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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the Conference on Environmental Justice, Air Quality, Goods Movement and Green Jobs, As Prepared

01/25/2010
As prepared for delivery.

I’m honored to welcome you all here today. I’m happy to be back in this great city. The city that fed my love for nature and science. A city that was a community and gave me and my family opportunities to learn, grow and achieve. As a daughter of New Orleans, it is always humbling to return as the first African-American Administrator for the EPA, working for the first African-American President of the United States.

I come to you today on very important business. We are meeting at a defining moment for our nation. We continue to pull ourselves up and out of the most severe economic downturn since World War II. The President’s Recovery Act has cut taxes for the vast majority of middle class families and provided critical resources to local governments so they can keep teachers, fire fighters and police officers in their jobs. It has helped EPA invest in critical water infrastructure projects, clean diesel retrofits, brownfields cleanups and more. Those investments don’t just create jobs. They leave our communities clean and healthier – better places to buy a home or set up a business. That is exactly what President Obama means when he talks about building a new foundation for prosperity. The economy is growing again. But there is much work to be done to keep it growing – and growing faster.

At the same time, our planet is confronting a rapidly changing climate. A reports released last week confirmed that the last decade was the warmest decade on record. We are also entering a global race for clean energy – with economic and environmental urgency. We are working to catch and surpass our international competitors and reduce the dependence on foreign oil that threatens our economy and our national security. And our communities are awakening after years of federal inaction on air, water, and land protection. They are asking EPA to do more to protect their children from health threats like smog and chemicals. They want to know that we put science, the law and transparency above politics in the decisions we make. And they want to know that our work starts at the community level. They want to know that our first calls are to the people directly affected by these issues, and not with lobbyists and industry representatives.

With all of these factors to consider, I outlined earlier this month seven priorities for EPA’s future. These are the issues that will guide our mission to protect human health and the environment in the years ahead.

Those are: Taking Action on Climate Change; Improving Air Quality; Assuring Chemical Safety; Cleaning Up Our Communities; Protecting America’s Waters; Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism and Working for Environmental Justice; and Building Strong State and Tribal Partnerships.

Each priority covers an essential part of the work we must do. Today I want to focus on one of them: Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism and Working for Environmental Justice. Of all the items on that list, Expanding the Conversation may have the greatest potential to shape the future of environmentalism. In fact, our success on the other six priorities will often be determined by how effectively we can reach out to new communities. It will depend on how well we can take the energy that is in this room and bring it to the entire nation.

The issues on our priorities list affect every single community in every single corner of America. Yet, for too long, environmentalism has been seen as limited – in many ways, as an enclave for the privileged. Talking about the quote-unquote “environment” brings to mind sweeping vistas and wide-open landscapes. The places where people go on vacation – but not the place where they live, work, play and learn. What doesn’t usually come to mind is an apartment building. A city block. Or a school playground.

Or, for that matter, an inner-city kid who has trouble breathing on hot days. Or an urban business owner whose employees are getting sick. But we know that environmental issues are as much a part of their lives as they are for anyone.

One of my African American colleagues told me about how, every year as winter was coming, his grandmother would get up on a chair and put up plastic sheeting over the windows. She didn’t say she was “greening her home.” She didn’t say she was “weatherizing the house.” She didn’t call herself an “environmentalist.” From her perspective, she was just keeping out the cold and saving money on the oil bill. But the issues that we label “environmentalism” were an important part of her life.

This disconnect is a significant challenge. But it’s also one of our greatest opportunities. The inauguration of the first African American president, and my confirmation as the first African American Administrator of this Agency, has begun the process change. But as we all know – and have certainly seen in the last 12 months – change takes work. Progress takes a time and struggle. And it’s going to take the same thing today to keep us marching forward.

The first step is to communicate – clearly – the many ways people’s stake in the environment is greater than they may realize. In the newspaper a couple of weeks ago there was a story about an environmental curriculum being taught in inner city schools. One of the teachers quoted in the article got right to the heart of the matter when she said, “You can’t have a kid in a violent neighborhood and say, ‘Let’s talk about the polar bear,’”

We can talk about our crumbling schools and how we need to rebuild them so our children can learn. However, that conversation must also include where we build these schools. We have to ensure we’re not building them in the shadow of polluters that will make our kids sick, that make them miss day after day of class with asthma or other health problems.

We can talk about health care. But we also have to talk about how the poor – who get sick more often because they live in neighborhoods where the air and water are polluted – are the same people who go to the emergency room for treatment. That drives up health care costs for everyone. It hurts the local and the national economy.

We can talk about the need for more jobs and small businesses in our urban centers and metropolitan regions. But that conversation must also include the understanding that environmental challenges in our neighborhoods hold back economic growth. Poison in the ground means poison in the economy. A weak environment means a weak consumer base. And unhealthy air means an unhealthy atmosphere for investments. And in many neighborhoods, visible environmental degradation compounds other problems.

