|As prepared for delivery.|
The economy and urban communities are not two subjects typically associated with environmental protection.
When we talk about environmentalism, it usually brings to mind sweeping vistas and wide-open landscapes.
What doesn’t usually come to mind is an apartment building. A city block. Or a school playground.
Or, for that matter, an African-American business. An inner-city kid who has trouble breathing on hot days. Or a black business owner whose employees are getting sick.
As for the economy, after more than 20 years in environmental protection, I’ve seen countless situations where environmental priorities were weighed – and often, outweighed – by economic concerns.
But I’ve seen enough to know better.
Where I worked in New Jersey, the Passaic River is heavily contaminated with industrial waste, trash, and dioxins that can cause cancer.
It’s not safe to swim there or to eat any fish from the river, and in recent years, cleanup efforts have stalled.
As a result, no one will invest in the local communities. Opportunities for development along what would be prime water-front property just aren’t there.
Environmental degradation has stunted the growth of the local economy.
On the other hand is the Gold Coast – an area of former industrial sites on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.
Much of the development there has taken place on Brownfields sites – formerly contaminated industrial lots that were cleaned up and rehabilitated.
Those are now back in the local economy. Rather than languishing as unsafe, empty lots, they’ve become home to growing businesses.
In the last few years, companies have seized the opportunities there. They’re moving into those sites, setting up shop, and creating good jobs. Today the Gold Coast has some of the most valuable real estate in the country.
This is where issues of economy, urban communities, and the environment meet.
Environmental challenges in our neighborhoods create entry barriers for new businesses and new jobs – as they have along the Passaic.
But restoring or preserving neighborhoods – as we did on the Gold Coast – can create new opportunities.
The theme of this conference is the “Path to Power.” For urban communities, environmental protection is a step on that path.
This is something you recognized in your State of Black America report this year. Environmentalism is connected to health equity. It’s connected to economic opportunity. It’s also essential to creating millions of new, green jobs in urban areas.
Those things make it an essential part of the empowerment agenda.
When you make our neighborhoods healthier places to live and good places to set up a business – that’s empowerment.
When you cut the pollution that makes employees stay home sick, or causes them to stay at home with a sick child – pollution that costs black businesses money and opportunity in lost productivity.
When you cut that pollution – that’s empowerment.
When you do those things by training someone in the community and giving them a good paying job cleaning up their neighborhood – that’s empowerment.
And when you leave our communities and our planet a better place for the next generation – you better believe that’s empowerment.
All of these things are critical right now.
We’re at a crossroads in our country’s history. We face the most serious economic downturn since World War II.
At the same time, there isn’t a moment to lose in confronting the rapid advance of climate change.
Something I’m sure you’re all familiar with is the increase in the “heat-island” in urban communities as a result of climate change.
That drives up electricity bills – which already cost African-American families 25% more of their income than others – and it puts more dangerous pollution into the air.
For those reasons and more, we’re embarking on an aggressive environmental and economic agenda.
The President has committed to doubling renewable energy use in the next three years. He has also set an ambitious goal of cutting more than 80% of harmful greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.
The Vice President, who I’m honored to be joining here at the Urban League, has been instrumental in moving Recovery Act funding into urban environmental projects. You’ll hear more from Vice President Biden shortly.
A central provision in the Recovery Act provides funding to weatherize low-income homes all across America.
That will put more than 80,000 Americans to work – at the same time that it saves families hundreds of dollars a year in energy costs.
Recovery funding is accelerating Brownfields and Superfund cleanups. Just yesterday we awarded nearly half a million dollars to train workers here in Chicago for jobs in environmental remediation.
That gives the people what they need to get toxic chemicals out of their neighborhoods, and bring new jobs in.
In the last six months we’ve dedicated Recovery funds to improving outdated water infrastructure to deliver clean drinking water and safely remove wastewater – another economic and environmental win-win strategy.
And we’ve distributed Recovery grants to transition city fleets and other vehicles to clean diesel. That cuts fuel costs and reduces dangerous emissions in the air we breathe.
That’s especially important for children who are riding school buses every day, for the millions of Americans battling asthma, or for expecting mothers whose chances of premature birth more than double in urban communities with high levels of smog.
Every dollar we spend on clean diesel generates up to $13 in public health benefits – a very strong return on that investment.
For the long term, we’re working to capitalize on the global growth industry of the 21st century: clean energy.
Throughout the economic fluctuations of the last decade, one consistent bright spot has been the growth in clean energy jobs.
Between 1998 and 2007, 37 states saw clean energy jobs outperform overall jobs. Some states saw clean energy job growth at double the rate of other jobs, others added clean energy jobs at seven times their overall rate. South Dakota had a clean energy jobs growth rate an astounding 19 times higher than overall jobs.
This year, energy investments in the Recovery Act are expected to create 1,400 jobs through solar projects in Florida, 2,600 jobs in wind energy development in Michigan, 3,000 jobs to build a solar plant in California.
These are good jobs that can’t be sent overseas. They employ local workers, and they help to build a strong foundation for future growth.
That’s why Congress is working to pass a bill that transforms the ways we use and produce energy. And it’s why the President has called for America to get in the race.
To unleash our innovators, our entrepreneurs, and our workers, President Obama has pledged to invest more than $150 billion over the next decade into clean energy.
I firmly believe that this is another extraordinary opportunity for our urban communities. In fact, I’ve seen it first-hand.
Those of you from Philadelphia might be familiar with West Philadelphia High School? Earlier this year I visited West Philadelphia High to meet students there that are working on an innovative hybrid car.
The vast majority of students at West Philly – almost 100 percent – are black. Many of them come from disadvantaged, under served neighborhoods.
These are the neighborhoods most vulnerable to both environmental and economic challenges. But they are also the neighborhoods that stand to benefit the most from new economic opportunities, lower fuel costs, and cleaner air.
The hybrid car they’re building has outperformed other models built by university teams and private companies.
These high school students from the inner city are taking their car to compete against other hybrid vehicles from around the world in the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition. The top prize there is $10 million.
That’s the potential we see.
I know from growing up in the 9th Ward of New Orleans that tough times in the national economy come down especially hard on the urban community. The current downturn is no exception.
But today we have a chance to make change like never before.
But we need your help. For almost 100 years the Urban League has been instrumental in knocking down economic entry barriers and increasing the social and human capital of our neighborhoods.
EPA is working to show urban communities facing environmental challenges that their issues are our issues, their struggles are our struggles, and their work is our work.
Our mission and your empowerment agenda are one and the same.
I’m eager to work hand-in-hand with you on this important effort.