During the US China Green Forum, Lisa Jackson, the former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator was the keynote speaker. Afterwards, I interviewed her about her wish for the outcome of this forum, her proudest legislative accomplishments and the legislation she wish had passed during her administration.
I was nervous prior to interviewing Jackson. However, after I overheard her remark to a Chinese reporter about how much she liked her shoes and then my brief introduction as a fellow New Jerseyan, my nervousness melted away. (And yes, we exchanged the “which exit” New Jersey joke.) Jackson, despite her amazing career is humble, passionate, and simply a mom worried about her children.
Listen to the podcast interview below or the read the transcript. We were lucky to have her as our ” top environmental cop on the beat.”
Note, the interview had been edited to make it more readable.
Anna Hackman: Hi, this is Anna Hackman Green Talk and Green Sisterhood. I’m here with Lisa Jackson, the former Head of the EPA. We’re at the US China Green Forum. What kind of outcome would you like to see from this forum?
Lisa Jackson: Well, it was so wonderful to meet all the folks here, because they’re interested in understanding how two consumer powerhouses: production on the China side, with a growing consumer group there… then, the consumerism that it makes our country great in many ways… can be used to influence a better outcome from the standpoint of the environment.
I encouraged a couple of things. First, don’t think only of the environment. Think of sustainability principles in general because it’s broader than just air pollution or water pollution. It’s also climate change. It could also be making sure that labor issues or other issues of social justice are addressed, …and so, I’d like that discussion.
I think there was widespread agreement, that it’s access to information that makes a consumer powerful because once the consumer has that information, you can indeed move markets. I think that that’s what I’d like to see.
Major Learning Experience as the Head of the EPA?
AH: Having dealt with the DEP in New Jersey, was that a major learning experience for you to go on to be the Head of the EPA?
LJ: Well remember, I worked at the EPA for almost 15 years and I started as a staff level scientist. So, I think there was an adjustment, but maybe not as much as someone who had never been around the federal environmental regime.
It was a huge honor and privilege to lead that agency, but Washington is different. Sadly in the last few years, politics has really become an issue when it comes to protecting the environment. I think that’s sad because traditionally, it’s been very bi-partisan issue to recognize that you need an environmental cop on the beat and that you need to make sure that industry is policed, and that you have to set standards, but also enforce them.
Her Proudest Enacted Legislation?
AH: So, when you look back at your career and you could pinpoint just one legislation that you had enacted. One that’s your favorite and the one most proud of, which one would that be?
LJ: Oh, one is hard. I have two kids. I can never jut pick one, but I’ll try.
AH: Or two.
LJ: Alright. I’ll do two since you gave me permission. So, first we made the scientific finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare. That was the basis. It was a scientific finding based on research done by a myriad scientists across the United States and internationally…but it provides the basis for things like the President’s Clean Car rule that cuts pollution, billions of pounds of pollution that won’t enter the air and saves American consumers trillions of dollars.
My absolute favorite though, is probably the work on environmental justice and expanding the conversation on the environment. We tried to make it clear that the environment wasn’t just something for people who loved to camp or hike or fish or hunt, but it also included people in the inner cities.
It also included international communities that were working on clean energy and climate. It also includes communities of low income who often times are the ones who have the incinerator or the power plant or the landfill in their neighborhood. Giving voice to those groups just as the groups here are doing on the issue of green consumerism, is really where the power and where the forward movement comes from.
AH: And what have you learn from those groups?
LJ: Well, you learn to listen, and you learn to recognize two things. First, that all environmentalism begins locally somehow. People don’t… Most people don’t wake up in the morning and go, “You know what? I think, I really want to fight for clean air today.”
They do it because they’ve seen the impact of dirty air or they’ve seen a favored fishing hole or favored place that they love to go become foul by pollution….and so, you have to respect that and recognize that. Environmental issues may have a common nexus, but they can be very, very localized.
The other was to recognize that often times and too often, communities are asked to choose between jobs and prosperity, and a healthy and clean environment. It never failed that when you met with communities, they would say that they wanted both.
Of course, they want jobs. Of course, they want new factories or new industry or new opportunity, they just don’t believe that in the year 2013, you have to choose to have pollution in order to have the jobs….and you don’t.
How Has Her Environmental Thinking Changed Over the Years?
AH: But you’ve had such a varied career. When I saw in New Jersey that you worked on superfunds [sites.] And you’ve done so many different things, how have you grown as an environmentalist since all the way back from when you started out at the EPA? Where do you think you’ve really changed?
