Don’t despair, but do buckle down in Trump era, former EPA leader tells faithful greens

This snazzy pocket protector was just one accoutrement featured at the March for Science on April 22.

WASHINGTON—With President Donald Trump intent on subjecting the Obama administration’s climate legacy to death by a thousand cuts, religious leaders with deep beliefs about their roles as Earth’s conservation stewards are down in the dumps.

To lift themselves up, members of Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) sought out longtime ally Gina McCarthy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator during President Barack Obama’s second term.

And McCarthy didn’t disappoint. In her usual buoyant and pithy fashion, she pulled them from the edge of the abyss by delivering what amounted to an hour-long pep talk a few days before Earth Day and the March for Science took place nationwide.

“I’m not despairing,” she told listeners during an April 20 teleconference from Harvard University. “I’m very hopeful because I know we did our jobs right.”

In January, McCarthy went from Washington, D.C. to Cambridge, Mass. to teach a “Leadership in Environmental Health” class at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

She said she is encouraged that states, cities and university students she’s teaching are filling the federal government’s leadership void as guardians of the environment and public health.

“We’ve seen the federal government ditch us before,” she explained, adding that it provides an opening to “re-engage young people in a participatory democracy, the way it should be.”

The Rev. Sally Bingham, IPL president, said on the call that state leaders of her organization believed that they had a “moral responsibility” to “talk to” but not “blast” their federal representatives and senators on environmental topics when they visit Capitol Hill on Thursday, April 27 during Faith Climate Action Week.

“The faith community has a major, major role to play right now,” said Bingham, who is based in San Francisco.

Bingham founded IPL in California in 1998 to help congregations address global warming by being better stewards of energy. It is now a coast-to-coast non-profit.

McCarthy agreed with Bingham that federal legislators would likely accept faith leaders as trusted messengers. She added that it was unfortunate that issues such as climate change had become so hyper-politicized and partisan.

“I think your voices are more necessary now than they ever have been,” she emphasized.

As chipper as McCarthy remained during the teleconference, she is not in denial about how President Trump, Congress and new EPA head Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general, are attempting to dismantle the agency, eviscerate a wide range of green rules and backpedal on this country’s role as a worldwide beacon on curbing emissions of heat-trapping gases by accelerating a clean-energy economy.

For starters, GOP players are pushing to lop EPA’s current $8.2 billion budget by roughly one-third. They have already reassigned EPA staffers who study climate adaptation and want to gut funding for climate research at multiple federal agencies.

And there’s more on the chopping block. The Clean Power Plan, which President Obama touted in Paris in late 2015 as his signature plan to control carbon dioxide emissions, is in jeopardy even as it is tied up in federal court. Relatedly, Trump has threatened to extract the United States from the landmark United Nations Paris climate agreement.

They also want to take an ax to Obama-era EPA standards that regulate methane emissions from oil and gas operations, maximize vehicle fuel efficiency, limit ozone pollution and rein in mercury discharges from coal-fired power plants into air and water. The list goes on. And on.

“I know for a fact that an executive order does not trump a rule, pun intended,” she said, adding that deconstructing any EPA rule is a long, complicated process because most challenges wind up in the courts.

Public input matters, she emphasized, urging IPL members to register comments on the anti-environmental executive orders issued by Trump. She also recommended they reach out to businesses and local and state legislators.

“This administration works for all of you,” she said. “You need to be very clear that you don’t want a rollback on our standards.”

McCarthy said she is confident that the Clean Power Plan will stand up to any court challenge because her agency followed the science and the law. The EPA designed it to reduce national electricity sector emissions by an estimated 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

She pointed out that her agency reviewed four million public comments before issuing the final version in August 2015.

No matter the fate of the Clean Power Plan, she assured IPL listeners that the country’s speedier-than-expected switch to affordable renewable power such as wind and solar means “the clean energy train has left the station … and it’s not coming back.”

McCarthy said she continues to hold out hope that the Trump administration will engage the knowledgeable career staffers at EPA because they are “the front line in protecting people.”

“Nobody wants to be subjected to dirty air and unclean water,” she said. “That’s not the make America great message that people want to hear.”

McCarthy (who participated in the March for Science in Boston on April 22) encouraged IPL members to gather their family, friends and colleagues, and “get out and march because it will rejuvenate your spirit.”

Faith Climate Action Week culminates with the People’s Climate March on Saturday, April 29. The IPL announcement circulating in the nation’s capital and its suburbs tells faith leaders where to gather on the National Mall and notes that “religious headwear, clerical collars, stoles, T-shirts, and any other garb that proudly celebrates your religious community’s participation are all warmly encouraged.”

Despite all the upheaval unleashed by the Trump administration, curling into the fetal position to avoid conflict evidently isn’t on McCarthy’s list of options.

She’s not quite sure how to react when sad-faced people constantly ask, “Oh Gina, how are you?” as if her life has been dramatically jarred.

“This is not a personal issue,” she advised the IPL group in her steady chop-wood, carry-water tone. “We just need to buckle down. Nothing worth fighting for ever comes easy, right?”

 

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