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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the National Academies of Science, As Prepared

As prepared for delivery.

Let me begin by thanking all the members of the National Academies – those of you here with us, and those who couldn’t be here – for all you do to advance the knowledge and understanding that have changed our world.

As a scientist myself, it is an honor to speak with you today.

As you all know, this week we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Environmental Protection Agency. As part of marking this milestone, I visited the Aspen institute yesterday to discuss 10 highlights that they chose from the last 40 years.

The ten highlights Aspen chose were:

Removing Lead from Gasoline—and from the Air
Removing the Acid from Rain
Clearing Secondhand Smoke
Vehicle Efficiency and Emissions Control
Controlling Toxic Substances
Banning Widespread Use of DDT
Rethinking Waste as Materials
A Clean Environment for All/Environmental Justice
Cleaner Water
The “Community Right to Know” Act

So much of what we talked about at the Aspen event centered on the role good science has played in making all of these advances possible.

It reinforced just how critical it is that we shift the conversation on environmental issues away from politics and back to science.

If we rely on science, we will make decisions on clean air and water that are based on human health. It allows us to identify and articulate very clearly what we face and what we must do.

On issues like climate change and smog and chemical management, the science can and should speak for itself. Good science moves us towards shared solutions like the ones on the Aspen list, solutions that have made environmental history.

The reverse is also true. Attacks on good science move us toward shared consequences.

In recent weeks we’ve heard a great deal about plans to undermine the work EPA does – particularly through questioning our science.

These attacks may be targeted at EPA, but the impacts will be felt by the American people. Pollutants like mercury, smog and soot are neurotoxins and killers. They cause developmental problems and asthma in kids and heart attacks and premature deaths in vulnerable adults.

Refusing to deal with these is really consigning future generations to dirtier air, dirtier water and more health problems. As is the refusal to deal with climate change on those same grounds.

Not too long ago Representative Bob Inglis, an outgoing Republican from South Carolina and member of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, had a warning to climate scientists that hearings before that committee would be difficult in the next congress.

However – his point was that scientists should welcome those hearings.

He recommended that scientists come to those hearings not defensively, but gladly…eager for the opportunity to make their case on this critical issue.

I have to say I agree with him. Because in the end, these are not partisan issues. They are about our health, our wellbeing, and our future.

So I thank you in advance for being a bulwark against some of the possible coming attacks. Thank you for standing, as always, as an independent verifier of the science that allows us to do our jobs. And thank you for helping us improve the way we operate, which I will get to in just a moment.

We’ve come a long way from a time when a look out the window revealed smog-filled skies…from the days when rivers caught on fire.

Because of EPA’s efforts over forty years, lives have been saved, ecosystems restored, and communities revitalized. It’s incredible to look back at where we started and see how far we’ve come.

The things we have learned in the last 40 years must now be built into our vision for the next 40 years and beyond. That’s one of the reasons why we’re marking this milestone at the National Academies of Science today.

As we reach the end of 40 years and stand on the precipice of our next 40 years, we must think about what kind of role the National Academies can play.

That is what I want to spend some time on today.

The best scientific minds, both inside and outside this Agency, have recognized that many of today’s environmental challenges are subtler and more complex than in the past.

They may not be as obvious as blazing rivers or smog, but they are every bit as urgent. Whether it’s global climate change, electronic waste, or environmental justice, today’s issues are broad in scope and widespread in their impacts.

It’s not clear that the strategies of the past are the best strategies for producing the necessary solutions.

Historically environmental protection has been shaped by questions like:

What is the maximum amount of pollution that can be emitted into the air without sacrificing regulatory compliance?
What is the highest level of toxicity that can be present in our products without breaking the law?
How many people must fall ill before a standard needs to be strengthened?

The old approach was essential to helping us assess and manage risk the way EPA has for nearly three decades. But – as you can see – it focused on how environmentally abusive we can be under the constraints of risk and law.

We have a new opportunity now to focus on how environmentally protective and sustainable we can be. It’s the difference between treating disease and pursuing wellness.

It’s a difference, I believe, that will be fundamental to the future of EPA.

Environmental science of the last 40 years has propelled us to new level of awareness. We have a new understanding of what needs to be done and new tools to help us get there.

