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‘Turn that fear into action:’ Former EPA administrator talks climate change

Gabbi Bright, The Miami Student

Facing a full-house of Miami University students from Miami's Institute for Environment & Sustainability (IES), Gina McCarthy stepped up to the stage in Wilks Theater on Friday night.

The former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator from 2013-2017 under President Barack Obama's administration had one overarching message for the crowd gathered to celebrate IES' 50th anniversary.

"Climate change needs to be personalized, not vilified," she said, reacting to what she called the disaffected attitude of some Americans toward climate change. "We need an edginess to our discussion now."

McCarthy - best known for her EPA tenure - championed initiatives to reduce air pollution, protect water safety and reduce carbon byproducts from power plant production. She also sponsored American engagement in the Paris Climate Agreement as a part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Now, she's the director of the Center for Climate Health and the Global Environment and a professor at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

McCarthy commended Miami students' pursuit of a better future.

"You epitomize everything I love about the USEPA," she said.

But, she suggested that most Americans don't understand the real gravity of climate change because they don't realize its effect on their lives.

"Hardly anybody relates to polar bears and glaciers," McCarthy said, demanding her audience find an alternative to the current form of advocacy in the United States.

Eager students need to "turn fear into action," rather than present climate change as a distant threat, she said.

In order to enact real change, McCarthy advocated for emphasizing public health issues and the economic and innovative opportunities in countering climate change. Only then, she said, could common people find the impetus to change their lifestyles and accept that climate change is not "a distant scientific problem."

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She chided the Trump administration's decision to defund the EPA and various protection programs, referencing her role in organizing the United States' involvement in the Paris Agreement.

In 2017, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the agreement, which pledged to maintain global temperatures below a 2°C increase from pre-industrial levels. Although the U.S. is unable to withdraw until 2020, the country currently violates regulations set by the Paris Agreement.

"Things are changing, and I'm okay with that," McCarthy said. Rollbacks, she claimed, are not as important as the landmark successes in the U.S. Supreme Court - 92 percent of which have been ruled in favor of the EPA.

McCarthy has full faith that the U.S. will rejoin the Paris Agreement and pursue methods that will meet the challenge of climate change.

She concluded her presentation with "three things to say to climate deniers:" climate change is real, climate change is man-made and women need to rule the world.

Eliciting cheers from her audience, McCarthy then revised her third item: we can't wait for an election to change the world. Activism, McCarthy said, is as simple as planting trees or walking to class. She encouraged young people to participate in any way possible, especially by voting.

"Democracy is not a spectator sport," she said, to applause.

McCarthy closed with further resolve, pledging to never give in to resistance and drawing attention to the importance of young people's advocacy.

"You have to be the person at this garden party who's hopeful … and I will be screaming that until the day I die."