ll pass that on. It sounds like a tornado continuously on the ground.
Jessica Williams: Yep. I just saw it through one of their [inaudible 00:19:05] all the way over here.
Morgan Levey: The scientists and crew are ecstatic to be finally capturing some useful data. The atmosphere on the plane is so infectious that I forget how sick I feel and run to the back of the plane to try to see the twister. Then, about a half an hour later …
Ian Sears: I think it’s on the ground. Yeah, it’s on the ground, dude. I got that. You can see it. Look at it. It’s right there. It’s [crosstalk 00:19:28].
Morgan Levey: The supercell we’re lapping produced another tornado and, again, it took out a transformer. At this point, we’ve lapped the storm over 20 times. That means one of those harsh bank turns every five minutes for an hour and a half. My body wants to be on the ground.
But, even while getting sick, I could hear Ziegler say through the headphones that this storm provided some of the best data of the season. Mission accomplished.
Conrad Ziegler: The fact that we were able to sample the storm before, during, and after the tornadoes formed within it was really a remarkable opportunity to help us understand how tornadoes formed.
Morgan Levey: That’s Ziegler again. Making sense of the data will take about three years, but the team believes they now have the information to determine why storms form so quickly out here and how they can better forecast them.
Conrad Ziegler: We have an outstanding dataset and that’s what Kim and I are out in the field to get and that’s outstanding radar measurements from our P-3 aircraft at close range of the storm as it intensifies. If it produces a tornado, then from our perspective, that’s going to help us learn even more specific lessons about what tornadic storms look like on radar.
Jessica Williams: It was a fantastic flight to end the season for science on. Yes.
Morgan Levey: That’s Williams again. A successful flight for this crew means they were able to collect data on severe weather, which, in this case, was two tornadoes. That means rooting for weather that can be dangerous, even deadly, to people.
Thankfully, no one was killed in the tornadoes we witnessed. It’s a tricky line to tow for the scientists and crew.
Jessica Williams: While we’re not happy to see a tornado on the ground, it’s going to be on the ground anyway, so we’re happy to be in that spot and capture the data so that we can understand the process from start to finish of the tornado development and better forecast it in the future.
Morgan Levey: While this was the last flight of the season, the work in the Southeast doesn’t end here. The project’s leaders have spent roughly half of their resources on the social sciences, attempting to learn the best ways to communicate warnings and forecasts because eventually, scientists will be able to produce perfect tornado warnings, but if they aren’t heard or seen by the communities that need to hear them, people will still die. It will take both detailed knowledge of the storms and a solid plan of action to make sure that people are safe. Luckily, scientists are making headway.
Kasha Patel: No conversation about the environment is complete without talking about the policy side of things. David Corcoran, Senior Editor of Undark Magazine brings us an interesting conversation with a very special guest who has had decades of experience in this area.
David, welcome back to the show.
David Corcoran: Hey, Kasha.
Kasha Patel: David, I’m very excited to hear this interview with the former EPA administrator.
David Corcoran: Our guest Gina McCarthy has had a long career in protecting the planet and its people. She served as an environmental advisor to five Massachusetts governors. She was the environmental protection commissioner in Connecticut before going to Washington in 2009 to serve in the Environmental Protection Agency. She had the top job at the Environmental Protection Agency, administrator, in the second term of President Barack Obama.
She’s starting a new center at Harvard on the global environment and she joins us now. Gina McCarthy, welcome.
Gina McCarthy: David, it’s great to be here with you. Thanks for having me.
David Corcoran: So, before we talk about your old job, let’s talk about your new one. You are director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It’s quite a mouthful. Why did you take the job?
Gina McCarthy: Well, I took the job because I think it’s really important that science drives some of the key decisions that we have to make as a country and frankly as a world on how we protect public health and the environment and how we move to a much more sustainable way of living here on this planet. We just do great science here at the Harvard School of Public Health. It’s made all the difference in the world in terms of having us understand some of the pollution challenges that have plagued us and how to start reducing those.
