Administrator Gina McCarthy, Remarks at the 2016 Vermont Law School Commencement, As Delivered


Thank you, students, you rock. Hello, Vermont Law School lawyers. I have to start by saying two things. One is congratulations to all the masters, you don't intimidate me at all. I have one of those. [laughter]

I want to also admit right up front, I'm not a lawyer and really never liked lawyers until very recently. Actually, sometimes I do. But if I were to describe my anxiety dream, it would be filled with lawyers. [laughter] And I am in Washington, living that dream every day. [applause]

So it's really fun, and really it is an incredible honor to be here, and hopefully I can share of few words of wisdom. But the most important one is to ask you if you're working in government or outside to keep the mission that drove you to this school. Embrace it, never let it go, because it is a mission that this world needs more people, especially young people to embrace—because the future is yours.

I screwed it up, you have to fix it. That's the way it is. Embrace the challenge. For you today it's the culmination of years of study. You have learned to trudge through torts, to plow under property law, to conquer corporate law, and to trounce your taxes. You learn firsthand what it means to be arbitrary and capricious as you watched Professor Firestone throw chalk at the wall.

Before you start cramming for the bar or heading to the bar, do me a little bit of a favor and just take a few seconds to feel proud of yourself. Really, you are graduating (applause) you are not just graduating from any school, you are graduating from Vermont Law School, and Vermont Law School's Energy Law Program has been ranked number one 17 of the last 24 years. It has never ranked lower than 2 . You are amazing. [applause]

And I know when I want to pick a lawyer that will make me most anxious, I go to you guys. Because you are going to do one of two things. You are either going to do exactly what I say, or you are going to tell me how I can get done what I want to do. Either one is fine with me, just don't be the boring type of lawyer that tells me everything I can't do, because then I turn into Charlie Brown and it is wha-wah-wah. So we are going to have great fun together.

I know all of you are especially proud, your family, friends, they have supported you as you turned into whiny faces, wondering if you would get through your first year being absolutely miserable. Do yourselves a favor and clap for everyone who’s been with you along the way. The good news is, they didn't disown you or disavow you, so it is time at this point to welcome you back to the human race.

You have to leave this lovely little community and go face the big bad world again, but it is really the start of the next chapter in your life. What I really want you to do most is embrace that. Just embrace it.

The uncertainty is great. Stop dwelling on it, don't get anxious. I would like you to live in that uncertainty for the rest of your life because it constantly challenges you to do something different and better, to learn, to keep conquering.

That's what you really need to do if you want to have a continuously rich life, is to live on that edge. I live on it every single day, and I fall off on numerous occasions, but really, for the past three years you've been learning the rules of the road. You’ve been learning the legal boundaries that you need to know, but right now it's all about getting into the real world and starting to test those boundaries, and starting to test yourselves, to see where life leads you. It's time to get creative, is time to think about what you can do to make sure that business as usual doesn't remain business as usual. Your job is to always challenge that. [applause]

I will tell you that life gets most interesting when you decide not to settle for business as usual. That's where you definitely won't be boring. This school has given you all you need to actually get in the game now. It has opened doors for you. Unless you think business as usual is just fine, then start embracing the opportunities that are open to you, that this school has provided to you, and you must go out and make the world more just.

You must go out and make our children healthier. You have to give us more sustainable options moving forward and you have to work hard to make the world a safer place. You came here to do that, you have to exit the same way. You want to exit the world the same way. Continue to drive that forward. And I'm so confident that you can do this. We have seen it in graduating classes from this college time and again.

I cannot tell you how many lawyers at EPA came from this school. Actually, I lied. I can. Sixty-nine are now currently working at EPA. [applause] And you are indistinguishable from the other mission-driven 15,000 human beings that work at EPA. So really think big. Now is the time to get excited about what life has to offer, not to get anxious about it.

Just look at my boss, President Obama. He was a constitutional law professor. How boring is that? [laughter] But he has not been boring. He's done pretty damn well for himself and for us. [applause]

Today for the first time in this country, more than 9 in 10 Americans have health insurance. Today anyone in America can marry whomever they want to marry. [applause] Students in the U.S. are now graduating high school at a higher rate than ever. Our economy is in the midst of the longest streak of private sector job growth on record with 14.4 million jobs added over 73 straight months.

I like this one: we are less reliant on foreign oil than we have been in nearly three decades, and guess what? Last December in Paris, nations all across the world joined together and made a commitment to act on climate.

