Mary Nichols served as the chair of the California Air Resources Board from 2007–2020, and also has worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, in the Clinton administration, and UCLA’s Institute of Environment and Sustainability. An environmental lawyer, she is currently a visiting fellow of the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy. Before the Zócalo/California Wellness Foundation event, “Can California Solve Its Air Quality Inequality?,” she sat down in our green room to tell us about her jambalaya, what constitutes the ideal vacation, and how she got dubbed the “Queen of Green.”
What never fails to put you in a better mood?
Being with small children, especially my grandchildren. But probably the single best remedy for any bad mood is to go for a walk in nature.
You’ve been dubbed the “Queen of Green.” Any other nicknames you respond to?
In Girl Scouts you had to have a “camp name.” And since my last name is Nichols, my camp name was Penny. The “Queen of Green” nickname was given to me by Dan Rather, after he featured me on a program he was doing about the environment. I had never heard it before, but I liked it, and kept it.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
If you are asked to do something and it sounds interesting but you know you’re already too busy, don’t do it.
You grew up in Ithaca, New York. What is your favorite place to go in Ithaca?
I have a small cottage on Cayuga Lake. I like to go there and hang out. Also, of course, the gorge.
What is one of your proudest achievements?
We opened the Southern California Headquarters for the California Air Resources Board [CARB] this past fall in Riverside. As a state agency, CARB’s headquarters are in Sacramento, but the people that we serve and many of the issues we deal with are Southern California-based. It’s already making an important difference in the community there. We were able to commission a small collection of artworks open to the public that depict air pollution and climate change in interesting ways. And it’s an important laboratory and testing facility enabling us to deploy emissions monitors all over Southern California.
Who is your dream Supreme Court justice dinner guest, and what would you serve them?
I’m a big fan of Thurgood Marshall. I never met the man but I’d do my best to make something good and Southern—I make a very good jambalaya.
What is your ideal vacation?
I’m a city person. I like going to new cities and walking, learning the transit systems, visiting all the major monuments. Some of my favorite vacations have been in the great capitals of the world, from Rio to London to Beijing.
What is your favorite animal?
I’m very into birds. I like watching them, learning about them—their fate and their future and what that all means. I’m particularly fond of owls.