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Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment

Carol M. Browner, Administrator
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Duke University
Nicholas School of the Environment
May 13, 2000

Thank you Dean Christensen for that introduction. It is an honor to be here with you today at the Nicholas School of the Environment -- an institution that has received so much national and international acclaim.

What a force you and this school are, not just within the higher education community, but also within the community of people and institutions devoted to the protection of public health and the environment. Thank you for your many contributions. You are to be commended for your leadership and vision.

To the friends, relatives, and loved ones who join us here today... thank you for being such an important part of helping the graduates reach this milestone. We’re glad you’re here. We salute you. This is your celebration, too. Enjoy it – you’ve earned it.

And to today’s graduates... congratulations! You’ve made it.

It is a true privilege to address you -- the next generation of environmental professional stewards, leaders. I join you here today to applaud your achievements, to thank you for your commitment to the protection of public health and the environment, and to issue an important challenge to you about your leadership role in the future of environmental protection.

One of our great presidents, Harry S. Truman, recognized long ago that it is people who make history, and not the other way around. He said, “In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

Today, I ask you to seize the many opportunities you will have to change things for the better – not just to help manage our environment better, but to actually lead our nation’s efforts to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land on which we live.

Just last month, we marked the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, a landmark event in the history of environmental protection and citizen activism in this country.

Later this year, we will mark the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, which I have now had the privilege of leading for nearly one quarter of its existence.

With those anniversaries we recall a time when our country – our people and our government – vigorously confronted a set of enormous environmental challenges. It was a time when we placed the protection of our air, water and land at the forefront of our national agenda. And it was a time when the nation made real progress in confronting the difficult environmental challenges of the time.

Thirty years ago, there was a profound feeling in this country that something had to be done about pollution.

The deteriorating air quality in our cities, the fouling of our nation’s waters, and the spoiling of precious lands prompted concern, outrage, a demand for action. As a nation we responded. Americans across the country joined together to say -- let us protect the things we all share -- our air, our water, our land. Let us protect the world our children will inherit. It was a moral, an ethical obligation and commitment.

This commitment was bipartisan and broadly held -- not just among the American people, but, equally important among their elected representatives. The commitment was a shared one.

I suppose, 30 years ago, some thought that the task of cleaning our environment -- protecting our environment -- was a job that would quickly be done, checked off the national “to do” list. But as many of us have realized, the job of environmental protection is not one that can be completed in a year, a decade, or even our lifetimes.

Instead, emerging science and technology advances require that this responsibility always be with us. A responsibility made even greater today when we consider the magnitude of the challenges we now face -- the challenges you must help us meet.

As with many areas of public policy, today’s environmental challenges aren’t as easily crystallized as they were in 1970. Today’s problems can’t be illustrated by burning rivers, dirty smokestacks, or open sewage pipes – things you could take a picture of, put in the newspaper or on television, and thereby spur people and their representatives to action.

Rather, today’s challenges are much more subtle and complex -- but, I would strongly suggest, no less important to our future.

Global warming, the emission of greenhouse gases, the literal changing of the earth’s climate -- is an environmental challenge unlike any we have faced. It will test our national will. It will test each and every one of us.... It will test each and every one of you -- your knowledge, your skill, your commitment.

The naysayers are vocal; they are organized; they are well-funded. Time and time again they have called for yet another study, another piece of evidence. They continue to question how we can we act without obvious, visible, tangible proof of this phenomenon.

But their misguided analysis fails to answer the bigger questions. How do we reverse the rise of the sea level once low-lying islands are flooded? How do we turn back the devastation of a Class 5 hurricane?

To fail to act now is to leave to future generations an irreversibly changed environment – a permanently altered earth.

Global warming is not some distant threat. It is real today. More than 2,000 of the world’s experts on the global environment have told us that the effects of climate change can be predicted – sea levels will rise, storms will intensify, and everything from the incidence of skin cancer to agricultural productivity will change.

So how do we move forward? Obviously, we respond as scientists, as engineers, as public policy experts, as committed citizens. But, even more importantly, we respond as leaders. Years from now, the history books won’t judge our performance solely on whether we met the environmental and public health challenges of the day. Rather, we will be judged by the leadership we brought to the task.

Thirty years ago, with unprecedented public commitment and support, we accepted this challenge of environmental and public health protection as a moral and ethical responsibility. We were willing to set protective air pollution, water pollution standards – without fully understanding or knowing how we would meet them. Why? Because we had a shared, national commitment to protect those things fundamental to life – our air, our water, our land.

Unfortunately, today we see an increasingly fractious and litigious debate. Rather than modernizing our environmental laws based on what we’ve learned over the last 30 years, we see too many in Congress suggesting that pollution standards should only be set when their benefits outweigh the costs of reducing the pollution.

Let me ask -- what would the consequences be if we had used this approach in the past? Should we have waited 10 years more to see how lead-poisoned children of the 1970’s fared in the 80’s? What exactly is the value of a few IQ points for a child? How much cost is too much when the benefit is the health of millions of children?

You can see why the environmental laws of a generation ago were structured on a simple premise -- protect the public health first, and then figure out the most cost-effective way to meet the standards.

Set the necessary protective health standards, and then work out a strict time frame for industries to innovate and devise ways to meet those standards.

We may not have all the answers to our toughest questions, but you and your generation can set the terms of a thoughtful, national debate that will lead to a new consensus. You will have the ability to say that above all else, that protecting where we live, and how we raise our families is as important as ever.

The choices we will have to make as we meet challenges like global warming will require an informed public. And if history is our guide, environmental protection is best served when the public is engaged. I believe you will create the informed, reasoned public debate that is so crucial to creating the consensus this country needs to solve our increasingly complex challenges. This is the work of true democracy.

In many ways this is in part what originally inspired me to public service -- the very idea that men and women in our highest levels of government service, industry and universities could set aside their everyday political disputes and make a lasting contribution to our country and its quality of life.

I believe we can do it. I believe we can rebuild and re-energize that commitment. With the help of our nation’s best minds – including those of you here today – we can construct the scientific and public policy framework for the new strategies that new realties demand.

Ultimately, we – you – can drive the nation to do the right thing . . . once again. You will create history, not the other way around. Our children and children’s children deserve no less.

Thank you.