Thanks to the work of bodies like the National Academies we are better equipped to understand the vast connections between all of the issues we face, and make the strong scientific case we need to take comprehensive actions.

In the 21st century, our mission to protect human health and the environment requires that we understand these links, that we work across disciplines and do what it takes to address problems in their extraordinary complexity.

But recognizing complexity is just the beginning. It’s a first step in confronting our challenges in a sustainable way.

EPA is empowered with four decades of experience, a wealth of data and innovative tools.

The hard questions are: Are we making the absolute most of these tools to accomplish our mission? Are our methods keeping pace with the incredible advances we have seen? Are we keeping pace with the environmental threats in the modern world?

On the eve of our 40th anniversary, I’m happy to join you in announcing a major step toward answering these questions and moving into the next phase of environmental protection.

EPA and the National Academies are convening the best minds in the field to explore the topic of sustainability and determine how it can be systematically incorporated into every aspect of EPA’s work.

Sustainability is about understanding that environmental challenges do not obey bright lines or numeric limits. They are not constrained by disciplinary boundaries or the boxed walls of an organizational chart.

It’s about ensuring that we see the big picture, and are not addressing one environmental issue only to create another consequence in the process.

We’ve seen how easy it is to do the right things, but to do them in the wrong ways.

In a sustainable approach, we will be able to support advances in renewable biofuels without negative impacts on food supplies or clean water. We can ensure that the development of catalytic converters or solar photovoltaic cells don’t deplete rare and scarce elements. We can disinfect our water without creating toxic and hazardous byproducts in the process.

This is not the first time EPA has been called to approach environmental protection through a new lens. In 1983, the National Academies took the unprecedented step of convening the best scientific minds to codify the concept of risk into EPA’s daily work.

Out of that historic undertaking came the “Red Book” – which set the foundation for so much of our work at EPA. As then-Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus said, that guidance would “help achieve a better conceptual, statutory, and societal framework to cope with risk in our country.”

Today, we have opportunities to do more than “cope.” Risk assessment and management will always be essential components of our daily work. But our work must evolve along with our understanding of complexity and the recognition that sustainability is the next step forward.

We’re ready to build upon the reactive responses – banning, reducing, lessening and minimizing risk – while we work toward the proactive efforts: creation, innovation, synergy and sustainability.

So today, I am formally requesting President Cicerone and the National Academies to convene a committee of experts to provide to the U.S. EPA an operational framework for sustainability that applies across all of the Agency’s programs, policies, and actions.

It is my hope that their guidance, which is already being called the “Green Book,” will be foundational to our work in the coming decades. I look forward to reviewing the panel’s recommendations next summer.

Building a framework for sustainability will not be easy. It will require the best thinking, knowledge, and insights available and it will need to be evaluated and honed over time. The risk framework made enormous day-to-day impacts on the work of EPA, even as it was continually revisited and refined. The sustainability framework has potential to do the same.

As the work of the NAS is reviewed and incorporated, it can have tremendous impact on the way we conduct our daily business.

To clarify, what I am announcing today is not an initiative, program, or project. It is the beginning of a new approach. It is a step toward the more effective pursuit of all of our work, including our statutory requirements, by incorporating sustainability into our foundations.

It’s fitting that this bold step into our future comes as we commemorate our past. As we remember four decades of incredible accomplishments, we find ourselves at a critical juncture.

In the same way that science was the foundation for the ten accomplishments I spoke of earlier, it will continue to be groundbreaking research and exploration that drives our efforts in the years ahead – including the seven priorities I have outlined for my EPA’s future.

It is an ambitious list of priorities:

taking action on climate change
improving air quality
assuring the safety of chemicals
cleaning up our communities
protecting America’s waters
expanding the conversation on environmentalism and working for environmental justice
building strong state and tribal partnerships

Each of these will be informed or advanced by scientific study and independent analysis. And each will benefit from a new approach to our mission.

It is time to rise to the challenges of today, using the best of what we have to meet the needs of the current generation while strengthening the possibilities of future generations.

The Green Book will be a foundation for this new approach – a critical step toward a healthier and more sustainable future.

I look forward to working with you all in the months and years ahead. Thank you.