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Administrator Gina McCarthy, Remarks at LULAC Annual Conference, As Prepared

07/11/2014
Thank you, Gina. Let me start by thanking President Moran and Executive Director Wilkes for inviting me here to speak, and for their incredible leadership.

The theme of this gathering is “The Power of Latino Unity.” When LULAC came together all those years ago, on that warm spring day in Corpus Christi, the motto was adopted: all for one, one for all. What compels us to gather, to organize, and to fight for what’s right, is the value of living by that creed. By embracing that power in the name of social justice, LULAC has made millions of lives better.

I’m here to talk about another battle in our fight for social justice: our fight for environmental justice. EPA and LULAC share common roots. We were born by embracing the power of unity. The environmental movement was sparked by what Dolores Huerta calls “change from the bottom up.” In that way, EPA came together as one, with a mission to protect health for all.

The sad truth is that environmental health improvements are still sorely needed in communities in both urban and rural areas across our country. Low-income families, tribal populations, and communities of color continue to be disproportionately impacted by pollution. That has to change. That pollution is a barrier to economic opportunity and middle-class security – gaps of opportunity President Obama calls the defining issue of our time.

You’ve been closing those gaps for generations. But I’m going to ask you to work with us at EPA and with President Obama to do more.

Today, no environmental challenge presents more risk to our health, our economy, and our way of life, than global climate change. Hotter weather brings more smog, more ozone, longer allergy seasons, and more asthma. If your kid doesn’t use an inhaler, consider yourself a lucky parent, because 1 in 10 children in the U.S. today suffers from asthma. Eight percent of all Hispanic children suffer from asthma, and are almost twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma as white children. Puerto Rican children have the highest asthma rates among all ethnicities at 20 percent. This is not acceptable, as I’m sure you can agree.

During Asthma Awareness Month, I went to Puerto Rico and visited people along San Juan’s Marin Peņa Canal, who suffer from especially high asthma rates. I talked to parents and children who spoke passionately about how asthma hinders more than breathing – it hurts their lives and livelihoods, from higher medical bills, to lost work wages and school days.

Latinos face disproportionate burdens because of disproportionate exposure. Thanks to climate change, when more extreme and frequent fires, floods, and superstorms strike, underserved populations that lack the means to fight disaster are hardest hit. A recent climate report says labor productivity of outdoor workers, like those in the Hispanic community who work in construction, landscaping, and agriculture, could be dramatically reduced. President Moran herself points out, “Latino workers are at increased risk of exposure to dirty air and the increased temperatures” that are made worse by climate change.

The scale and seriousness of our climate crisis have brought us together to seek the power of unity. Thankfully, President Obama understands that. In June 2013, the President laid out a Climate Action Plan to cut the harmful carbon pollution fueling climate change and to build a more resilient nation to face today’s impacts.

Last month, EPA took a step forward by unveiling our Clean Power Plan, which proposes carbon pollution limits for our largest source – power plants. We already limit power plant pollution like mercury, sulfur, and arsenic, but currently, there are no limits on carbon pollution. In addition to cutting carbon pollution, our proposal will reduce the smog and soot that come with it.

That pollution threatens the most vulnerable Americans: our children, the elderly, and communities of color. LULAC reports almost 40 percent of Latinos live within 30 miles of a power plant. In just the first year these standards go into effect, we’ll avoid up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks, and those numbers will go up from there.

Don’t let the critics fool you. They’ll tell you that in order to make these improvements, you’re going to have to threaten energy reliability and affordability, and the very economic foundations of this country will disintegrate. That is not true. We can’t let them fool us. A healthy environment is the foundation of a healthy, sustainable, and opportunity-rich economy. President Obama recently said, “We’ve got to shape our [climate] strategies to speak to the very real and legitimate concerns of working families.” There are special interest critics out there who’ll tell you it can’t be done, but we know better. For years, EPA has found a way to cut air pollution by more than 70 percent, while the economy has tripled. All the while, we’ve kept electricity affordable and reliable.

We can do this. We must do this. Our health, our quality of life, and our children’s future depend on it. But to get it done, we have to fight together, and win together – or we’ll risk losing alone.

We need students in the sciences and STEM education, like the students I met from the National Hispanic Medical Association, to build their skills and smarts so the diversity of our future climate leaders respects the diversity of our nation. We need teachers, workers, doctors, and nurses to educate their peers and patients, just like Dr. Susan Pacheco from Texas, who’s motivated to speak out because she sees how economic and social limitations worsen climate health risks.

The power of unity demands we put aside differences in the name of social justice and, in this case, environmental justice. And I’m standing before an organization that was built on that understanding – that we are better off individually if we fight for our rights together.

In 2012, President Obama awarded the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to someone who exemplifies the power of Latino unity: Dolores Huerta. When she got the award, Dolores said, “The great social justice changes in our country have happened when people came together, organized, and took direct action.” She’s right. The civil rights movement. The labor movement. The women’s rights movement. The LGBT movement. And the environmental movement.

Through it all, the power of unity has given us the courage to march forward. It sustains our democracy. I challenge you to bring the power of unity to bear on our climate crisis. Speak up and speak out – in your communities, and on social media. Get active, organize, do what you do best: lend your voice to those struggling to be heard – all for one, one for all.

Dolores Huerta said that she’s always felt that, if we have the ability, then we have the obligation to help people come together and fight for their rights. That value drew me to public service and environmental protection, and empowers all of us to fight for our right to a healthy planet and a stable climate for every person, for this generation and beyond.

Thank you.