When businesses won’t invest, economic possibilities are limited. As a result crime is higher, violence is higher – often times drugs use is rampant – and the vicious cycle continues. So we can also talk about crime. What have we taught young people to value, to aspire to, or take pride in when they see that their communities are unclean, unhealthy and unsafe – and that the people around them are unconcerned?

For those reasons and more, it has been my mission at EPA to broaden this conversation. I have gone to meetings across the country and met with people who are ready to get to work on these issues. Last year at a meeting in Chicago, I met an elderly woman named Ms. Johnson. She had come all the way over from the South Side to talk to me about brownfields job training. She wanted to know what we were going to do and who we were going to hire from her neighborhood to do it. In New Bedford, Massachusetts, I met a man named Buddy who has become a one-man environmental protection agency for the low income and minority members of his community. He speaks for that community – and he speaks loud enough that he has become well-known around EPA headquarters in DC. When I was here in New Orleans a few months ago, I met a man named Mr. Green who lived in the lower 9th Ward. Like my mother, Mr. Green lost his home when Katrina hit. Mr. Green’s house was being re-built as a green home in a sustainable neighborhood – one of many that are going up in New Orleans today. In our conversations, I had a chance to ask him if he thought of himself as an environmentalist. He answered, “Well – I wasn’t….But now I get it.” These are voices that need to be part of our conversation. They need to have a place at the decision making table.

These are our challenges – and they are significant. Let me close by talking about our opportunities. This is something that needs a little bit of a preface. Economists often talk about what are called “externalities.” These are the effects of a transaction that extend beyond the involved parties and affect others. Typically, we speak of these in negative terms. Air and water pollution are the externalities of industrial production. The destruction of Appalachian streams is an externality of our coal sector. Climate change is an externality of our carbon based economy.


Many environmental justice issues arise from these externalities. They often form at the intersection of our economic and environmental challenges. Fortunately there is a solution that addresses all of that: a growing green economy.

Of all the potential paths forward for our economy, the green economy is the only one that presents numerous and significant opportunities for positive externalities. A green economy is the only one that offers not only new jobs, but cost savings, health benefits, and stronger national security.

Take for example, energy efficiency. A McKinsey study estimates that $520 billion invested in energy efficiency today would net $1.2 trillion dollars in energy cost savings through 2020. $2 in savings for every dollar invested – a very positive externality. Especially when you consider that electricity bills already cost black families 25% more of their income than other groups.

Think about the health benefits of a green economy. Heart disease, cancer and respiratory illness are three of the top four most fatal health threats in America. They account for more than half of the deaths in the nation – and they plague our inner cities. All three have been linked to environmental causes. A green economy would substantially reduce the pollution linked to these deadly health issues. A green economy would also reduce the economic burdens of hospital visits, medical bills and lost work and school days – especially in environmental justice communities where these problems are at their worst. Positive externalities.

Perhaps more than anything else, clean energy brings forward these positive externalities – especially when compared to the alternative. Defenders of the status quo claim that we should ramp up the domestic supplies of existing energy sources. But we’ve been down that path before. In 2001 we saw an energy plan focused on fossil fuels. Supporters pledged that it would lower fuel costs for consumers and businesses and reduce our growing dependence on foreign oil. But it didn’t work. By 2006, crude oil prices had more than doubled. Gas prices had skyrocketed. Natural gas was more expensive, and dependence on foreign oil had increased by more than half. And simply increasing our use of domestic fossil fuels did nothing to clean up the air we breathe. It didn’t help millions of American children who suffer with asthma. It didn’t allow cities covered in smog to cut harmful emissions.

Clean energy helps reduce these health threats – positive externality. After the initial investments in wind turbines, solar fields and a smart grid, clean energy can be supplied from low-cost sources at steady prices – positive externality. Finally, clean, American-made energy can free us from a dangerous dependence on foreign oil – one that threatens our economy and our national security. We can keep billions of dollars circulating in our own economy, rather than sending them to parts of the world that don’t always have our best interests at heart – very positive externality.

As my closing argument, I offer you the city of New Orleans. Four years after Hurricane Katrina, rebuilding New Orleans has focused on making the city cleaner and more sustainable, and tapping the potential of a growing clean energy industry. People are building efficient homes, riding hybrid buses, installing solar panels and working in green-collar jobs. The house where I used to live – which was destroyed in the storm – is part of an area that is being transformed into a sustainable green community.

Through these changes, New Orleans gives hope to the rest of the country. When people see that this city – a city that has been through an unprecedented environmental disaster and an unavoidable national economic downturn – is able to rebuild; when they see that it can emerge stronger and better than before – not only with jobs and prosperity, but with a sense of community and possibility – it shines a light on the road ahead of us. There is still a long, long way to go. But this city gives me hope that we can give environmental justice communities – and every community – a better future. I look forward to working with all of you to make that future possible. Thank you very much.