Now, what made all of this incredible progress possible? A couple of things. One is, I’ve got a president who is as mission driven his you are. He is unwilling to settle for business as usual. He has told me, Gina, put on your sneakers because we are running across the finish line. There is no lame duckery in this Administration.

In the face of a Congress – how to put this nicely?—that is reluctant to act, our president has embraced the authorities that are already embedded in our laws and has used them to advance policies that reflect all of our core values. What has made this country so great, what has given us the kind of life that we have enjoyed, and he has taken action to protect our kids, to protect our families, and to protect our planet. This has been an enormous gift to me to be part of this.

If you think about it, just focus on what we've been able to do on climate change. Just look at the historic actions that I have been lucky enough to be a part of, whether working at the state, local, or the federal level.

We have been driving issues on climate for ages. Finally, the federal government of the United States of America is leading this charge, not just domestically, but internationally. We have EPA’s 2009 end finding that never would have happened had it not been for Massachusetts v. EPA. I'm so glad that my Commonwealth of Massachusetts kicked the butt out of EPA on that one.

You go where the mission drives you. It opened the doors to such incredibly strong climate action in this country, and that door will never be shut again. Greenhouse gas standards for light duty vehicles, heavy-duty vehicles, methane in the oil and gas sector, landfills, and HFCs.

We finalized our Clean Power Plan, the nation's first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants. If you haven't read the briefs we submitted on that Clean Power Plan, read it, it will restore your faith in government. It is strong; it is powerful. We will win all the way up through the Supreme Court. [applause] Our Clean Power Plan changed the dynamic in Paris, and make no mistake about it, we are hanging on to that and we are going to continue to run forward.

So this president is not one of those boring lawyers. He is a bit challenging. And I can say that working on climate change has never been boring. The CPP has generated two first-of-a-kind legal decisions, interesting ones, one from the Supreme Court and a more recent one from the DC Circuit Court. I will admit that I would rather be bored every once in a while, but we will deal with these issues moving forward, and I'm excited about the work that we have to do.

But we all can't wait for anything to get the work done that we need to do to keep our kids future secure, and to continue to make progress on public health, because after all, EPA is a public health agency. That is what we do for a living. And we have real work to do and real challenges to face, and we are not going to wait for instructions from Congress. They may never come. We are not relying solely on voluntary measures. They ain't getting the job done. So we’re using the full suite of tools and authorities available to us under the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the other environmental statutes that have led to such tremendous improvements in quality of life for all of us.

Vermont Law School has given all of you, whether you are a master's in understanding the policies that are necessary to move us forward, or understanding the toolbox and and skill sets that the law provides, and this college has given you. You are in an interesting position to be really part of this change moving forward. We can set this country on a sustainable course for the future. It’s your time right now. You have to go with this. I agree, anxiety is bad, but embrace this anxiety. Maybe you don't know how to get it done, but keep moving. Don't go back. Circles are not fun, either. Try to go forward. [laughter]

You can figure it out. Sniff it out. You will know where you are supposed to go. But you are the leaders. You are trained to harness the power of the law to move beyond the status quo. While in a democracy like yours, and I've been working in this democracy for 35 years now, it does move slowly, but it does move. And change can happen. It is built layer by layer, action by action. Hardware, science, the law. All of that is the foundation.

And don't forget we are government of the people, for the people, and by the people. You've got to make people eventually demand the sustainable change that you think is necessary. So while you may be smarty-pants about where you want to go, smarty-pants about how to get there, you need to bring at least 1000 people with you when you want to accomplish it, because that's what the United States democracy demands. That's the system we live in. That is the system we love. That is your challenge.

So tackle tough issues like climate. You can make a difference. You can make it work. There is no challenge more complicated than the challenge of climate change. It's about the fundamental way that we chose to grow in this country. Talk about the challenge of explaining why one degree matters. People think great, summer will come little earlier. No, not great. But I think people now get it. Most people have gotten it. We have managed to explain it and also manage to understand that they are feeling it already. Climate change impacts all of us. It's not just about glaciers and polar bears. It is way more personal. It's about the health of our kids, our health, our economy, our national security. It's really about our moral responsibility to protect our kids’ future.

So even in DC, you can make progress on things like climate change. We even have the Pope on our side. [applause] And he rides around in this little Fiat, or Focus, depending on what country he is driving around in, I think. But we also have incredible solutions today. It is a very interesting point in time for you to be graduating. Not only have we managed to figure out how to double the distance cars can go on a gallon of gasoline; we are now producing a lot of vehicles that don't need it at all.

