White House Climate Adviser: 'U.S. Is Back In The Game'17:20

President Biden's national climate adviser Gina McCarthy. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)
President Biden's national climate adviser Gina McCarthy. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

President Biden hosts a virtual summit of world leaders focused on confronting climate change starting on Thursday.

Before then, the White House will roll out a major policy document detailing how it plans to cut the United States' greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decade. Outside groups ranging from the Natural Resources Defense Council to McDonald's and Walmart are urging the administration to set an unprecedented goal of halving the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Biden's national climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, wouldn't disclose the White House's specific goal during an interview with the NPR Politics Podcast. But she strongly hinted she and the other Biden officials shaping that proposal – called the Nationally Determined Contribution – are listening very closely to those calls for a 50% reduction by the end of this decade. "I would argue that there's opportunities for us to be able to be very aggressive, and we're going to take that opportunity," McCarthy said.

The onetime Environmental Protection Administration administrator also addressed the skepticism many other countries maintain on whether the United States can be counted on to meaningfully address climate change over the coming decades after backing away from global climate efforts under the Trump administration.

"The U.S. is back in the game," McCarthy said. "They're not wrong that we have lost some time. But frankly, the US is looking at this as a tremendous opportunity to shift to clean energy. And we would hope that China and our other countries would look at it similarly."

Here are excerpts from McCarthy's interview with NPR Politics Podcast co-host Scott Detrow, edited for length and clarity:

A lot of climate news this week. You are about to release a major plan on how the U.S. is going to reduce its emissions over the rest of the decade... A lot of the people taking part in this summit this week are going to be pretty skeptical about another promise. What is different this time? What are you telling them?

Well, you know, I'm not sure that I totally agree because people are pretty excited about the summit.

Part of this is making sure that we recognize that President Biden made the commitment to rejoin [the Paris agreement] on day one. He made the commitment that we would have a whole of government response to this because he committed to follow the science, which I think people now know is a pretty important thing to do. And I think people all over our country recognize that the world is changing and we want to lead it.

So this is not a time when I think we have to apologize for the past. Clearly, I wish we didn't lose the four years of the prior administration, and I wish we could take that time back because the time is now to really make big moves forward. But we are ready and poised to not just make a strong commitment, but the world leaders are saying yes to this invitation that Secretary Kerry has put out. We are going to have a summit and we are going to be back in a leadership position where one of the reasons every country starts really getting aggressive together.

On the coming "NDC" and what it means going forward:

It is a commitment on how much the U.S. is looking to contribute in terms of greenhouse gas reductions by 2030. We've done this a couple of times before. I frankly don't think we've ever been in as good a position as we are today because the solutions are ready to deploy and because the American Jobs Plan starts investing in that future in a big way.

So it's been my job to work across the whole of government to see what the opportunities are in every single sector that we have. Now, remember that President Biden is committed to clean electricity by 2035, and he's committed to net zero [for the whole economy] by 2050. So if you look at that trajectory, that is the trajectory we are going to be on and you're getting every opportunity to actually meet that challenge.

You're getting calls from a pretty interesting, diverse group — everyone from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which you used to lead, to companies like McDonald's, saying the goal should be a 50% reduction [from 2005 emissions] by the end of the decade. Is a reduction like that in such a short time span possible?

A lot of folks are talking about 50% reduction. That's cutting it in half. And many would think that that's not doable. But I would argue that there's opportunities for us to be able to be very aggressive in what it is going to take for that opportunity.

This is not a challenge that we should shy away from. It's actually a challenge that President Biden has embraced because he wants to win.

So what does that look like, though, regardless what the number is? Obviously, that is a massive change to the country's energy infrastructure, to a lot of other things. What are the ways that people would see this change in their everyday lives?

It is a massive investment in people. It's a recognition that climate change is about human beings. And right now, we need some investment in the United States of America if we hope to stay competitive.

So it's about building a modern and resilient infrastructure and not just roads and bridges. We are talking about trains. We are talking about ships. We are talking about an opportunity to advance our transportation sector by investing in electric vehicles and battery manufacturing here in the United States, both for vehicles, but also for battery storage opportunities. We're talking about building a new resilient grid.

I mean, that's one of the things that if you weren't sort of hit over the head by what happened in Texas, let me just do it right now and try hitting folks over the head. We need to have a transmission system that is flexible and doesn't allow people to have to be out in the cold. We're talking about opportunities for new clean energy and a wealth of it, that has been cheaper for a while and will only get cheaper over time because it's massively competitive.

You've been making the pitch for this infrastructure plan a lot lately. There are a ton of climate components in it. But over the last few days, we've been hearing more and more Democrats saying the path forward probably is some sort of reduced proposal, broken into a few different pieces as a way to get Republican support.

You have heard House Republicans, Senate Republicans be very critical of the Green New Deal aspects as they talk about it. Do you have any worry that if this does get broken out, the stuff that gets pushed to the side are the big climate proposals?

I think that that President Biden has put out a plan that he doesn't think is too big. He thinks it's just right. But at the same time, he's willing to listen to what the Republicans are saying, and he's having bipartisan meetings. That's how democracy works.

He's listening to all sides. But make no mistake about it, and he's said this a million times, he's not interested in tinkering around the edges on this issue. He understands the climate challenge, and he also understands the opportunity ahead of us as a country. And it's just about time we invested in ourselves again. And that's what this is all about.

One argument here you're hearing a lot, especially going into a summit like this week's, is if the U.S. makes all these big reductions, other countries might not do that, and then the U.S. is at a competitive disadvantage. What is your response to that line of criticism?

As far as I can remember, the rest of the world has not been in denial over climate change. It's been the US. And so once we're back, I think we can work this through in a global way in order to match the kind of threat that we are facing today, that the rest of the world readily acknowledges. and figure out how we work together as a world to eliminate that threat or at least manage it more effectively while we address these challenges.

And so I have every expectation that the rest of the world will rejoin the United States. And yes, we lost four years, but the next decade is it. This is when we have to really start getting serious or we face some significant consequences, not just for our global economy, but for the health and well-being and security of people across the world.

Those consequences are here already, though. You talk about it, the president talks a lot about it. Extreme wildfires, endless hurricane seasons. I mean, even if the U.S. and the rest of the world meet these aggressive goals, that's all going to get worse, isn't it?

Well, we definitely have work to do. That's part of the reason why you want to start looking at resiliency in your infrastructure. That's why you have to think about basically arming coastal communities with Plan B.

That's why you have to look at how we better manage our forests. One of the most exciting parts of this proposal is the Civilian Climate Corps that's being proposed, which is really a huge investment in putting millions of people back to work, actually in the outdoors. Not just at our parks, like CCC under Roosevelt.

But this is about looking at agriculture, how do we begin to to really make an investment in the kind of resilience and adaptation that we're going to actually we have to have now? Never mind the future.

You're not wrong. We've lost a lot of time. But rather than look back at that, my hope is that this Earth Day, this Earth Week, we can celebrate the fact that we have climate solutions. We need the courage and the commitment to deploy them, and then we need investment in innovation. And so we will get there. We don't have any choice. This is an existential challenge and nobody can remain on the sidelines.

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