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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the White House Environmental Education Summit, As Prepared

As prepared for delivery.

Watch video of the White House Summit on Environmental Education.

Thank you all for joining us for the first ever White House Summit on Environmental Education. I am very proud to welcome you all to what I expect to be a productive dialogue about the future of environmental education and how we can work together in the time ahead. This is a very important gathering at a very important time – because the fact is that environmental education has changed. In the four decades that the EPA and the organizations here have been doing this work – and largely because of our success – environmental education has grown into something new.

While that presents us with challenges, it also offers new opportunities to move into the next phase of EE, and expand environmental literacy in ways that we should absolutely take advantage of. I will say a bit more about those in a moment, but I want to first say a word about how critical environmental education is to the work of protecting the health and environment of millions of Americans.

As you all know, we are less than a week away from the 42nd Earth Day. As we gear up again to take part in a celebration that will include events across the country and around the globe, it is worth remembering that the very first Earth Day was originally planned as a teach-in. At the root of this movement, at the foundation of an event that galvanized the American people, led to the creation of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts, among others, at the very beginning, was environmental education.

Everything we do today began as an effort to raise awareness about the way our lives and our health and our economy are touched by the quality of our air, our land and our water. It continues to be a critical part of what we do. As one example, environmental education is vital to one of my top priorities as administrator – expanding the conversation on environmentalism and working for environmental justice.

This is something I saw in very stark terms in my own life. As many of you know, I grew up in New Orleans. My mother was still living there when Hurricane Katrina struck. In fact, I was there with her. Her birthday is August 27. I went down there to visit and ended up driving her out of the city. My mother lost everything she had – just like so many others. After Katrina, we talked about the fact that one reason the hurricane was so devastating and the flooding was so bad was that marshes and wetlands had been destabilized by siltation, and cut by oil and gas lines.

These are the area’s natural defenses, and they are disappearing rapidly. Every 38 minutes, a football field sized parcel of land turns to open water. Today, my mother can go head-to-head with any expert on the effects of that environmental damage. She can make as informed and compelling an argument as I can about the need to protect and preserve those natural buffers. But before the storm and the flooding, she and many of the people who lost so much to Katrina, and Hurricane Rita, did not make that connection. And as a result, they did not lend their voices to protecting those wetlands.

It was a very harsh environmental education – and it’s just one example of many. Thousands of communities across the nation are bearing heavy burdens of environmental degradation, burdens like increased asthma, heart disease and cancer. I feel a great urgency to make sure that our environmental education efforts reach those communities, so they can see the impact their surroundings have on their health and their prosperity. And so they can take that environmental literacy and call for change.

So environmental education is very important to me and to the EPA. That is one of the reasons we have called this summit together. Another reason is that environment education – as I said – is changing. We see new interest from new parts of the population, multiple entry points for starting a discussion about environmental education, and many overlaps between those new entry points.

Foremost amongst our changes must be the treatment of environmental education as much more than a K-12 endeavor. We know that this is a lifetime learning opportunity. That’s not to say we don’t see new opportunities in the traditional framework. For instance, the chance to expand EE beyond earth science or ecology classes – and to have people talking about environmental impacts in civics and social studies, in economics courses, even – and especially – in gym classes, as young people get outside. This year we had another great roster of winners of the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators – teachers who are doing creative things to engage and educate their students, and shape the environmental protectors of the next generation. We’re fortunate to have some of those young people with us today – our President’s Environmental Youth Award winners. I look forward to recognizing their accomplishments later today.

Along with new ideas in our schools, we know there are opportunities to seize in our market places and our media. This year we have been celebrating the 20th anniversary of Energy Star. In the last two decades, there have been more than 5 billion Energy Star products sold. The Energy Star label is recognized by nearly 80 percent of consumers. And over the years, American families, small and large businesses, schools and other entities have saved a combined total of nearly $230 billion dollars on their utility bills, and prevented more than 1.7 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s just one great example of how the market can help us reap environmental and health protection while also educating the public. I’m glad to know that we have many private sector participants in today’s summit, and I hope bringing us all together will help spark some productive ideas.

And of course, media, both new and traditional, provide us with a chance to reach out and educate millions. Some of you probably remember the old PSA’s like the crying Native American or Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute. Those were once the frontline in environmental outreach. Today, our ability to communicate in compelling ways has increased by orders of magnitude. We now have the chance to connect thousands of people on social networks, and get them to compete on energy savings or commit to an environmental activity in their community. We can have NASCAR or sports teams publicizing the importance of going green – while taking their own steps to cut pollution and waste. Last month an organization called the Green Sports Alliance celebrated its first anniversary. In one year they have expanded rapidly. What started with six teams and five venues in the Pacific Northwest has grown to include more than 40 teams and nearly 90 venues across North America, representing 12 professional leagues as well as the NCAA. We can also use social media to hear more voices and open up the conversation – particularly to young people. Local issues can get global exposure when they go online. We can make green viral. If YouTube can make those Charlie Bit Me kids famous, then it can make climate change famous too.

Now, I know that there are concerns for many of you, especially with regard to the changes we are making at the EPA and throughout federal government. I want to take this opportunity to assure you all that we are still committed to this effort. To allow EPA to better serve the public while promoting environmental literacy, the Agency is proposing to integrate $5 million across major environmental programs to carry out environmental outreach activities. That includes support for the National Environmental Education Foundation, support for teacher training and grants to local organizations to further their environmental education activities.

That funding accompanies the efforts we are making to more fully incorporate environmental education into the work of each of EPA’s program offices. Rather than the centralized EE infrastructure, we want to see greater connections to the efforts and decisions EPA makes on a daily basis. That is why we are focusing our environmental education efforts at a program level. We will continue to ensure that all of EPA’s content and information is available to students, educators and communities, and we plan to continue expanding successful programs like student and teacher award programs. The bottom line is this: we still have funding and we still have hard working staff people who are committed to EPA’s environmental education mission.

I am also happy to tell you today about an important change we are making across the government. I proud to announce that we are reconvening the Federal Task Force on Environmental Education. By reconvening the Federal Task Force on EE, we aim to take our distinct and separate environmental education efforts and improve coordination across the federal government. Through that collaboration, we see specific opportunities to not only work better with each other, but to coordinate better with stakeholders. We hope to: Create opportunities for building and strengthening innovative EE partnerships between Federal Agencies – for example, the MOU that the Departments of Interior and Education have recently signed. The Task Force seeks to provide a lasting framework for collaboration and coordination between Federal Agencies regarding environmental education. It will help us identify opportunities for increased public/private partnerships, thus broadening and diversifying partners and stakeholders in environmental education. We also hope to better coordinate and leverage funding to increase the impact of grants and programs at the community level.

EPA, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Education will provide leadership to jumpstart the Task Force at the outset – and we are proposing participation from another 13 of our administration partners. This is where you see the true scope of environmental education today. The task force will bring together everyone from health to transportation to CEQ to labor and small business agencies. We all have a role to play in this. We want to be certain that we are active on the multiple fronts presented by environmental education today – and the Federal Task Force is an important step in that direction.

Environmental education remains a critical part of our mission to protect human health and the environment. We face a number of changes in the time ahead, some of which will present challenges, and others that will open up a range of new opportunities. That is why we have called this summit and asked you all to be here. Many of you have helped define environmental education, and can be credited for the enormous success of years past.

It is now up to all of us, working across sectors and disciplines, to come together and define what environmental education will be in the years ahead. Thank you all for being a part of that important work. With that, I’m happy to turn this over to Secretary Duncan. Thank you very much.