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Science & Environment

EPA Official: Decisions On Climate Change Will Affect Economic Future Of U.S.


The EPA is telling two stories in a new report today. One is a narrative of the dire consequences by the end of the century if climate change is not addressed. The other is a somewhat brighter scenario if greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced.

GINA MCCARTHY: We can have 57,000 fewer deaths from poor air quality. We see 21,000 fewer deaths from extreme temperatures. We're talking about $110 billion in avoided damages from lost labor, from extreme heat as well.

BLOCK: That's EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. She told me that today's report looks at risks not only to public health and the economy, but also to agriculture and water recourses, which happen to be dear to her.

MCCARTHY: I'm from New England, so I particularly look at shellfish. And we're looking at, under a strong climate action, avoiding the loss of about a third of the U.S. oyster supply, scallops and clams.

BLOCK: When you're talking about projections like this - tens of thousands of fewer deaths, the hundreds of billions of dollars that would be saved - does the fact that you're doing that reflect that otherwise, people just don't pay attention. In other words, does it take stark numbers like this to shake people up?

MCCARTHY: Well, we certainly want to make this personal for people because we want them to understand that not taking action on climate change is significantly more expensive and threatening than moving forward with strong climate action today. And so it's important for people to understand that this is science but to give people an understanding of how to interpret that science in their own lives and to realize that while we love polar bears, this isn't just about polar bears. This is about their lives. This is about their kids' future. This is about the economic future of the United States. These decisions on climate change are personal, and they're real. These are all science-based impacts that show the dramatic cost of doing nothing versus the benefits that we can accrue if we take strong climate action now.

BLOCK: But the cost of doing nothing - I mean, your scenario assumes that this is what would happen if nothing were done, right? I mean, is that realistic, that - to assume that there would be no technological innovation or adaptation, that the status quo continues?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think the - we're looking at a status quo of seeing what our business as usual looks like. There may be some improvements, but what we really need to do is send a longer-term signal. We all know that in the environment, it's not just about making incremental improvements, especially on issues like climate change, but you need to send a strong economic signal - a market signal about where you want investment to head, what we want our future to look like. Those are the actions we're prompting domestically to take a look at, like the work we're doing on our clean power plan, but it also is a message that other economies across the globe need to embrace as well. So we're not saying no change will happen, but we are saying that you need to have aggressive action now if you want to avoid the most significant negative impacts associated with a changing climate.

BLOCK: Ms. McCarthy, I want to ask you about the encyclical that Pope Francis released last week condemning the global indifference toward climate change, a very forceful document about the need that he sees for urgent action on global warming. And I know that you met with Vatican officials in the lead-up to the release of this document. Do you see this encyclical as a game-changer in some way?

MCCARTHY: Well, I do think it's a game changer. I think it's a game changer because it expresses climate as a moral obligation, that it's an opportunity for us to shape the economy in ways that make sure that we protect those most vulnerable and meet our obligations as stewards of these natural resources. I think it's a tremendous message, that it can gauge many more people positively in the effort to address climate change.

BLOCK: Were you disappointed by the fact that the pope says that the cap-and-trade system for limiting carbon emissions is misguided? He called that a ploy. A lot of environmentalists were really surprised by that.

MCCARTHY: Well, I think that, you know, he has his own vision of the steps that need to move forward. You know, I think that the main message is that we need to take action on climate now. We're going to look at every opportunity to do that in the U.S. and provide domestic leadership. But the most important thing is that that domestic leadership has to result in really strong global action. And I know that if the U.S. doesn't move out and act strong domestically, we'll all miss the opportunity for strong global action today.

BLOCK: Are you seeing any shift in belief among climate skeptics and climate deniers?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, the way I look at it, Melissa, is there's lot of people sitting on the sidelines now. The reason to do reports like this is to make sure that people know that it's about their lives and their future so they get engaged. So my opportunity, I think, isn't to convince long-held deniers that they're wrong. It's to get everybody engaged who knows and feels that the climate changing is happening now and who want to protect their children's future.

BLOCK: Gina McCarthy, thanks for talking with us.

MCCARTHY: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: Gina McCarthy heads the Environmental Protection Agency. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.