But, I think we have some real challenges moving ahead and science needs to underpin those decisions. I think this center can turn science into real actions that people can understand and embrace moving forward so they can tackle climate as a public health problem and not just as a polar bear issue.
David Corcoran: Yeah, I want to press you on this a little bit because usually when we talk about climate change we’re talking about rising sea levels, higher temperatures, bigger storms, polar bears on ice floes. You see it as a health issue. Can you give me a couple specifics?
Gina McCarthy: Sure. I think most people in the United States understand that the climate is changing. I think the real challenge we have is to make sure that it’s relevant to them in their lives and that we talk about it in a way that they can get their arms around rather than either sit and worry about what the government’s going to do instead of what they can do and what it means for them.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Climate change does include higher temperatures and with those higher temperatures, you’re seeing different types of communicable and infectious diseases shifting as the vectors for those disease shift. So, you’re seeing people face different challenges in different parts, even of this country, like Lyme disease. You’re seeing expanded areas where malaria is a problem.
As our water resources are challenged and water levels are lower in our rivers and streams, you’re seeing opportunities for excess pollution there. You’re seeing both challenges with legacy pollutants like lead, but you’re also seeing new pollutants that are coming into our water supplies. They may be drawing water from a different area. They may be looking at rivers and streams that now have excess pollution in them.
So, we are facing serious challenges and climate change exacerbates that. I think the easiest way to think about it is with air pollution. We know in this country that EPA began as a part of the excess pollution that people could see in the world. We knew we had problems. As we’ve worked hard, those pollutants have gone down, but in a changing climate with higher temperatures, you’re going to see more ozone. You’re going to see examples of where particulate matter impact directly the ability of our seniors to actually live healthy lives and long productive lives, but our kids are seeing more asthma attacks, more allergies as the allergy seasons broaden and get longer.
We have real challenges today as a result of a changing climate. So, climate isn’t about polar bears, it’s really about our kids. We want to look at those challenges from a science perspective, not to frighten people, but to engage them because, David, we have solutions today. It’s not just about explaining the problem, but it’s embracing the solution. If we continue to invest in those innovations that bring new technologies to market, we know we can make great things happen.
And, that’s what it’s all about. Science is going to both define the challenges in a way that I hope will engage people and make sure they understand that these issues are relevant to them, but also bring solutions to the table. So, it’s an exciting place to be here at Harvard working with world-class scientists to bridge the gap between science and the public.
David Corcoran: You just opened at the end of May and I see you’ve already announced a partnership with Google on healthy buildings. Can you talk about that?
Gina McCarthy: I can. We have some great folks here that really understand what it means to have a healthy building and why that’s important, not only for our health, but for our productivity. We have opportunities today to work with Google and others and we’re doing this at Harvard to establish building standards.
So, as you’re greening buildings and potentially making them tighter so that they’re more efficient, you can inadvertently stagnate the air in that building or you can capture the toxics that are off-gassing from rugs or from chairs and other furniture in a way that will make the toxicity problems more difficult and in a way that doesn’t provide sufficient fresh air for the occupants of that building. We want to not just have green buildings, but you want healthy buildings and today we have experts in how to monitor buildings, how to look at the air quality, how to establish building standards for Harvard University that Google’s working with us on so that we can translate to others how they can establish building standards that will not only keep the occupants healthy, but for corporations how we keep their people productive.
David Corcoran: Okay. Let’s move on to your old job as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama. I’m curious what you say as your biggest challenges there?
Gina McCarthy: Well, the biggest challenges that we faced were to make sure that people understood what EPA does for a living. Part of the challenge, I think, that I’m trying to address here and that I faced at EPA was to make sure that even though we’ve done a good job at reducing visible pollution that the agency still provided vital functions for public health protection.
That was the most important thing to communicate. That it wasn’t just about just having clean water for fish, it was about having clean fish that people could eat. It was about having clean water that served our drinking water systems. It was about continuing to understand the challenges that air pollution continued to cause and the solutions to continue to reduce those challenges.
