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Earth Observation Summit, Washington D.C.


JULY 31, 2003

I was named to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just a few weeks ago. Since then my friends and colleagues have given me a lot of good advice about how to handle the job. One of the most important things they’ve told me is: never let a speech stand between a hungry audience and their supper. You’ve all put in a long day here, and no doubt are anxious to move on to the more social aspects of today’s summit meeting. So I will keep my remarks brief.

In all the history of technological advance, there have been only a handful of instances when a new idea has marked an unmistakable and instantaneous change from everything that has come before, when an innovation stands like a bright line between past and future, and alters the way we think about ourselves and the world we live in. One such instance is that remarkable photograph of the Earth taken from space back in the late 1960s.

In that now-familiar photo, the Earth looks like a blue pebble floating in space – small, beautiful, fragile. There, for the first time, we saw our Earth, our common home, as a single, self-contained, indivisible whole. No political boundaries could be seen. Nothing even to suggest that the planet was inhabited and being altered by the creatures living there. Just that single planet seen from a point of view, a perspective, never before possible.

That photograph dramatically altered human appreciation of the natural environment. It showed that we are all part of a single, interconnected web of life. We knew, the minute we saw it, that whatever happens to this planet in the future will happen to all of us together, no matter where we live.

There is a direct line, I believe, between that photograph and this meeting. For the first time in history, the nations of the world are coming together to design an international, integrated plan to measure critical aspects of the global environment. This is historic, unprecedented, and a huge challenge to all of us.

To succeed, we need information, lots of information. The Earth Observation System promises to bring together better information, from more sources, than ever before in history. That will demand an extraordinary level of political and technical cooperation.

But the real meaning, the real value, of this project lies beyond the collection of enormous amounts of data, as important as that may be. It goes beyond developing the tools that government officials need to make good decisions. It goes to the heart of the relationships between people and their governments. It goes to the heart of peaceful, cooperative societies.

We learned this in the United States as we developed the laws and institutions needed to protect the environment here. And it explains why I believe the Earth Observation System is so important to people living everywhere on this good Earth.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was formed back in 1970. From the very beginning we knew that information would be the key to our success. Information about how natural systems worked. Information about the relative health of ecosystems, especially trends in ecosystem health over time.

Information about the kinds and levels of man-made pollutants present in the environment. Eventually we needed the same kind of information about human health, and the effects that different pollutants could have on human health.

Over the past three decades the United States has invested an enormous amount of time and energy collecting information, information essential to making good decisions. Along the way we've learned that information can provide three kinds of benefits beyond their usefulness to government agencies. I am convinced these same benefits can be, and will be, derived from the Earth Observation System.

First, information helps people understand why environmental problems are important, and why they should care about solving them. Pollutants in the air and water are not abstract risks that somebody in a government office should worry about. They pose real risks to real people in their home towns and back yards. People need to know that, because their lives and health, their future and their children's future, are at stake.

Information also lets people know when those risks have been reduced, when the world is cleaner and healthier because actions have been taken. A few weeks ago EPA released a Draft Report on the quality of the environment in the United States. This report compiles in one place the best available information on current environmental conditions, and trends in those conditions over the past 30 years. Today the air the United States is cleaner than it was three decades ago, and life has returned to many rivers and streams that were virtually dead years ago.

After 30 years of collecting data, there are still gaps in our knowledge. We still have a lot more to learn, for example, about conditions in our watersheds. But without data, we wouldn’t understand how much we’ve accomplished, or how much more we have to do. Without data, we couldn’t measure either our problems or our progress.

I mention our environmental record here in the United States not simply because my country is very proud of it. But because it demonstrates one of the ways information is valuable to the general population. Information helps people understand risk, and it helps them measure success. Information enlarges human understanding in important ways, and this is one of the main benefits that I expect will flow from the Earth Observation System.

All of us who work in government agencies appreciate the importance of information when we need to make decisions. Without good information, our hands would be tied. But there is even more to be gained if we open up our use of information, and our decision making processes in general, to public view.

In the United States this is sometimes called the "sunshine policy." Decisions that touch everyone's lives are made in the bright light of day, so everyone understands not only what has been decided but why. In this way, the transparent use of information in government decisions leads to public trust. And greater public trust is another of the benefits that will flow from the Earth Observation System.

The collection of information would be only an academic exercise if the information were not widely shared. I applaud you for your insistence that the information collected through the Earth Observation System be made widely available to as many people as possible. Not just scientists, not just governments, not just technical experts, but everyone with an interest in the health of the globe should have access to everything that is known.

People with access to information will support the sometimes inconvenient, expensive, and controversial actions that must be taken to protect the environment. In some cases, in fact, people will have to change their own personal or family behavior. People will not make sacrifices in their own lives, or insist that businesses and governments change, unless they know why. And they won’t know why without information. Public access to information leads to stronger public support for the actions that communities, or governments, or businesses may have to take to protect the environment.

One of this country's founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, spoke eloquently on the importance of public access to information, and public involvement in decision making. He said: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to INFORM their discretion."

To sum up, the collection of information leads to public understanding, the the transparent use of information in decision making leads to public trust, and broad access to information leads to public support. Understanding, trust, support: these are the benefits that flow from environmental information. And these are the benefits we can expect when the Earth Observation System is in place.

Let me close by thanking all of you for attending this conference, and for bringing your collective vision and wisdom to the table. I especially want to thank Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher of NOAA for his tireless, personal efforts in support of this conference.

As you return to your homes, you will begin the hard work of putting this integrated system together, and then putting it to work. I hope you are energized by the fact that today marks the start of an extraordinary venture, a truly world-wide project to better understand, and better protect, that blue pebble spinning in space. You’re building a global partnership to protect the global community. You're strengthening the human ties that link all people everywhere. Through information, you will inspire a deeper human understanding of who we are and where we live. Through information, you will nurture a faith in political consensus- building and public support for consensus-based action. Through information, you will encourage a greater trust among people and their governments everywhere.

This is indeed an important occasion. But history will only remember it if our plans bear fruit. I wish all of you, all of us, the best of luck.