As prepared for delivery.
I’m very glad to be here with Administrator Shah to close out the 12th national conference on science, policy and the environment. I applaud NCSE for bringing together such a distinguished group of people to explore the link between the environment and global security, and to discuss how the world can remain secure in the face of serious environmental challenges.
Let me say a special thank you to one of your guests, Dr. Gro Brundtland. Earlier today I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Brundtland when she came to speak at EPA. It was a wonderful opportunity for me and my staff to hear from someone who’s had an incredible career providing leadership on critical environmental issues. I want to thank her for being with us and for her work over the years to build the foundation for international cooperation on sustainable development.
The conversation about environment and security is an interesting one for the EPA to be a part of. We are in the business of protection, of course, but it’s not very often that our name arises in reference to something like national or global security. When people think of EPA, they tend to think of us as protecting wilderness areas or endangered species. While those things are important parts of environmental protection, the truth is that our work at EPA is primarily focused on protecting one species: people. Our mission day in and day out is to protect the health of the American people by keeping pollution out of the air we breathe, keeping toxins out of the water we drink, and keeping harmful chemicals out of the lands where we build our homes and our communities. So, just like our security colleagues, we are focused on safeguarding the American people from harm.
We also recognize that, at this point in our history, there is a global importance to environmental protection and the work we do. In recent years, as our economies have become more globally intertwined, so have our environmental and health concerns. With those – our security concerns as well. We have reached a point in human history where everyday activities – from our commerce to our transportation to our recreation – are affecting the health of our entire planet. The world’s population now exceeds 7 billion people – all of whom must share the earth’s limited natural resources. We are anticipating as many as two billion more people to join us in the next three decades.
This growth is not just a concern of sheer numbers. We recently reached the first time in history when more people live in cities than in rural areas – and most of the anticipated population growth in the coming 30 years is expected to happen in our cities. As more and more people move into urban environments, we will be stretching the limits of our energy, water and food supplies. Growing cities will require not just new power and water sources, but also the infrastructure to deliver reliable energy and clean water to billions more people. We will need affordable housing and adequate transportation for people and products, as well as systems to address concentrated urban waste and pollution in the air and water. And last but certainly not least, it will be essential to generate economic opportunities that ensure widespread global prosperity.
These are no small tasks. But the extraordinary challenges they represent are matched by the opportunities they offer to strengthen our economy, our health, our environment and our security. We also have what I see as both an opportunity and a responsibility to ensure that economic and environmental progress reaches into the most economically challenged and environmentally polluted communities around the globe. We should focus on those areas for reasons of justice and equality – because it is the right thing to do. But we also know that factors like poverty and resource shortages can lead to instability.
As you all have discussed at this conference, there are a number of paths for tackling the challenges ahead. To focus on just two: we need to ensure viable policies and institutions to protect health and the environment; and we need to ensure partnerships that enable stakeholders to work together on today’s environmental challenges.
On the first point – if we are going to make significant progress in pursuing a more secure and sustainable world, we need to ensure effective standards, rules and policies that protect against damaging and dangerous pollutants and that promote investment in innovative green technologies. I have had the opportunity in recent years to travel around the world and speak with our international partners about building the best possible environmental protection mechanisms. That involves everything from supporting government-to-government initiatives through technical assistance and information sharing, as we have done with our counterparts in China, all the way to supporting the bottom-up community initiatives that are the foundation of environmental protection – like the Panel of Women Scientists in Ethiopia that I spoke to on a trip to Eastern Africa last year. It means working together to strengthen the effectiveness of environmental governance. We know that governments that involve their citizens, are transparent and efficient in their operations and are truly accountable for environmental results are the most effective at meeting the challenges we share.
It also means leading by example. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards – or MATS – that EPA finalized last month are something we’re very proud of at EPA, and an example of the kinds of health protections we hope to see around the globe. Until these rules were issued, there were no national standards limiting power plant emissions of toxic air pollutants like mercury, a neurotoxin that threatens children’s nervous systems. Once they are fully implemented, the standards will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, nearly 5,000 heart attacks and about 130,000 asthma attacks. They will deliver as much as an estimated $90 billion in health benefits to the American people. They will also guide power plants to a cleaner, more sustainable future. There are widely available controls to help modernize the aging fleet of power plants – many of which have been around for half a century – and reduce the harmful toxins they currently emit. These types of policies are good for the health of Americans and good for the health of the American economy. And I believe they are a strong example of what good environmental governance can accomplish.
However, it’s important to acknowledge that the environmental challenges we’re facing will require more than just government action. We will need partnerships at all levels to effectively tackle them. I spoke earlier about the challenges of increasing urbanization. One way we are working to tackle those challenges is through a far reaching Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability that brings together stakeholders from across the issues. The Joint Initiative began when President Obama and President Rousseff of Brazil brought our nations together to create a new platform for catalyzing investment in cleaner, greener and smarter infrastructure. As the two largest democracies and the two largest economies in the Western Hemisphere, we believe our unprecedented partnership can show the world how reinvesting in urban infrastructure and rebuilding aging urban systems can spark future growth that is both economically and environmentally sustainable.
But this is not something any government – or even groups of governments – can accomplish alone. Through the Joint Initiative we’re turning to leading private sector innovators, city planners, academics, environmental experts, urban developers, investors and financial institutions to spark enduring change. Through it all, we will be learning the best practices that can be translated to cities from Tokyo to Nairobi, from Rio de Janeiro to Philadelphia. We’ll be improving our cities at home, but we’ll also be expanding a global market for innovate urban sustainability products and services.
This is the kind of work we need to be doing around the world to protect our environment, to strengthen our economies, and to ensure our security. Right now is an important time to be having these discussions. As Rio+20, the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit, approaches in June, we have a chance to learn lessons, build partnerships and put in place innovative strategies that can reshape the economic and environmental future of our entire planet. It is the rarest of opportunities to truly change the world, and make a difference that will benefit billions of people.
Last year, on the trip to Africa, I was scheduled to meet with Professor Wangari Maathai in Kenya. Many of you know her from her pioneering work as founder of the Green Belt Movement, and the Nobel Peace Prize she won for her achievements. I did not have the chance to meet with her because she was experiencing health problems. And she passed away last September, leaving behind her an extraordinary legacy and inspirational example for all of us. Let me close with some of her words today. Professor Maathai said that, “Protecting the global environment is directly related to securing peace… [T]hose of us who understand the complex concept of the environment have the burden to act. We must not tire, we must not give up, we must persist.”
We are living in uncertain times – to say the least. All the more reason why we cannot sit by and simply watch what happens. How we undertake this mission will profoundly affect our future, and as President Obama is fond of saying, “We can’t wait.” By coming together to advance sustainability and innovation, we will in turn enhance our security for decades to come. Thank you for coming together to discuss these critical issues.
Thank you very much.