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Biden To Name Gina McCarthy, Former EPA Chief, As Domestic Climate Coordinator

Gina McCarthy, seen here in January, was head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration.
Kim Raff
Getty Images for Natural Resources Defense Council
Gina McCarthy, seen here in January, was head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration.

Updated at 7 p.m. ET

President-elect Joe Biden plans to name Gina McCarthy as his White House climate coordinator, a source familiar with the decision said on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect private conversations.

McCarthy has an ambitious assignment: coordinating efforts across the entire federal government aimed at drastically — and quickly — lowering U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. During his campaign, Biden promised to put the U.S. economy on track to being carbon neutral by 2050.

McCarthy led the Environmental Protection Agency under former President Barack Obama and is currently chief executive of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

McCarthy has years of experience in environmental policy at both the state and federal level. As EPA administrator, she oversaw Obama's Clean Power Plan, the first national standards for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked it from going into effect before it was ultimately withdrawn by the Trump administration. Earlier in her career, McCarthy was commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and helped develop a multistate program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

McCarthy will serve as a domestic counterpoint toformer Secretary of State John Kerry, whom Biden tapped in his first wave of appointments as the administration's international point person on climate policy. The two worked together in the Obama administration, and she worked in Massachusetts state government when he represented the state as a U.S. senator. Neither position requires Senate confirmation.

Together, the two positions underscore the priority Biden will place on climate change — a crisis the Trump administration dismissed and questioned, even as the United States experienced record wildfires, hurricanes and flooding in recent years. President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement, an international accord signed in 2015 in which countries promised to lower their greenhouse gas emissions. His administration repealed dozens of Obama-era environmental rules aimed at cutting greenhouse gases.

McCarthy will be at the center of Biden's expected push to use executive action and rule-making to rein in carbon emissions and reverse Trump's rollbacks of environmental regulations. Biden has framed climate change as one of the four most important issues his administration will confront when he takes office on Jan. 20.

Biden also is expected to name Ali Zaidi as McCarthy's deputy at the White House. Zaidi, currently a top climate adviser to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, worked on energy and climate policy in the Obama administration, including at the Office of Management and Budget. He was part of the delegation that negotiated the Paris climate accord.

Climate as a "systemic issue"

In her new job as the White House domestic climate chief, McCarthy will drive policies to address climate change beyond the usual federal agencies' work on it, such as the Interior and Energy departments and the Environmental Protection Agency — and will coordinate the planning across government agencies.

For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development could make the buildings it oversees more energy-efficient and resilient. The Department of Agriculture could promote soil management to sequester carbon. The Treasury Department could do more to take climate risk into account when banks lend money, encouraging financing for renewable projects over those that rely on fossil fuels. The Pentagon could further integrate into its planning the risks climate change poses to its military installations around the world.

"It is being treated as a systemic issue, not something uniquely given to EPA or the Department of the Interior, but something that is all about using the entire federal budget, and the strength of the entire Cabinet, to actually move this issue forward in ways that were not available to us before. We have not had this kind of base of support, so I think this administration is ready to run," McCarthy said in an interview last week with NPR before news broke about her appointment.

Goal of net-zero emissions by 2050

Biden and his team share the widely held belief among climate advocates and scientists that the coming decade is the world's final window to stave off the worst-case scenario of a warming planet. A report issued two years ago by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of devastating changes to weather patterns, sea levels, agricultural ecosystems and much more, if the planet warms by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. To meet that goal, the global community would need to halt the ever-increasing rise of greenhouse gases and then cut emissions by up to 50% in the coming decade, the report said.

In a statement issued Saturday to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate accord, Biden said, "We haven't come close to the bold action that's needed," promising to rejoin the agreement and then put the U.S. on a path to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Meeting the goal would require a massive shift to the country's economy, energy production and energy consumption. That's why environmental advocates such as Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, had pushed so hard for Biden to appoint a domestic climate coordinator.

"There's a ton of power the government already has that it could wield, if it just was more effective and effectively coordinated, and somebody were ambitious and hard-nosed in making it happen," Prakash said.

Speaking to NPR before McCarthy had been selected for the role, Prakash said she was hoping for a person who "would not be sort of a stand-alone, on an island, individual, but would have the resources, would have direct access to the president, and would be sitting at the tables where they're discussing the budget, and essentially would have the ability to whip agencies into action to do everything in their power to address the climate crisis."

Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters said she thinks Biden's high-level, broad approach also makes clear that "dealing with the climate crisis is inextricably linked with all the crises that we face," from economic and racial inequality to the pandemic and its economic fallout.

Shortly after the election, McCarthy told NPR that kind of framing might even help persuade reluctant Republicans in Congress to support investments in wind and solar, which are increasingly cheaper than coal and natural gas in many places.

"People want fairness, people want to be healthy," she said. "I think the more we can show the value of clean energy, even in your pocketbooks, then people will be much less afraid to recognize that climate change is happening."

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.