Biden picks former EPA chief Gina McCarthy as White House climate czar

By Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis

President-elect Joe Biden has tapped Gina McCarthy, who ran the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama and now leads a major advocacy group, to coordinate the new administration’s domestic climate agenda from a senior perch at the White House.

Three individuals familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because the decision had not been publicly announced, confirmed that the final decision had been made to tap McCarthy for the post.

McCarthy is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has sued the Trump administration more than 100 times, successfully overturning its attempts to delay energy efficiency rules and protections for threatened species.

McCarthy, 66, who spearheaded the Obama administration’s efforts to curb greenhouse gases from power plants and vehicles, will be responsible for implementing Biden’s plan to weave climate policy throughout the federal government as the first-ever “national climate adviser.”

She will head the White House White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. Ali Zaidi, 33, New York’s deputy secretary for energy and environment, will be her deputy.

She will be the domestic counterpart to John F. Kerry, the former secretary of state and senator whom Biden has named special presidential envoy to manage the U.S. role in global climate action.

McCarthy will oversee a broad interagency effort to leverage the federal government’s powers to cut greenhouse gas emissions. While traditional players such as EPA and the Interior and Energy departments will regulate climate pollutants directly, departments including Treasury, Transportation and Agriculture will also use policy to try to tackle climate change.

McCarthy is popular among Democrats. But she has tangled repeatedly with Republicans, and her signature effort at EPA, the Clean Power Plan, was blocked in court and later reversed by Trump officials.

According to an individual familiar with the transition’s thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in advance of a formal announcement, Biden selected her because she is “one of the nation’s most trusted and accomplished voices on environmental issues” who not only spearheaded the Obama administration’s most significant climate policies but worked “to safeguard vulnerable communities from chemical hazards.

“So she will be ready on Day One,” this person said.

McCarthy joined the faculty of Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health after leaving the government in January 2017, and became president of NRDC just over a year ago.

Both environmental justice organizations and more establishment green groups have endorsed McCarthy and Zaidi, a Pakistani immigrant who served as a senior Obama budget official and warned about the risks taxpayers faced from climate change.

The Sunrise Movement, which along with other progressive groups has lobbied Biden to create an “Office of Climate Mobilization” within the White House, had supported both McCarthy and Zaidi for the top position.

“We are very encouraged by the potential of Gina McCarthy to lead a new Office of Climate Mobilization,” said Garrett Blad, a Sunrise spokesman. “McCarthy was among our initial picks for the role because she understands the urgency of the latest science and the need to use every tool available in the executive branch to stop the climate crisis. The real test, however, of Biden’s commitment to his bold climate plan is if this role has the teeth necessary to be effective.”

Progressive groups sent a memo to Biden calling on him to ensure that the leader of the office would “report directly and have direct access to the President.”

Just last month, McCarthy told The Post that she had not been approached about joining the administration — a sign of how fluid the selection process has been.

“No I have not been, but I’m certainly anxious to do a couple of things from my perch at NRDC, because NRDC I think is seen as a smart and responsible player in these areas,” she said in a Nov. 6 interview. “So we’re going do our job — one is to bring our information to the table in the hopes that the administration will give it due consideration about the path forward on climate change.”

But McCarthy campaigned for the president-elect and has emphasized the need for the federal government to ramp up its effort to curb dangerous warming. A Massachusetts native who served as a state regulator in the Northeast before joining the EPA in 2009, she played a key role in brokering the Paris climate accord in 2015 as well as a separate global agreement a year later to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, which are also warming the planet.

“Joe Biden ran on climate. How great is this?” McCarthy told reporters shortly after the election. “It’ll be time for the White House to finally get back to leading the charge against the central environmental crisis of our time.”

In her Nov. 6 interview, McCarthy emphasized the need to spend future stimulus money on clean energy and infrastructure in disadvantaged neighborhoods. “Every bit of federal dollars and how it’s expended can be managed by the executive branch in a way that will promote clean energy and drive new energy investments,” she added.

Asked about the matter this week, NRDC spokesman Ed Chen said in an email: “We’ve refrained from commenting on nominations and appointments until after they are officially announced, and will continue to do so. Also, Gina’s been clear: she’s dedicated to advancing NRDC’s work.”

Zaidi declined to comment.

Zaidi, who is serving as New York Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s top climate adviser, helped advise Biden’s campaign on the climate and environmental justice provisions in its “Build Back Better” agenda. Since joining Cuomo’s staff in April, he has focused his work cutting the state’s carbon output and reducing pollution that disproportionately affects communities of color.

“Gina McCarthy and Ali Zaidi are true climate stars, and we’re thrilled about their new positions leading the charge at the White House on climate solutions, clean energy jobs, and environmental justice starting on day one of the Biden-Harris administration,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.

One of the first volunteers in Barack Obama’s New Hampshire office during the 2008 presidential campaign, Zaidi rose through the ranks during the Democrat’s eight years in office. In 2014, he became the associate director for natural resources, energy, and science at the White House Office of Management and Budget, where he oversaw a portfolio of nearly $100 billion in federal programs. He also served as OMB’s lead official in implementing the administration’s climate action plan.

He helped oversee a report OMB released in November 2016 outlining the risks climate change posed to the federal government, including the cost of crop insurance, wildfire suppression, flood and hurricane-related relief and health care. It projected that annual climate-related costs across four of those five programs would total $34 billion to $112 billion by late century, while simultaneously curbing the nation’s economic output by up to 4 percent.

“In short, climate change is already costing taxpayers,” Zaidi wrote in a blog post. “But the costs we are incurring today will be dwarfed by the costs that lie ahead. Without action, taxpayers will face hundreds of billions of dollars in additional costs every year by late in this century as the effects of climate change accelerate.”

Michael Lewis’s 2018 book “The Fifth Risk” highlights the experience of Zaidi, who emigrated to the U.S. at age 5 and was a young Republican, as an example of how the most wonkish jobs in Washington can have an enormous impact on ordinary people. In the book, Zaidi described how the Agriculture Department he helped oversee was “weird” because it encompassed so many things.

“It was weird because so many Americans had no idea how much their lives depended on it,” Lewis wrote. “And it was weird because of the sheer sums of money sloshing around the place, dispensed by government employees no one had ever heard of.”

Now, McCarthy and Zaidi will coordinate policies across the entire U.S. government. In an interview last month, Biden’s campaign policy director Stef Feldman told The Post, “From the very beginning of the campaign, when President-elect Biden rolled out his climate plan, he made it clear he sees this as an all-of-government agenda, domestic, economic, foreign policy.”

Under Biden’s plan, Feldman said, the new climate office will “develop an ambitious climate policy and be the place where accountability resides to ensure that climate ambition is built into every agency’s plan. And that they’re executing against what they agree to in the early days of the administration.”

Ken Baer, who served as OMB associate director for Communications and Strategic Planning between 2009 and 2012, gave Zaidi his first government job.

In the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, Baer tasked Zaidi, his executive assistant, with the job of participating in daily calls about the administration’s public messaging.

“I realized in a few weeks that Ali was coordinating the entire communications response for Deepwater Horizon,” he said. “His emotional intelligence and his ability to have people like him helps him lead them to an outcome. He started as executive assistant to an associate director, and at the end [of the administration] he is an associate director himself.”

This article appeared on the Washington Post website at https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/12/15/gina-mccarthy-climate-change-czar-biden/


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