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Hank interviews Administrator Gina McCarthy of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. They discuss getting people to care about climate change, the EPA's goals going into the United Nations Climate Change Conference, and the changing energy industry. #actonclimate #ourstolose #COP21

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(Intro)

Hank: Hello and welcome to the SciShow Interview Show, where today, Skyping in to talk to us about the biggest problem humanity has ever created and maybe the biggest problem humanity has ever faced, is the administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, which is pretty cool. Hello, Gina.

Gina: Hi! It's nice to be with you, Hank.

H: So, I'm going to, I'm going to dive right in and ask the hard question, um, this is not just a giant, difficult issue to handle, it is also a giant, difficult issue to get people interested in helping with, because it happens incrementally, over a long time, there aren't a lot of big inflection points that are great news stories, and there are a lot of other things that people are worried about. When we talk about climate change, in terms of, and like, ask people what they're concerned about, it ranks fairly low, and yet it is the most important problem in the long term. How do we mobilize people to care about this, how do we mobilize governments to act on it?

G: Well, Hank, you've asked one of the pivotal questions that I've, at least, been asking myself for about thirty years now, but the sad thing is that the good news is that climate is already impacting us, so twenty years ago we were worried about projecting things, now we're worried with keeping up with the impacts that are already happening and how do we adapt, knowing that we have to take action now and that failure to do that would be devastating for the planet over time. So I think that, in answer to your question, I think that we need to be very clear that the climate is changing, we need to be very clear to get over the science questions, because the science is overwhelming, yes, this is a -- I like to say a man-made problem, because I would prefer my side of the equation, not to take credit for it. (Hank laughs). Giving the economic drivers, and I'll admit it, and I'd like to be able, once we put that aside, to have a really good conversation to make sure that people understand that this isn't about what's happening in the future, it is about today, and to make it very clear that if we don't take action now, the implications for the future are quite dire, not just for polar bears or what's happening in the ice melt. It's really about our kids. It's really about our kids' futures. This is a personal issue, and people need to get personally engaged in it.

H: Do you think since we're already feeling the effects, and as projections look that we're going to be, you know, still working on decreasing our emissions while we're also adapting to these changes, like, in 2100 are we going to be bringing down our emissions and also building a wall around Manhattan?

G: I think we're always going to be really trying to find a way to continue to innovate because the population is getting larger, people are having a broader impact on the environment, not just on climate, so we have to continue to innovate. The good news is, and because I don't want this to be a seeming like it's not a hopeful conversation, because frankly, I think the US right now is better positioned than we've ever been to take firm action, we're taking that, and that action is changing the international discussion as we're heading into Paris. So it is a hopeful discussion but I think the, the lesson that I've learned is to try to communicate it as a real message for people, let them know that the fires that you're experiencing, the droughts, the intensity of the storms, are a problem, we have to adapt to that, but the real critical issue is, what do we do to not let it get worse? And that are things that we can do that we're already doing. So it is a message of, sort of, an extreme call to action, but I don't want anyone to think that we cannot resolve these and continue to innovate over time, because frankly, in my world -- I've lived long enough, I'm sixty...one, I can remember when I was eleven and Lord knows the environmental problems there looked unbeatable. They were horrible. They are no longer there today. In some countries they still are, and we're working on it. But man if we get going, we can resolve these problems.

H: So you mentioned Paris. You're headed over there. What's going on there, what are the goals there?

G: Well we have a bunch of goals, but first of all, we started this a couple years ago with the President's call to action, his climate action plan that he unveiled more than two years ago, and with our ability as agencies at the federal level to really initiate the kind of actions that the President was calling for. So we have taken some great actions, most notably the EPA is our clean power plant that has sent a tremendous signal to the world that we can get together and we can take action as developed countries. We've made some great inroads with China, with India, we've made inroads with Brazil, we have a lot of countries now weighing in, really countries that represent about 90 percent of the emissions across the world have already put commitments on the table in Paris, so we see the work that we've done as paving the way for a really good meeting in Paris and so the question becomes, what constitutes a really good meeting? Well, so far, so good. We come in there, getting over the science question, these are questions that recognize -- across the world -- that we are facing a problem that deserves a worldwide response. So we really have three prongs to that, Hank. The first one is that we get some aggressive goals out there from all countries so that everybody participates, and as I said, we have received commitments from about a hundred and forty six countries around the world, and that represents the vast majority of emissions that we've been emitting, and so that's a good step forward. The second would be to develop a framework to continue to make sure that countries are doing everything they can and they've committed to, to achieve those goals, but also to keep revisiting them. We are not going to be putting a series of goals on the table that's going to allow us to do and achieve what science tells us we need, but we hope to get out of the starting gate soon and then to have a framework that everybody participates in that's transparent, that's good, strong and that continues to challenge us to revise our expectations and revise our commitment level so that as innovation happens, new technologies come together, lessons learned that we're not just standing still after we get out of the gate, but we're calculating to get to the finish line here. And then the third leg of it really is a financial one. You know, we have to recognize that while we have everyone needs to be at the table in every country, and every country needs to participate, the poorest nations are going to be disadvantaged in terms of making the capital investments they need to make in order to adapt to the changing climate, but also to develop plans that allow them to leapfrog into a low carbon future - as opposed to inch their way as developed countries so far.

