A chat with Mary Nichols, frontrunner for EPA Administrator, on climate justice and the future

Under the Biden-Harris administration, the federal government’s focus on climate “will be changing across the board,” says Mary Nichols.

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I had the opportunity to chat with Mary Nichols yesterday, the outgoing chair of the California Air Resources Board – arguably the most powerful and influential environmental rulemaking body in the United States. Nichols is the current frontrunner for the role of administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Biden-Harris administration, so the conversation was a pretty big deal. I was super nervous.

I was especially nervous because Nichols’ potential tenure at the EPA has been controversial in recent days. For years, Nichols has been a thorn in Donald Trump’s side – pushing back on everything from nationwide fuel economy standards to air pollution from forest fires – but she’s also faced criticism from environmental justice advocates that she hasn’t been doing enough to repair decades of racial and health disparities in the country’s most populous state.

I’m pretty sure her comments to me were the first to directly address this controversy, so it’s worth reading her statements in full, transcribed at the bottom of this post.

Here are some highlights:

  • Regarding her track record on environmental justice, Nichols says “we have devoted more resources and more attention to improving the quality of life in environmental justice communities than anyone has ever tried to do, much less accomplished in the past.”

  • There’s a growing consensus that every cabinet pick needs to lead on climate, and Nichols agrees with that. The federal government’s focus on climate “will be changing across the board,” she says.

  • Nichols says above all, she hopes the next decade will be “collaborative” between the US and other leading emitting nations, all focused on reducing emissions while acknowledging the outsized historical responsibility the US has for creating the climate problem. “If we can't find a way to work together on this overarching crisis,” she says, “we will fail.”

  • By 2030, Nichols envisions a rapid decarbonization of the US economy. By 2030, says Nichols, “almost the entire energy system, both our electricity and our transportation systems, be zero carbon” nationwide.

  • Nichols says research funding on carbon capture and geoengineering should be priorities, in addition to partnering with industries who will be bearing the brunt of the transition to a zero carbon economy. On the auto industry specifically, she says “we are just going to have to work with companies that are manufacturing today's cars and help them figure out what else they could be manufacturing.”

  • Nichols refused to say whether or not she had already been interviewed by the Biden-Harris transition team for the role of EPA Administrator, but she spoke openly about her goals for the position. “The thing that's made me excited about the possibility of working with the Biden-Harris team is that they've made it clear that the environment and economy are centrally linked.”

Other potential picks for the role of EPA Administrator, like Heather McTeer Toney and Mustafa Santiago Ali would almost surely be more progressive, but unless the Democrats re-take the Senate, they might have trouble getting confirmed. Nichols would probably stand the best chance of making it through a contentious confirmation process.

Update, December 14: The New York Times is reporting that Mary Nichols is no longer in the running to be Biden’s EPA Administrator. This comes 10 days after a letter from prominent California environmental justice leaders urged Biden not to select her, and one week after my conversation with her.

In related news: the Sunrise Movement’s latest campaign is focused on Biden’s climate mandate, and sets out a bold vision for a federal government that goes beyond even Nichols’ vision.


My full chat with Mary Nichols

Eric Holthaus: Hi Mary, thanks so much for joining me!

Mary Nichols: Thank you. I love the clock that's behind you on the wall there. That is great. I live with my six year old grandson, but I'm not in his room fortunately.

EH: First of all, congratulations: you’ve done so much in the 13 years as board chair on climate policy, and you’ve been at it since the 1970s, so you’ve seen it all.

MN: Many years. Many years. Yes. Thank you. That's right.

EH: First, my overall question to you is: What could the world be like in 2030, what’s your vision for climate policy in the U.S. as a whole, and what specific steps can we take in the next four years to achieve it?

MN: It would, first of all, be a world that was much more collaborative in many ways than we are right now. I realize that's hard because we compete with China, to a lesser extent, with India. We worry about them as competitors in an economic and in a political world. At the same time, if we can't find a way to work together on this overarching crisis, we will fail. So we are going to have to, through whatever combination of means, incentives and persuasion or other, convince them that it's in their interest to work with us to curb emissions. We will not be able to do that on our own. We can't be preaching and we certainly can't fail to acknowledge that it's the US and Europe, and to some extent, also other countries that have created the build up and emissions in the atmosphere, but now, we've got to turn it around.

We also have to very quickly solve the problem of how to capture more carbon and keep more carbon in our natural systems, trees and soils in agriculture, and we have to be able to do all of this simultaneously. Some people think we also have to do geoengineering, find ways to shield the earth from sunshine. I'm not yet persuaded that that's necessary, but I think there's nothing wrong with encouraging research on every possible solution and set of solutions because we don't know when we may need them.

EH:  And all of that has to be done with a vision that upholds racial and environmental justice, in line with the principles of a Just Transition, right?

MN: Yes. Again, approaching it from a global perspective, we have to recognize that poor people who have no choice but to burn dung to heat their homes or cook their food are going to do that. They're going to need support, fiscal support or financial support, as well as availability of alternatives if they are going to have the opportunity to improve their own lives and those of their children while at the same time, we all work to try to stave off the worst of the climate change disaster. I think environmental justice starts with those who are at the very bottom of the ladder.