And, it’s about translating climate change to make it understandable and to treat it as we have other pollutants as a challenge we need to face and something that we can move forward on together. I think we showed that the regulations that EPA provided didn’t just reduce visible pollution, but they save lives. We need to keep looking at doing that in a way that continues to grow the economy, but not think that our economic necessities mean that we have to start reducing those protections or abandoning the core values that really started EPA up and others in the first place, which is we want our kids to be healthy. We want our kids to lead long lives and we want them to have a future that’s as prosperous as we had.
I think those are the kind of things that kept me awake at night was communicating that. Making people understand the success that EPA has, but also the continued challenges that we face so that they don’t think of us as regulating to reduce their freedoms, but regulating to make sure that they are free to live healthy lives. That’s what we did for a living.
David Corcoran: Do you have a single specific accomplishment that you are particularly proud of?
Gina McCarthy: I do think that there were a number of things that I think the agency did well and not because of me, but because the science was there. We followed the law. We did a great public process and the people at the agency, they are just 15,000 of the most wonderful professional human beings that I know.
Working as a team, I think we did a lot of good work. Probably the one that I’m most proud of is the Clean Power Plan because it was a challenge on how we look at our responsibility under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions that fuel climate change, but how we do it in a way that doesn’t interrupt the energy system. Because we all know that energy is a necessity for people and we wanted to make sure that the steps we took we were informed by folks in the energy world, not just our environmental constituents, who understood how the energy system worked, who understood what the opportunities are to shift towards clean energy.
I think what I’m most proud of with that is that I think we did a good job in listening and in crafting a system that allowed states plenty of opportunities to design their own strategies to reduce carbon pollution, but still keep the lights on, in fact, [and] reduce cost to consumers. I guess it’s shown itself to be, I think, a pretty reliable tool to use given that clean energy in this country is really taking off in ways where the majority of states today are on their way to achieving the goals in the Clean Power Plan even though the Clean Power Plan has been stalled in the courts.
I think we did understand the energy system. We did provide continued signals that the United States cares about clean energy and I think all those signals and the investments that were made by President Obama during his term in office in new technology and innovation really sparked a clean energy revolution in this country and is not stopping.
David Corcoran: Gina McCarthy, I can’t let you go without asking you about the EPA under your successor, the current administrator. He talks about something called secret science and I know you can’t speak for him, but what does he mean by secret science?
Gina McCarthy: Well, when he says secret science, what he’s really talking about is taking some of the best science that we have, science that’s been developed at Harvard University right here at the Chan School of Public Health, as well as science developed by the American Cancer Society and others that really provide us the strongest window to understand the impacts of air pollution and our obligation under the law to reduce those impacts as best we can. He is using secret science as a term to try to diminish the agency’s ability to consider this best science because he knows that when you do, then it’s going to demand that actions be taken.
That’s how the law works, but we’ve always been able to take actions in a way that continued to allow the economy to grow, that continued to be real investments in public health to benefit everybody, that really reflected our core values. So, the disappointing thing with this idea of calling it secret science and using transparency to undermine the best science is that we’re going to lose opportunities for significant benefits to our health and our wellbeing. That’s not generally how I measure success as an administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.
David Corcoran: Usually there’s some kind of handoff when administrations change. Did you ever get a chance to meet Mr. Pruitt and talk to him?
I met him actually in the D.C. circuit, which is the circuit court in D.C. when they were arguing or doing the oral arguments in the Clean Power Plan. So, I do not know him personally. I know that he sued the agency 14 times. I guess that’s as personal as it got, but I don’t know him personally and I would wish him great success if he really could take a little bit more care to make sure that in his effort to do his job, that he focused on improving public health protections.
That’s really what the job is about. That’s the mission of EPA is to protect public health and our natural resources. If he focused on that, I would certainly wish him well, but so far, that doesn’t seem to be as much of a focus of attention for him as other things.
David Corcoran: Gina McCarthy is director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. And of course she was the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama. Gina McCarthy, thanks so much.
David, it was great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Kasha Patel: All right, Undark listeners, thank you for joining us. This podcast is produced by Lydia Chain. Music was created by the Undark team and I’m your host, Kasha Patel. See you next month.