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Biden's top climate adviser on climate goals: ‘We need Congress to join in’

White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the Biden Administration's climate change agenda, the Build Back Better plan, and the outlook for clean energy.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Moving on here, President Biden is doubling down on climate action on this Earth Day, signing an executive order aimed at protecting America's forests. The move comes as the president faces growing questions about his commitment to climate change, as he pushes to increase oil production to lower record gas prices. I spoke to White House National climate advisor Gina McCarthy and asked her how much of the president's climate agenda still remains intact.

GINA MCCARTHY: Well, really, first of all, Happy Earth Day. But really, Akiko, this is important for people to remember, is, there's two things happening right now. The president made an absolute commitment to climate change, and to address climate change. And that has not wavered one bit. He still remains committed and is even pushing forward to double down on that commitment.

But the challenge we have is that we have a Putin law that actually created an emergency situation, which the president is making sure that he takes control of. But that has no impact and won't have any impact on our commitment to the long-term challenge of climate change. Look, on day one, the president actually stood up on the world stage and put the US in a leadership position again. And we started a broad range of efforts that are not waning and, in fact, getting stronger to actually address and tackle the climate change in a way that science tells us we have to.

So we are not at all running away from that commitment. And in fact, we're moving faster to make sure that we recognize that the science is telling us we have to go faster, and we have to go farther than ever before. So you're going to see this Earth Day with the president double downing on his commitment and looking at Congress to really begin to act again. We have been talking about the work that we're doing, the success that we've had in a variety of areas, like transportation, like housing.

We are moving forward with the bipartisan infrastructure law, which is going to advance change and resilience in every community, especially those that are hardest hit, our environmental justice communities. But we're also going to make sure that Congress moves forward with some tax credits in some relief to families, because we have pulled together a climate plan that grows jobs, that save families money, that actually moves forward at the pace and breadth that we need. But we need Congress to join in this. And now is the time.

AKIKO FUJITA: Let's talk about some of the goals of the administration because it was one year ago, we had this conversation in the lead-up to Earth Day. The president set a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to half of the 2005 levels by the end of this decade. Given what has transpired with gas prices, with the war between Russia and Ukraine, are you still on track?

GINA MCCARTHY: Yeah, we believe that we can still get there. We do need Congress to help. But the actions that we've taken to actually achieve and put us on an irreversible path towards clean energy is action taken at the breath of the administration in the very ways in which the federal government does business and the investments that we're making. So far, with the bipartisan infrastructure law, we really have an opportunity to actually build more resilient infrastructure, but also to clean up pollution, to replace those lead pipes, to build those EV charging stations.

We're even using the Defense Production Act, which the president is calling on, to actually produce those critical minerals that we need to strengthen our manufacturing. We're going gangbusters in offshore wind, which is really about a new opportunity that we have that's not just about advancing our ports and our offshore wind. But it's about actually creating manufacturing jobs in the heartland.

And look at what our automakers are doing. They're not waning in their commitment to get to 50% zero emission vehicle sales in 2030. They're doubling down. They're the ones pushing for the strongest actual vehicle emission standards because we know we can get there. And it's actually going to be a benefit not just to them, but they're investing in manufacturing again here in the United States. And that's growing good jobs, but we're delivering to consumers the kind of products they want that will save our families money.

We're even announcing 100 actions by the end of this year that are going to move into energy efficiency standards and how we get our homes and buildings more efficient, which will save all of us money. So, no, we're not backing down, nor are we giving up on our targets. They are aggressive, but we are on target domestically to do what we need to do. But we do need Congress to go that extra step to make clean energy investments and tax credits even more powerful than they've ever done before.

AKIKO FUJITA: So--

GINA MCCARTHY: But the good news is that saves families money on average of 500 bucks a year. Why wouldn't they want to do it?

AKIKO FUJITA: Well, so let's talk about Congress, because Build Back Better, where you've got roughly $500 billion in clean energy investments tied up, that remains stalled. And I know Senator Manchin held talks with members of the administration. What's been the focus of those informal talks?

GINA MCCARTHY: Well, I know that the focus has been, what does the administration believe we need to stay on target and move forward on the kind of efforts we need on climate? But it's also been about, what are those efforts that the Senate is most interested in? And how do we make that work, in terms of pulling those interests together and moving them forward for the American public?

And so in the end, it's going to be about convincing the senator and Congress that these are things that the American communities, that our communities, that American families, that individuals know will make their lives better today in order to have a future that is better for all of us.

AKIKO FUJITA: But if I may, what has actually moved? Because as you're saying, you're still having this discussion--

GINA MCCARTHY: Yes.

AKIKO FUJITA: --with what the priorities of the senators are. I mean, those discussions have been happening and haven't moved the ball, at least as far as we have seen publicly. What has shifted behind closed doors?

