Gina McCarthy (U.S. EPA)

Climate change predictions can be scary, and political opposition to climate action is fierce. But EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says she can’t help but be optimistic about the future.

McCarthy, speaking at the American Meteorological Society (AMS) annual meeting in Phoenix on Wednesday, struck a decidedly positive tone.

“If there is ever a challenge where the U.S. can shine and provide leadership, it is the challenge of climate change,” she said.

In her speech, McCarthy described the goals of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan: 1) reducing carbon pollution that contributes to climate change 2) preparing communities for climate impacts and 3) leading the world in addressing climate change.

“The real danger and the real economic problem we face is not taking action,” McCarthy said.

She emphasized the importance of the work of the thousands of weather and climate scientists attending the meeting, which will help inform solutions.

“The climate science that you do and that you help produce is really what brings our understanding to the challenges and our understanding of what are the climate risks and how we can begin to address them more systemically and effectively,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy’s comments fit right in with the forward-looking theme of the AMS meeting: “fulfilling the vision of weather, water, and climate information for every need, time, and place.”

I had the opportunity to sit down with McCarthy and ask her several questions pertaining to how extreme weather fits into the climate change discussion and how to change the acrimonious nature of the climate change debate. A lightly edited (for length) transcript follows…

In the last four years, I’ve noticed the Administration shift more towards discussing climate change through the frame of extreme weather. Can you explain the motivation?

Gina McCarthy: I think both the growing certainty of the science and the impacts we’re seeing and the fact that we need to understand that actions need to be taken. The backdrop for that is inaction is very expensive.  And so we’ve had to look at extreme weather events to recognize the costs of inaction are very large. So if you look at not just the costs of action but the investment opportunities those actions provide, we can make a solid economic argument as well as making an environmental case.

What climate change-related weather impacts are most striking and apparent to you?

McCarthy: A lot of them are but I think the drought – maybe because I’m sitting here [in Arizona]. I think the drought is most disturbing. We are just seeing extended drought in a region that is extreme.  It makes me realize that we now have people that simply don’t have access to water and that’s not where I thought we would be in this county. I think that’s going to be a wake-up call.

When you look at predictions of climate change, which worry you the most?

McCarthy: It’s the combination.  I haven’t spent as much time with [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] Administrator [Kathryn] Sullivan as I’d like. What bothers me is how little we know about the ocean and ocean acidification.  It’s the unknown factor that, for me, could make things exponentially more difficult.

Some of these projections are scary, like a meter rise in sea level, an increase an extreme heat events, and droughts – as you mention. How do you message that and remain optimistic about the future?

McCarthy: I don’t know how not to [remain optimistic].  If you don’t remain optimistic about the progress we can make, the tools we can bring to the table, the investments that will make us safe in the future, then those things will not happen.

I have a firm belief we have the ability, if we look at investments in terms of what the future needs – not what the past brought us – to address climate change in a way that allows to make increasing progress moving forward. I don’t know how else to face it.

I do know human nature when you all do is talk to them about how dire something is – there’s two ways to handle it – it’s a fight or flight issue.  We’ve been facing that for 20 years, it’s gotten us nowhere.

I don’t want people to be scared. In fact, I’m trying to make them not scared. The scary thing is doing nothing. Recognizing and acting is what will keep them safe.  I think that the fact that they’re already facing impacts has changed the dynamic considerably.  People understand that things have changed. Once you embrace the problem, the solutions are there.

How do you respond to skeptics who say the U.S. actions will have a minimal effect on climate change; for example, reducing climate warming by just a fraction of a degree?

McCarthy: I can not, given the science I know, say that we’re making a huge impact on climate ourselves.  But the U.S. and China are two of the largest polluters in the world and are the largest economies.

The U.S. needs to step  up and provide leadership and the rest will follow.  Us simply saying ‘I’m not going to do anything because I can’t do it all’ is never, ever how we have faced any challenge that this country’s had, ever.

I think that the joint announcement that we made with China was a dramatic example of basically the President saying if we lead, others will follow.  When we did that Climate Action Plan, the entire tone and tenor of the international discussions has changed considerably.  There is a sense of purpose, there is a sense of positive movement forward now, that I haven’t heard on the table since beginning to attend COPs [Conference of the Parties, climate negotiations] for how long.  It’s changed.  It’s false to think that because we can’t do it all we have the luxury or right to do nothing.

If we do this right, what people will see as a result of our actions is a more prosperous economy, a healthier economy, and healthier communities – better air quality. We’re going to have stronger economies so it’s not like I’m trying to get people to take medicine that tastes bad.  I’m simply trying to get them to recognize that what we were doing in the past and the technologies of the past are not the way to a healthy future, period.

There’s a fair amount of skepticism about climate change in Congress and some in the public. Is it worth expending the effort to try and change minds?

McCarthy: You need to have a lot of outreach and you need to reach people that people will listen to.  We’ve done a lot work with the faith community as an example.  There is a tremendous amount of growing interest across the board with evangelicals and others about protecting natural resources because they believe they were given to us by God and it’s our responsibility to protect them.  They speak to people every week. People understand them and listen to them.

We can’t rely on just EPA going everywhere and taking the time to build the trust relationship.  We need to get to people that can speak to people and reach people. So we are doing a lot outreach to understand who people listen to.  We’re going to Hispanic organizations, African American organizations because, as you know, many of the hardest hit communities are those that don’t have the wherewithal to fend for themselves.  So if they’re the hardest hit they’re voices need to be part of the discussion.

We can make a difference by simply engaging people in the dialog.  They will learn themselves and they will come to the table not just saying I need action but demanding it. We need to get beyond people agreeing and people really starting to motivate themselves to take action and push the folks that work for them, the public servants, to listen.

Especially in Washington, climate change can be a toxic and polarizing issue. How do we overcome that?

McCarthy: I think we’ve given too much time to the naysayers and I need more people speaking out.  I need their voices to be equal to the few that are skeptical.

When newspapers say they’ve got to have varying opinions, well then put 100 positive scientists who say climate change is happening and do half of a scientist who doesn’t believe it.  Balance isn’t giving equal weight to a few.  I need people to speak out, people to work in their own communities to make it a safer discussion to have, and make it a more productive conversation.

We’ve tried to make climate change more visible.  We’ve gone on the Today Show, and done those kinds of things.  I’m amazed there’s very little interjection of climate change into any [television] broadcasts.

Somehow we need to depoliticize climate change.  I don’t know if we call it something different.  I really don’t know.  We need people talking about it and recognizing that it is just facts that we need to embrace and address as opposed to something we need to argue about.