H: That's very exciting, and the way that the developing world has leapfrogged, say, telephone poles and telephone wires (which are extremely infrastructure-intensive and cost lots of money) and instead they were able to jump straight into cellphones, which have less infrastructure and can be much cheaper for the people. What's most exciting for you in terms of new technology that might allow that, not just in the developing world but also for us, but allow us to get there faster?

G: So if you look at how we designed our strategy, our clean power plan, to look at how to lower emissions by 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. We've found a way to do that that is going to maintain a reliable energy supply, that is going to make sure that we're not increasing the cost of that energy supply in a way that's going to be detrimental, that continues to grow jobs. We've been able to do that because the energy world is already transforming, and two things happened that that's attributable to. Actually, maybe I'll hit three. The first is that the advent of inexpensive natural gas has meant that using coal as a fuel in the power sector is no longer affordable; it is simply not competitive with inexpensive natural gas. So you are seeing significant shifts that we are watching and following in terms of how the real world is investing in energy today. The second thing is that the cost of renewables has gone down in a way that nobody projected, no one. So you now have solar that is competitive even against natural gas in some areas. You have solar arrays that are a million panels, that are [large?] megawatt facilities that are integrating themselves into a market in a way that nobody ever expected or predicted before. So right now we have wind that's twenty times as much generation... I'm sorry, solar, that's twenty times as much generation from solar today as when the President took office just a short time ago - at least in my window of short! And then we've got wind that's already tripled. So this is changing the dynamic of how current investments are being made, and if we do this right as we're doing with the clean power plan to move in that same direction, while putting a stake in the ground as far away as 2030, what that does is continuing to send a message on what we value and where we want investment to continue. So it's going to spark investment and innovation in the US that has always driven us and has given us the ability to make environmental improvements while we continue to grow the economy. Solar today is by far the fastest growing job sector in the United States; who'da thunk that, Hank, a [----] ago?! So this is really cool, to see how the world is shaping in the US, and how we use that experience when we're talking to China - about how to help them to achieve their low-carbon future - and you talk to India about what their next steps might be. It's just... it's a fabulous opportunity to show the way forward, and to engage new innovations while we do that.

H: You bring up natural gas. The burning of natural gas has far less impact than the burning of coal, but the extraction, the creation of that cheap natural gas, it's sort of a look at how the EPA's history has happened. Like, it used to be about protecting local areas and making sure that America's citizens and environment were, you know... and it still is, of course, about that - we're protected. But to get that natural gas, like hydraulic fracturing is the way, how do you balance with, like, making sure you are protecting the land that that extraction is happening on, and protecting the people around that land, and also focusing on that global problem that we face?

G: Absolutely, and in some ways the EPA has a simpler job than the Energy Secretary might, because I'm not making the investments in how you move forward. I am recognizing that the world is moving forward, and my job is to grab that pollution and lower that. It's been the same job that we've had forever. So when we're dealing with carbon pollution, I'm using the same tools and the same strategy as NOx and SOx pollution and particulate matter, which by the way always go hand-in-hand in the power sector with high carbon - so you can get the carbon out while you're removing other things. So I'm not making the choices about whether the states or anybody chooses natural gases or coal, or chooses renewables. My job is to make sure that the technology is there and the flexibility is available to states to lower their carbon pollution significantly while they make those choices. And you're absolutely right Hank: we have a responsibility not to just provide incentives for a low carbon future, but I have lots of other responsibilities to address pollutants that happen when you drill a well and you do hydrofracking. Whether it's water protection or necessities, or whether it's also protections from volatile organic compounds which are emitted, and methane. So you are absolutely right: every fossil fuel supply is going to have challenges that have to be looked at in a broader way. And the President has been very clear that, while we're not making choices, we're going after the pollution. So we're actually moving forward to regulate methane in the oil and gas sector - because we understand that it's a really big deal. And if you want to have natural gas be part of the energy mix and there's technologies available that can lower that pollution, then we should be grabbing those opportunities as soon as possible, so that everybody can have a mix - but that mix has to continually drive down carbon pollution, and the direction that we know we need to head to protect our kids.

H: As we head into Paris for these climate talks, are you optimistic?

G: More than ever. I cannot say that I've always been optimistic heading into some of these meetings, but I think the scene-setter couldn't be better. I think we've done everything we could in the US, and the President clearly has had tremendous visibility on this issue, really showing that we are providing domestic leadership, that we are taking strong action, we're going to defend that action moving forward and keep the push we need domestically. But we've also laid the foundation with some of the other larger economies across the world to really step up and have good commitments moving forward. So I think we have every reason to be optimistic, but we also have every reason to go to that meeting pushing as hard as we can and recognizing that that push doesn't end at the end of any agreement being reached. It has to continue to ratchet down our carbon pollution so that we can get at the levels that science tells us is necessary to protect your kids, my grandchildren.

H: Well thank you very much. We've been joined by Administrator McCarthy, the head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. What a wonderful treat to be able to talk to you, and good luck in Paris.

G: Thank you Hank, thank you so much.

(Sci Show outro theme plays)