With the Green New Deal in the national spotlight, a vigorous debate is happening: how ambitiously and broadly must the U.S. act on climate? Are issues like economic equity, job security and public health outside the frame of climate action — or fundamental to its success?
Climate One travelled to Boston to record a special program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health with two members of President Obama’s climate team: former White House Science Advisor John Holdren, now the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and former U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who now directs Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment.
“I think the Green New Deal was a wake-up call,” says McCarthy. “I understand that it's a bunch of stretch goals and I think AOC and Senator Markey clearly understand that but it was a wake-up call to everybody who thinks incrementalism is going to be enough. We know it isn't.”
McCarthy came to the Harvard School of Public Health following her tenure at EPA in part because she wants to reframe the climate crisis as a public health issue.
“I'm here at Harvard and these students are they’re impatient with the lack of progress that's happened,” McCarthy explains. “They’re upset about the inequities and the injustices involved in climate change, and they are really interested in making the case that health and climate go hand-in-hand.”
John Holdren is similarly impressed by the vision, commitment, and sense of urgency brought forward with the Green New Deal, seeing it as a clarion call for a national debate on climate change rather than a blueprint for immediate action. He does worry, however, that combining climate action with other aspirational goals, however worthy, makes the climate change problem itself look harder than it actually is.
“If you think we need an enormous jobs program and enormous social safety net, because climate change is going to cause all these economic stresses, I think that's a misimpression,” says Holdren, noting that seriously addressing climate change would actually result in broad economic gains.
On that point, Gina McCarthy expresses a certain exasperation. “I am tired of a debate about climate change as if we’re sacrificing or giving up anything to actually address it,” she frets. “Climate change is a risk to our health today. It’s exacerbating all the health challenges we have, it's killing our children and our elderly first, it’s keeping people in poverty when we have an ability to invest in climate actions that completely turn that around that’s what it's all about.”