Gina McCarthy addresses local leaders at the MMA Annual Meeting & Trade Show on Jan. 20.

Gina McCarthy, who has spent decades protecting the environment at the municipal, state and federal levels, told local leaders at the MMA Annual Meeting & Trade Show on Jan. 20 that addressing climate change and embracing clean energy starts with local government.

Based on her deep experience, she said she remains “obnoxiously optimistic” about our ability to address the climate challenge.

“We have to deal with this issue, folks,” McCarthy said. “And as you and I know, change starts at the local level and moves its way up. There is nothing ever that comes in front of Congress at the federal level that hasn’t already been fully discussed at every other level of government.

“Good things start where you sit, where you walk, the things you think about, because you are so close to the people you serve, that you cannot ignore their needs, you cannot ignore your communities’ challenges.”

McCarthy reflected on her experience as the nation’s first White House climate advisor from 2021 to 2022, as the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, as an environmental official in both Massachusetts and Connecticut, and as the first full-time health agent in the town of Canton in the 1980s.

The Massachusetts native, who also once worked for the town of Stoughton, left her White House role in September 2022 and joked that she is glad to be back in her home state, where people pronounce the word “carbon” correctly (cah-bun). Right after she left Washington, D.C., then-Gov.-elect Maura Healey tapped her to work on a climate game plan.

McCarthy praised the work of the state’s first climate chief, Melissa Hoffer, who served under her at the EPA, and said the Healey-Driscoll administration’s work is already transforming the state, particularly with its green bank to encourage investment in more climate-friendly affordable housing, and its Federal Funds and Infrastructure Office. The administration has already brought $3 billion in federal funding back to Massachusetts, much of it for climate-related projects, she said.

“That ain’t chicken feed,” she said. “That’s a lot of resources.”

Acknowledging the climate challenges Massachusetts already faces, such as flooding that devastated several regions last year, McCarthy urged the state to continue capitalizing on federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act. She called the IRA, enacted in August 2022, a true “game changer” that has attracted $310 billion in private funding for clean energy projects in its first year.

“Let’s grab that opportunity for all it’s worth,” McCarthy said. “We have to move forward if we want to succeed in making our commitment that we have made to our kids and grandchildren.”

McCarthy urged officials to reframe the notion of climate change from a dread-inducing problem to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one that can improve people’s lives, help save money and create jobs as the nation transitions from fossil fuel dependence. She said leaders should avoid getting into debates about climate change and instead focus on clean energy technology and the possibilities it holds.

“This is not sacrifice,” McCarthy said. “This is what you would do, all things being equal. You can sit around and never say ‘climate change,’ and still do what you’re doing here in the state of Massachusetts, and in every city and town here, because it saves people money. Why wouldn’t you? What is holding anybody back to actually join this revolution?”

McCarthy cited Vineyard Wind, for which the first wind turbine departed New Bedford last September for installation 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. McCarthy recalled attending a launch event in New Bedford, and seeing labor leaders who had signed an agreement benefitting workers and creating jobs there. She said that offshore wind operations still hadn’t seemed possible when she was in state government, but they are a reality now.

“Every morning when you feel discouraged, just think about those union leaders, think about people who didn’t have a job yesterday, who now can provide for their families,” she said. “This is the value of recognizing that we need to invest in clean energy.”

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