Gina McCarthy: US climate plan will stand test of time

American people back flagship clean power plan despite lawsuits and Republican assaults, says Barack Obama’s top environmental regulator

By Alex Pashley in Paris

The Obama administration’s climate centrepiece is bulletproof, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told Climate Home on Thursday.

The legislation upon which it  rests – the Clean Air Act – is sound in the face of legal appeals by states and industry groups, Gina McCarthy said on the sidelines of the COP21 summit.

“We know how to use this act. It’s fallen within the square four corners of that act and the science is strong, so we are confident.”

“If people look at it, it has been in place, we’re talking 45 years of great history where we’ve reduced in the US 70% of our air pollution while our GDP has tripled.”

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The clean power plan, which limits carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants, has become the most heavily litigated environmental regulation ever, with 27 states filing more than 15 separate cases against the rules.

Republicans in the US Congress are bidding to kill the plan, accusing President Barack Obama of executive overreach. Separately, they are trying to starve climate initiatives of funds, including to meet US commitments to financial aid for developing countries.

McCarthy is the face of Obama’s domestic climate change drive and was appointed in 2013 after a record 136-day tussle for confirmation.

The official has come to the UN summit, where 195 countries are set to strike a new global warming deal, to convince countries the US is serious about its actions at home.

“Climate change is important in the United States and internationally and we are showing strong domestic action that will last. And we’re here to make sure there is an aggressive response at the COP this time, so we get the kind of agreement we need,” she said.

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On Wednesday, secretary of state John Kerry made a speech coaxing countries towards deal, with a pledge to double US climate aid for adaptation to over US$800 billion.

But concerns lingered. Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum said a Republican lawmaker had warned him a Paris deal wouldn’t “fly back home”.

McCarthy said: “There are calls being made but people need to look at the commitments of the United States government as a whole.

“It is serious. It is long term. It is a legal commitment for our country to move forward. So no matter how the political whims may change, it is the law and it is going to stick.”

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Utilities are accepting the standards as they recognise the US is in the throes of an “energy transition”, she added.

“They recognise it, people are demanding it. They have to produce the electricity people will accept, and we know the future has to be low carbon.”

The country was seeing a “sea change” as public attitudes support climate action, including in states suing the government for the regulations, she said.

The clean power plan aims to cut power plant emissions by 32% within 15 years on 2005 levels. That’s about 800 million tons a year of CO2 from a nation that emits about 6 billion tons a year.

The plan bids to create “tens of thousands of jobs while ensuring grid reliability” and deploy 30% more clean energy generation in 15 years, according to a White House factsheet in August.

That underpins the US’ target to cut emissions up to 28% by 2025 on 2005 levels. It’s one of 185 countries to submit a climate plan to a UN agreement set to be struck this week.

Read more on: COP21 | US