But moving even towards our own country, and you talked about a Just Transition, when people use that term, they're usually referring to those who would lose jobs in certain industries that become no longer viable. For example, if we no longer need gasoline, we don't need people making gasoline. So what are their futures going to be like? There, I think, there's a couple of things to say. First of all, again, I think you can't make those decisions for other people. You have to include them in the discussion about what is going to happen, but I think in terms of having available options for people to have good work and a fair compensation for their work, we have to look at other types of jobs that can be created that will fulfill that need.

I have, for example, had interesting conversations with people who were very thoughtful about what happens when the auto industries choose to switch over to all zero emission vehicles because it turns out that there are fewer jobs in actually building those vehicles. They have fewer parts to go bad. There are fewer repair jobs. There's a cascading effect of doing something that clearly is necessary from a transportation perspective. So we are just going to have to work with companies that are manufacturing today's cars and help them figure out what else they could be manufacturing that would have some of the same benefits for their communities and the people who work for them. So I know that they are looking at, for example, whole businesses that can be created around recovering and recapturing batteries from electric vehicles.

EH: OK, I have a bit of a tough question. There’s been some criticism of your time at the Air Resources Board, including from a letter with more than 70 signatories. Gladys Limón, executive director of California Environmental Justice Alliance says you have “neglected environmental justice and communities of color” and you could have done more to stand with frontline communities who are bearing the brunt of air pollution as the climate emergency escalates. What would you do differently as EPA Administrator? Or, what could an EPA Administrator do better?

MN: Well, first of all, in response to that letter that you just quoted, I would put California's record of support for the most disadvantaged communities up against any state or any country in the world. I will say flat out that we have devoted more resources and more attention to improving the quality of life in environmental justice communities than anyone has ever tried to do, much less accomplished in the past. I will point to a number of specifics if you like, and we can give you the numbers in terms of the actual monies that have been spent in those communities, the proceeds of the cap and trade program and how we have diverted them to environmental justice communities, and the actual benefits in terms of programs that have been funded. So that's the first point that I would make.

The second point I would make is it's still not enough and we do have to continue and accelerate the focus on bringing up the environmental health of every community of the state and especially those that have suffered from the greatest neglect. So as an EPA administrator, that just gets multiplied many times over when you look at states that are not even beginning to seriously work on improving the air and water quality in some parts of their communities. There are some very serious issues on tribal lands in a number of states. Tribes are not under the jurisdiction of states. They're their own separate governmental entities and they need to be partners and they need assistance in making some of the improvements that are necessary. So I think the first thing you have to do is to look at the budget, look at where monies are being spent and where they need to be spent. Then you have to look at the regulatory programs and the enforcement actions that the agency itself is responsible for and quickly move to remedy disparities wherever you find them.

EH: And it’s important to make sure that you prioritize representation from marginalized communities in decision-making from the very beginning of the process.

MN: Yes, it is. Absolutely. Yeah. Agreed. Right. Agreed.

EH: OK, I mentioned the role of EPA Administrator in the Biden-Harris Administration. You’re the frontrunner, have you been interviewed yet by the transition team? 

MN: I really can't comment on the process at all. Thank you. Thank you. Well, the thing that's made me excited about the possibility of working with the Biden-Harris team is that they've made it clear that the environment and economy are centrally linked. They're appointing to all the key positions within the Office of Management and Budget and the National Economic Council, as well as the agency appointments that have been made so far that get it about the connection. The appointment yesterday that Xavier Becerra is going to be the head of Health and Human Services – Xavier has been my lawyer, CARB’s lawyer, the state's lawyer. We have worked side by side through the Trump administration to sue them every time they tried to roll back or undermine environmental protections and he has been just a stalwart on this topic.

Just because his focus may be more on saving health insurance and getting vaccines out to people doesn't mean that he isn't also going to be thinking about the environmental side. The public health service is under HHS's jurisdiction and they should be, but recently have not been, an integral part of the country's program to address climate change and the environment. So I think the idea that this kind of thinking, which it's not new to a Bill McKibben or to me, but it certainly is new to a lot of politicians, or so it seems, in terms of the rhetoric, that will be changing across the board.

EH: Anything else? What would you do if you had a magic wand between now and 2030?

MN: Well, I don't know. I don't know how long I will have to continue to do this kind of work. I'm blessed with good health and energy and I can't imagine that I would ever lose interest. But between now and 2030, or when I at least have some reason to hope that I'll still be around, I'd like to see us, at a minimum, be turning around the increases in greenhouse gas emissions around the world and having almost the entire energy system, both our electricity and our transportation systems, be zero carbon. I think we're moving in that direction. California's already over two thirds of all of our electricity. We're not close to that in our transportation system yet at zero emissions, but by 2030, I think we could be. So that's where I think we should be headed. I think I have to go, Eric, actually, but good luck and thank you so much for your kind words and look forward to seeing what you write. Okay. You too. Bye-bye.