Nancy Sutley is the principal environmental policy advisor to President Obama as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The CEQ was created under legislation that President Nixon signed into law in 1970, and its role is to coordinate with other agencies in the development and implementation of eco-initiatives. This public policy guru has advocated for environmental improvements at the state and local level in California and worked for the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration. She took some time to speak with me about what sparked her own awareness, the Obama administration’s biggest accomplishment, and how she keeps her carbon footprint small.
What initially motivated or sparked your interest in focusing on the environment?
I’m old enough to remember the first Earth Day and the excitement at that time. I grew up in New York City and we lived close to the water, near the Long Island Sound. I remember as a kid, my mother would say, ‘you can go down to the water but you can’t go in—because you’ll get sick.’ Here we were, in this place with access to a beautiful bay and we weren’t allowed to go in because it was too polluted. It just seemed to me—here was an area that you could really make a difference. All of the things we’ve done as a country, to get raw sewage out of our water, to get pollution out of our air, have made a real difference. I knew this was an area where public policy could make a difference in people’s lives.
What do you see as one or two of the biggest accomplishments of the administration in this area? Do you believe the president’s got- ten a bum rap from environmentalists lately?
I have to say, the president and this administration has done more for the environment than any in recent memory when you’re talking about air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Starting early in this administration, before we took office, we wanted to reduce pollu- tion from cars by increasing fuel economy standards. So, we’ve spent the last three years having agencies work together–the EPA and the Department of Transportation have jurisdiction over this—working with the states and the auto industry so that starting in 2009 and through 2025, we’ll double fuel economy. I can tell you, having fought these battles 15 years ago, it’s not an easy thing to do. Yet, we have consensus, and it’s one of the biggest things we can do to reduce greenhouse gases.
This is our health awareness issue. What’s your personal fitness routine?
I practice what I preach: I commute to work by walking, so I have a smaller environmental footprint. I find it great from a physical and mental health perspective. It’s a 25-minute walk from where I live, not far from the convention center. Exercise is important not only to be healthier and fitter, but also to reduce stress. I spend a lot of my free time going to the gym.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech to the United Nations in Geneva where she elevated LGBT rights and said, “gay rights are human rights.” How did that make you feel?
It was an amazing speech. This is an administration that I’m proud to be a part of. I never thought I would see the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” That took a lot of work that the president did to make sure it happened. As you know, through the Department of Justice, we are not defending the Defense of Marriage Act, because we think it’s unconstitutional. This development, in terms of how we deal with these issues in the context of foreign policy, is a natural outgrowth of the things that we’ve done. It was a watershed moment and part of an important narrative: this administration has really stood up for the LGBT community.