Maintaining Optimism in the Energy Transition
Former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of the EPA (2001-03) under President George W. Bush, and Gina McCarthy, former White House national climate advisor and former EPA administrator (2013-17) under President Obama, compared their visions for the transformation to renewable energy. The event was moderated by Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Aaron Strong, whose work is concerned with the biophysical and human dimensions of climate change and enhancing climate change justice.
The three were quick to build an easygoing atmosphere. “Are you OK sitting on the left and I’m on the right?” joked McCarthy as the three settled in. They did not let technical differences in their politics serve as a barrier to their conversation. McCarthy and Whitman readily agreed on the necessity of optimism in addressing the climate crisis. According to the two panelists, the U.S. is no stranger to the people, policies, and projects capable of solving the crisis — all of the talent already exists. In McCarthy’s words, progress will be better and faster if people are willing to look beyond their partisan viewpoints.
Throughout the dialogue, McCarthy and Whitman emphasized the power of the people. They jointly identified the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, a federal law investing in domestic energy production while promoting clean energy, as a first step in nurturing hope. McCarthy beseeched listeners to frame action as opportunity, not sacrifice. “Everyone needs to understand it to have access to it,” she said, which Whitman reiterated, declaring, “People care.” At the same time, they acknowledge obstacles in the path to cleaner energy. One bill is not enough, but for McCarthy, celebrating successes is just as important as looking to what can be done next.
Strong then drew the conversation from the global to the local, inviting the panelists to address the people of Central New York. “You have to have conversations with the people that are going to be involved,” Whitman said. She advocated for the same belief that guides Common Ground: engagement, not necessarily agreement, is key. She and McCarthy criticized the current Congress’ disinterest in meeting environmental promises but repurposed it as motivation for sustaining local-level work.
“Progress will be better and faster if people are willing to look beyond their partisan viewpoints.”
During the audience question segment of the event, student questions reflected a nuanced understanding of climate change issues. McCarthy urged students to raise their voices and hold others accountable. Whitman shared her sentiment, declaring, “Your voice is important; it’s amazing.” Optimism repeatedly fueled their responses. They looked beyond the next election to emphasize creative thinking and bottom-up change, starting with Hamilton students. They also candidly addressed their personal commitments to the cause. In particular, Whitman stressed the cumulative impact of individual behavior, which has inspired her to persevere, again and again. By the end of the segment, the panelists’ respect for each other only grew. “You’re a great person,” McCarthy said. “You’re not so bad either,” Whitman said, smiling.
Strong steered the discussion toward other student interests, namely an increased push toward plant-based practices on campus. Whitman supported eating less meat and dairy but not eliminating it entirely. As the owner of a small cattle farm, she sympathized with farmers’ resistance to change and called on the government to ease the transition. Both called factory farming unconscionable.
To conclude the evening, Strong invited the panelists to offer their final thoughts on the future of fossil fuels. Together, McCarthy and Whitman asked audience members to think about the climate crisis outside of strictly academic settings. The path forward lies with people and within our everyday lives.
Common Ground is Hamilton’s multi-format program that helps prepare students for active citizenship. Designed to explore cross-boundary political thought and complex social issues, Common Ground brings respected thought leaders to Hamilton to participate in small classroom dialogues and large event discussions. Topics intertwined with the College’s curriculum are chosen to foster critical thinking and holistic examination of difficult and often contentious national and global policy issues. The College thanks Mary Helen and Robert Morris ’76, P’16,’17; Eve Niquette and Charles Pohl, P’20,’25; and Lori and David Hess ’77 for their generous support of Common Ground.
All event photos by Nancy L. Ford.
Expand Your Perspectives
Common Ground is Hamilton’s multi-format program that helps prepare students for active citizenship. Designed to explore cross-boundary political thought and complex social issues, Common Ground brings respected thought leaders to Hamilton to participate in small classroom dialogues and large event discussions.
This collaboration will connect Hamilton’s Common Ground program and Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) University Partnership Program to encourage civil discourse and bring bipartisanship outside the beltway through robust intellectual exchange. Hamilton is the first liberal arts college to partner with BPC.