Environmental regulations don't kill jobs. In fact, they might be the only way to stop manmade climate change from killing the economy.

That was the message U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy delivered Tuesday in a speech at Harvard Law School, her first public address since taking office two weeks ago. McCarthy made it clear climate change will be her main focus at the EPA — and that, like President Obama, she sees carbon emissions as a danger to economic stability.

"Climate change isn't an environmental issue," McCarthy said. "It is a fundamental economic challenge for us. It is a fundamental economic challenge internationally."

Climate change promotes natural disasters like droughts, fires, storms and floods, all of which can disrupt commerce and cripple economic growth. Superstorm Sandy shut down much of the U.S. Northeast last year, for example, and caused $50 billion in damage, second only to Hurricane Katrina in U.S. history. Few people saw Sandy as an environmental issue, McCarthy said Tuesday. "They looked at it as economic devastation."

Republicans and industry advocates often suggest regulations to curb climate change also curb economic growth, but McCarthy sought to dispel that narrative. "Can we stop talking about environmental regulations killing jobs?" she said. "Let's talk about this as an opportunity of a lifetime, because there are too many lifetimes at stake."

The EPA is working to develop "a new mindset about how climate change and environmental protection fits within our national and global economic agenda," she added, arguing emissions cuts are "a way to spark business innovation," not an economic cudgel.

McCarthy, along with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, is quickly jumping into the task of fleshing out the national Climate Action Plan Obama unveiled in June. A key part of that plan is the EPA's upcoming regulation of CO2 from both new and existing power plants, an authority granted by the Clean Air Act. Anticipating arguments that such regulations are too costly, McCarthy cited the long-term savings: Every dollar spent so far on Clean Air Act rules, she said, has produced $30 in benefits.

U.S. air pollution has fallen 68 percent since the EPA was founded in 1970, she added, even as the gross domestic product grew 212 percent and private-sector jobs grew 88 percent in the same period. Those stats come from an EPA report on the Clean Air Act's economic benefits, which says the initial cost of regulation is offset by long-term public health and technological innovation. The U.S. environmental technology sector generated $300 billion in 2008, the report says, and supported nearly 1.7 million jobs. 

McCarthy has spent the past four years leading the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, where she helped create new fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. She has a reputation for working with industry leaders, and said Tuesday the U.S. auto industry's post-recession rebound is a model for how to capitalize on climate rehab: "This is a game plan for other sectors to follow on how we can reduce emissions, strengthen energy security and develop new economic benefits for consumers and businesses."

Despite the hopeful tone of her speech, though, McCarthy was also careful not to sugarcoat. "Climate change will not be resolved overnight," she said in her closing remarks. "But it will be engaged over the next three years — that I can promise you."

If you've got an hour to spare, check out the full video below of McCarthy's Harvard speech — including a heartfelt introduction by her daughter Maggie:

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