Fear-mongering is a tactic commonly used by climate change activists to provoke people to make a change before it is “too late.” The White House National Climate Advisor, Gina McCarthy, passionately disagrees with this approach. “The worst thing I think you can do is say that the world is falling apart, and I have no way of fixing it,” she said, her Boston accent coming out strong, pronouncing “apart” more like “apaht.”

McCarthy, a silver-haired woman with light blue glasses resting on her nose, spoke to the Brandeis community in a March 8 Zoom Q&A webinar titled “How to talk about climate change so that people actually listen,” hosted by Neil Swidey, the Journalism program director.

While the potential impacts and severity of climate change may seem daunting, McCarthy is known as the “house optimist” by her husband. McCarthy, a proud Irish woman and native Bostonian, has been working in public service for a long time: prior to working as the “Climate Czar,” she served as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama, and has a history of working in local government.

From this extensive experience, McCarthy has learned that the way you communicate with others in educating them about climate change is key. “I’ve come to realize what people relate to and what they’ll listen to and what turns a conversation off quickly … if you can’t talk to people, you’re gone,” she said. It is important to determine what motivates these people, and from there, one can help put things in perspective so that progress can be made.  

McCarthy pointed out some flaws with the climate conversation. One is the impression that small change is never enough. The other is the lack of encouraging celebration after those changes and small victories occur. “If I am trying to run a marathon and I can make it up ‘Heartbreak Hill,’ I deserve to get all excited about that and pat myself on the back even if I’m not over the finish line yet,” she said. Additionally, rather than use fear tactics, a way people can encourage action is to “celebrate every damn step … then they’ll wonder what comes next,” she said. 

The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has provoked questions about the U.S. being energy independent. The current temporary solution is that “We have to increase oil production … not every moment in time is going to be that progress you’re looking for. We have to have stability,” McCarthy said. However, this situation has also opened an opportunity to accelerate progress for energy security. “It is going, I believe, to turn into one of the biggest opportunities we have to make the case for clean energy moving forward,” she said. 

McCarthy stressed the importance of having a complete governmental response to climate change. “Now the responsibility is shared across every agency,” she said. McCarthy meets with every cabinet and independent agency to “make them integrate climate change into considerations because you cannot lick climate change just by talking about the environmental burdens,” she said.

Climate change has become a partisan issue over the past few years, but McCarthy is convinced that the country is moving away from that partisanship. “Right now, in D.C. for the past year and a little more, I am amazed that we have shifted away from climate denial, period,” she said. She argued that natural disasters influence people to realize that the world is in trouble.  

Additionally, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has helped close the divide. While people might continue to disagree about this law and the politics involved in climate change, “In the end, people will do what’s right for themselves and their families. We just have to make sure that we are telling people that the clean energy solutions are exactly that,” McCarthy said. Using communal human values as reasoning to contribute to clean energy and advancements in climate change is often more successful than convincing people to act out of concern for the planet.  

McCarthy touched upon the Build Back Better Framework during the webinar. She was prompted by a question posed by Swidey about what will be done to ensure that the cost of electric vehicles does not become an "elite issue." McCarthy noted that “we’re looking at significant rebates for EV ownership” and also explained that there are two major issues when it comes to making owning an electric vehicle accessible. One is the cost, which McCarthy believes will get better as more cars are produced. The second is the lack of charging stations. According to McCarthy, initiatives to combat these issues were proposed in the Build Back Better Framework. “We’ve got to get more tax credits for clean energy, [and] we’ve got to get some more EV credits for the sale of those vehicles to pencil out the way we want it,” she said. 

Another goal of the Build Back Better Framework is to engage more young people in climate change. “We have a proposal for a civilian climate corps that is really exciting and opportunistic because we can marry that with a lot of work we need to do across the country on resilience,” McCarthy explained. 

A student asked what actions they can be taking to mitigate climate change. First, McCarthy thinks “there’s going to be a tremendous amount of job opportunities in the clean energy sector.” However, she explained that she is most interested in getting people outside “into areas where they can help” with tasks such as forest maintenance and agriculture, she said. These are also opportunities where young people can learn skills while working. Additionally, some community colleges now have programs where students can learn how to repair electric vehicles and heat pumps, which are both going to be integral parts of moving towards mitigating climate change. “I think much of the work that we’re doing is going to be really shaped by this clean energy and nature based solutions more than ever before,” McCarthy said. 

Tax credit opportunities are a crucial aspect of the Build Back Better Framework, according to McCarthy. Another focus is using the $1.2 trillion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law “in a way that’s entirely consistent with resilience and adaptation and smart climate action moving forward” and using it to invest in the communities “left behind,” McCarthy said.

She also uses these investments into small communities to answer the common question about “whether government works for people or not” with a “yes.”  

While the subject of climate change is “kind of depressing,” as Swidey put it, McCarthy, ever the optimist, stressed that “people get excited when they’re hopeful, [but] fear has a very different reaction.” She ended the webinar remarking “be hopeful, please…I’ll come and chase you and track you down.”