Lisa P. Jackson has been called everything from a “hero” and the “best administrator in the history” of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to a “bureaucrat” who has done “comprehensive damage to American interests.” Many Americans may not even know the name of the woman who has had such a profound impact on our air, land, and water, but they should. The diametrically opposite reviews of Jackson are an indication of how polarizing environmental issues remain in Washington today.
In December, Jackson announced she would be leaving her job as the country’s top environmental regulator. Less than a month later, President Obama featured the threat of climate change prominently in his inaugural address. Even with the potential for significant action on the issue, Jackson says she didn’t feel regret about her decision to move on. She was encouraged to hear him publicly re-commit to climate change, but knows, more than anyone, how hard it has been to get new laws on the books.
“It’s disheartening to see that some in Congress, even in the face of…the latest evidence that shows the climate is changing faster than people thought and the impact may well be greater than scientists had imagined are still doing everything they can to stand in the way of new legislation,” she said.
Many people likely know Ms. Jackson through the controversy surrounding the Keystone XL Pipeline and some believe she resigned over concerns that she didn’t want it approved during her time in office. She brushes those rumors off with a categorical, “No, that’s not it at all,” and focuses instead on the many accomplishments and regulations put in place over the last four years. These actions and executive authority is what she believes will move the country forward on climate change.
She is extremely proud of the “Endangerment Finding” which, under the Clean Air Act, says greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare. This was the government’s first acknowledgment of substantial scientific evidence of greenhouse gas emissions and essentially required that something be done about it. The finding set the stage for a slew of regulations including new emissions standards for cars and trucks and proposed standards for power plants.
Throughout her tenure, even until the final weeks, Jackson and the EPA were battling Republican lawmakers and others who questioned everything from the science used to make the endangerment finding to how new regulations would impact the economy and job growth.
One of her biggest takeaways from this experience is the urgency by which American parents need to make their voices heard. Without it, the fundamental issues like children’s health, clean air, clean water, can too easily be ignored.
“You cannot overstate how hard it is to break through the noise of special interests in the nation’s capital who either fight for the status quo or fight to roll back protections like….when it comes to toxic chemicals.” she said.
Jackson, a scientist with degrees in chemical engineering, is clearly disappointed about the many attempts to reform the decades-old law that deals with toxic chemicals. She says while there is evidence of more developmental issues in children and we have found chemicals in cord blood, the science has not yet made the direct link to chemical exposures. She realizes there is nothing to reassure American families that these chemicals are safe and the law currently on the books is “toothless and woefully inadequate to the task.” Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has introduced several versions of the Safer Chemicals Act, but has not been able to get enough support. The often proposed legislation would force companies to demonstrate the safety of chemicals before, not after, they are used in the marketplace.
As a public servant who has devoted her working life to environmental issues, Jackson points out that it is individual communities and local action that has moved the needle. The federal government and its leadership are important, but Jackson says she sees many innovative solutions around energy and pollution at the state and local level. We’re at the point where many different sectors need to get involved. “I think that we are seeing private sector companies step up and do good things and I would argue in some ways that can be as transformative as government. Sometimes they are actually quicker.”
So what will the life-long public servant do next? Jackson, who has two young sons, says the only thing she won’t rule out is a little rest. It is unlikely she will be out of work for long. There is still plenty to do.
3 more things about Lisa Jackson
Hardest thing about being a working mother: Time and time management
Guilty pleasures: Watching old movies, Top Chef, and Project Runway
Can’t sleep without: Working the New York Times crossword