I had the opportunity to be at the Tesla manufacturing facility. I met with Elon Musk. I did not understand a word he said. He actually did not understand a word I said, either. [laughter] These things take time to build relationships. Tesla has already received 700,000 orders for their new $35,000 vehicle that is coming out next year. That will triple the number of electric vehicles on the road in the United States. They come with a $1000 check. We have renewable energy systems that are knock-your-socks-off competitive against fossil fuels.

We have utilities that are buying the energy people are generating on the rooftops. We have a level of innovation that is unprecedented and our markets are shifting with those innovations as they come out in the market and make their way to human beings who care about these issues. In 2015, global investment in renewable energy hit a world record at $286 billion. That's more than twice the investment that the world spent on fossil fuel. So if you think it's just the U.S., you are wrong.

The solar industry added jobs nearly 12 times faster than the economy as a whole last year. This is where the jobs of the future are. With a long-term extension of the renewable tax credit, we can continue to see this moving forward.

We are really at a time when you can go out there and make your own way in a world that is changing, and a world where that change is heading in the right direction, and you can make that change sustainable and move that forward, if you continue to have the mission that brought you to this wonderful school. You are the generation that is the most technologically savvy, globally aware, and socially conscious generation in history.

You are emerging at a time when there is incredible innovation and progress. Add onto that the arsenal of skills you’ve have learned right here at Vermont Law School and you are already a force to be reckoned with. So don't slither into a job interview, go there with your head held high and get the job you want to get. [applause]

As I end, I want to ask you a couple of things and maybe give a little bit of advice. First I want to ask you to think about going into public service. I have been doing this for a long time. I will readily admit that you will never get rich, so if that is part of your mission, don’t bother. I can't see that changing over the long haul.

But if you really want a rich life, public service will provide that to you. It's just amazing. [applause] Think about the choices you have. EPA employs 69 Vermont Law School graduates alone out of about 1000 attorneys that run around doing remarkably crazy but successful things. The phrase “dream team” is how we describe our Office of General Counsel. They've been named best in-house environmental team by the Legal 500 for the last two years in a row. [applause]

I think it is because they get an awful lot of practice, and I will account for much of that. Sometimes it feels like David and Goliath. I was looking at 111d filings, that’s the Clean Power Plan litigation. The list of attorneys representing the plaintiffs went to 22 pages. That is probably as many people as we actually have in EPA. When it is important, -- I guarantee there will be more lawsuits to follow. We are going to keep doing important work, and in the United States, when you do important work, people will sue you. That's the way it works. [applause]

My last two tiny pieces of advice, I want to give you just two small pieces. First of all, as you are thinking about your future and planning what you want to do next, make sure that as you are looking at opportunities that you are not writing off any that are not in your program plan. I know too many people who think, “I'm going here, and the next thing I'm going to do is there and the next thing is there.”

They are blinded to incredibly interesting opportunities that they never thought they would want to take. If a door opens to you, walk through it. It may prove to be the most interesting thing you have ever done and shape your future forever. So don't set a plan that blinds you to the really cool things that are out there. I will absolutely guarantee you I never planned to be EPA Administrator, and I plan to run like hell in January and go to the next interesting thing that comes along. Because you never know your journey in life. So don't shut doors.

The last thing is, be comfortable being uncomfortable. I know that sounds stupid. Maybe it is, and I should probably quit here, but this is really sort of, I think about what the dean was talking about, anxiety is really actually great. It keeps you on your toes. If you go out and take a job that you know you can do, just because you know you can do it, then you are selling yourself short. I want you to take the job that you are not sure you can do, because in that job, it's going to push you. It will force you to learn and grow. It will force you to confront new ideas and challenges. That's what you want to do every single time.

So if you don't have anxiety in the evening, create anxiety in the daytime. Give yourself credit. You have made it through one of the most prestigious law schools in the world. You have come here because you have a mission where you are going to be a vital cog in our ability to keep our planet safe and to keep my kids’ future and my grandchildren's future stable and happy with an opportunity to be healthy.

You came here to make this society more just. You will succeed as long as you challenge yourself, stick with that mission, and remember where you came from and you never lose it. I'm so grateful that you came here, I'm so thankful that you got through it, and I am so excited to be able to hand over the world to this generation of leaders. Thank you very much. [applause]