GINA MCCARTHY: Well, what you have seen in Congress also is that there's more bills that are being developed now for each piece of these discussions. So we know that Congress is interested in moving. What we want to make sure we do is to have enough conversations with Senator Manchin that we can be assured that we can move this forward in reconciliation.

But regardless, we are doing everything we can, and the president will continue to use every tool in his toolbox to be able to move these efforts forward. So I am not at liberty to give you details. But I will tell you these conversations have to keep moving forward. Those details need to be worked out.

And the American public knows that this is about their future. It's about their livelihoods. It's our ability to keep growing jobs and shifting to a clean energy economy. That is the only way we're going to have energy security in the United States or across the world. The time is now, and the president has no intention of letting these conversations wane. He wants action, and he wants action now.

AKIKO FUJITA: We heard recently the administration announced it's going to spend $6 billion to keep open nuclear power plants that are currently at risk of closing. I counted the number, 55 nuclear plants that are currently operating in the US, a quarter or more that are at risk. How many of those do you need to keep online to reach that emissions target?

GINA MCCARTHY: Well, I don't have an exact number for you, but that $6 billion was allocated with these utilities in mind. Look, the president is interested in making sure that no clean energy options are off the table, but also advancing others. We have tremendous investments in New technologies like green hydrogen. We need to make those work. That can work in the transportation sector. It can be a lifesaver for manufacturing, in our heartland.

So we are not going to let any technology available today go offline. And we're going to make sure that we keep our promise to the American people and keep investing in our future, which means investments in new technologies that are on the cusp of making real opportunities available. That includes even things like fusion energy. There's exciting opportunities coming up, and we want people to know that they have to be hopeful, they have to be active, they have to keep pushing us and Congress to move forward.

And the president wants to make sure that we're using the dollars allocated in the bipartisan infrastructure law to make communities better and safer today, but also, as you indicated, to keep the technologies that we have available today running so that we can make sure that we're moving forward with the lowest cost energy we can deliver, but also energy that's reliable.

AKIKO FUJITA: A final question for you, on a more personal level, there has been a lot of speculation about your future with the administration. And I know you have come out and said, look, I'm here to stay. But I wonder if you've given thought about where you think you can make the most impact in shaping climate policy. Yes, you spend a lot of time in government, but you've also spent time in nonprofit, in private equity. Can you make more change inside the government than outside?

GINA MCCARTHY: Oh, I think it takes both. And certainly, you're right. I am sticking around because there's so much more work to do. But I wouldn't be staying around if I didn't think that work was available to us, and that we wouldn't have an opportunity to succeed. So I have worked. And I think it's time that in state and local governments. And I think it's time we work together to the same ends.

The same with the non-profit world. You know, they're keeping close contact with all of us to make sure we're looking at every opportunity. And that's why I'm here, to make sure that we can align all of these entities together so that we can be hopeful about what's already happened, but also make sure that that push continues. The president isn't working just for states or local governments, nor is he working just for the private sector and nonprofits.

You know, he is working for every individual and every American family here. And he's hoping that we can continue to all work together to the end that we know is essential, which is that transition to a clean energy economy. That's how we are going to win in the United States a future that we can hand to our children and be proud of. And that's what I'll always work for, no matter where I'm sitting.

AKIKO FUJITA: Our thanks to White House national climate advisor Gina McCarthy. And Brian, you heard her say there she's very adamant that the goal has not shifted over the last year on climate policy. But there's certainly been a shift in the tone from the administration. We've seen the president publicly coming on it and calling for more drilling to bring gas prices down. We had that record release from the Petroleum Reserve. And then just last week, we heard the government talk specifically. They would say that they would resume the selling for new oil and gas drilling on public lands, which goes directly against what the president campaigned on.

BRIAN CHEUNG: Yeah, well, I mean, of course, at the same time, it's definitely unreasonable to have expected the Biden administration to have expected an inflationary issue like we're facing ourselves in, when they were campaigning in 2020. Now, of course, obviously, the question here going forward is going to be, how can they try to right the ship to go back to some of those commitments, which, as your conversation highlighted very clearly, they're not very satisfied with right now.

And I think that was perhaps behind some of the political intrigue about whether or not McCarthy would want to leave that position out of frustration. And she kind of very clearly saying there, nope, we still got some work to do. But look, midterms are coming up this year. That means that this type of conversation is likely to ramp up further. But in an environment right now where the oil and gas pressures that average Americans are experiencing on a daily basis remain the big story for this political cycle, whether or not they can square those two things together is going to be very much a tough task.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, it is a difficult needle to thread, to put it very lightly. And that's why you've got the president today on Earth Day going out publicly and saying, look, I'm still here. I'm still committed, but you're right, Brian, to your point, because I know you've been watching inflation really closely. Is it-- that is the challenge, is that at the end of the day, he needs to be seen as doing something to bring down those high costs. And climate isn't right at the center of it.

BRIAN CHEUNG: Right, and again, even that EV plan is going to be something that's going to play out way longer than just 2022, so we'll see about that. But--

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