LJ: Oh, you see… I’ve broadened, and probably in more ways than one. My waist line as well, but… Sadly, but…
AH: Haven’t we all.
LJ: At this age, you learn to recognize that many of the issues are interrelated. So, the superfund program is a great example. This is toxic waste sites, clean ups … a big issue in New Jersey as you know…a big issue in many communities around our country, but the issues are so much broader than that. There are issues now of energy, and how we generate energy, how we make sure we don’t waste energy because we have young people fighting for access to energy for us. How do we become energy secure?
Or you learn that, you might take care of a pollution problem in the air, but you want to make sure you’re not transferring that pollution to water.
I think a lot of about toxic chemicals, because in all this time, with all this progress we’ve made on air pollution, with the progress we’ve made on water pollution, we see continually that toxic materials in our products are still growing.
That there are some many things in our world that we don’t have the science yet to even know how it might be affecting our bodies. Another thing that changed is I became a wife and a mother. Those two things… mostly the motherhood, really changes a woman’s perspective because it suddenly becomes everything is about making sure that that child’s going to be as healthy and happy as possible. The toxic chemicals that are in our bodies become theirs…and so, I think that also was a huge moment for me.
The Legislation She Wished Congress Had Passed:
AH: And when you look back, was there any law that you wished that… like the boyfriend that got away that you had wished that you pushed and pushed and pushed and wished that it got enacted, but it just didn’t?
LJ: Well, a couple of things. The President made such a push early on that we needed to make cleaner, greener energy the more profitable form of energy, and that was the clean energy legislation. It was trying to somehow put a price on climate change pollution, and right now, there is no price for it. You can emit as much as you want and that’s not a good thing. Right?
We try to deal with plants before they’re built, but there are a lot of plants out there that are continuing to harm our climate in our atmosphere.
The second thing is toxins. The President also supported our push for a new law in toxic chemicals and Senator Frank Lautenberg and others really worked hard on that. I’m hopeful that we haven’t seen the end of that issue. In some ways, other parts of the world are moving ahead of us and that would be a real shame. As the consumer world that we are, we should be leading and making sure that the products we buy and use are safe.
Why the Resignation?
AH: Why the resignation? What happened?
LJ: It was time. Four years was and is an incredible honor. I went there at a time when the EPA was really pretty demoralized. Scientists at the agency had been muzzled. There had been work on climate change and the dangers of climate change that had been stifled and not allowed to come out. People were really feeling pretty down.
So, my goal in going there was to right the ship, to put EPA back and work for the American people. Certainly there were times when I thought there was a lot of demagoguery around EPA’s role, but it felt like we moved forward on a range of issues from climate change to environmental justice, to eliminating issues of toxins. Having done that, I feel like it’s time to move on.
AH: So where is to move on? Are you coming back to New Jersey?
LJ: I have no announcements yet. Stay tuned. I’m still actually doing what I call a little bit of DC detoxing. I’m just withdrawing a little, focusing on the family, and that’s been a real blessing, but some time soon I’ll make some decisions.
AH: And sometimes things happen in mysterious ways.
LJ: They do. But, you know what? I can tell you. There’s not been a day that I don’t reflect on what a privilege it was to be the top environmental cop on the beat for the American people.
How to Increase the Number of Graduating Women Engineers?
AH: Now, this is my last question. It’s for all the ladies out there. I have a son who’s an engineer and he always complains that there’s very few engineers in the school that are women and you are. You went back and you got your masters. You have your undergrad in chemical engineering. What advice do you have for young girls to go into these fields? You are such a role model.
LJ: Now you know, we see young women entering stem fields and especially engineering at a pretty good clip. We don’t see them graduating all the time.
So, the first is to support each other, and to recognize you can feel a bit isolated. Even if you have the numbers to continue to support each other because you might be in the majority in your freshman year, by sophomore or junior you’ll find that you’re not anymore.
The second might sound contradictory but that’s to make the same kind of connections with your male classmates because the thing engineering teaches you, which is why I love it is as a degree, is that problems can be solved and they’re best solved by diverse teams of people. So, you’re going to need to have those other perspectives and those other strengths in your team in order to be successful. If you do that you’ll have two big strong support systems to get you through.
AH: Thank you so much.
LJ: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.
Join the Conversation:
What thoughts do you have about her role as the EPA Administrator?
Special thanks to Diane of Big Green Purse for securing this interview for me.
Photos by Karen Lee of ecokaren (My partner in crime at Green Sisterhood.)