Palo Alto, California
Thank you all so much for joining us here today. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to help kick off this important conference. The people in this room – and the people we work with who are involved in this effort – come from many different countries, many different professions, and many different perspectives. But we are all united by our desire to improve the world we live in – and not only the world we live in, but the world our children and grandchildren will live in as well. That is what brings us together.
The challenge ahead of us is unlike anything we have faced before – as individual nations or as one planet. For the first time in human history, we are beginning to see that everyday activities – the things we buy, the way we keep the lights on, the ways we travel –have an impact on the health of our entire planet. For the first time in human history, more people are living in cities and urban areas than are living in rural areas. And over the next 30 years, most of the anticipated population growth is expected to happen in our cities. And for the first time in human history, we have in our sights the possibility of fostering a truly global middle class, with billions of people enjoying a quality of life and opportunity their parents and grandparents never knew.
As a result of all this, the years ahead will stretch the limits of our energy, our water and our food supplies. We 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.
For the first time in human history, I believe we have the ability to meet all of these needs and build a sustainable future. We have the tools and the understanding, and we have the necessary commitment to global cooperation and collaboration.
It is a big task ahead of us. True sustainable development will demand the integration of our economic, social and environmental priorities. Our history shows us that without balance between these three things, we risk losing all three. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges – poverty, conflict, climate change, loss of critical ecosystems – but it is important that we remember that sustainable development also provides great opportunities. We have opportunities to improve the lives and health of people around the world. We also have opportunities for innovation, new technologies and enhanced collaboration.
Later this year, the world will come to Rio+20 armed with a set of tools that were unheard of in 1992. This room alone, with all the cell phones, laptops and other devices probably holds more computing power than our early space program. Those changes in technology have inevitably – and irrevocably – altered the way that we and the organizations we represent do business, the way we connect, the way we educate and so much else.
Perhaps most important, the ability to use technology to reach across the globe has fundamentally changed the ways we consider each other. In the early 1970s, the first images of the earth from space – the famous blue marble photograph – sharpened the realization that we all share a single planet. For many people, it was a motivation to help protect and preserve that planet. Today, the ability to hear, see and interact – in real time – with people and events across the planet has illustrated just how connected we all are. And it has motivated us to see our shared interests in the quality of life for people thousands of miles away.
From the perspective of the people in this room, advances in technology have connected us to a valuable resource for our work: our people. The internet and social networks give citizens from across the globe the ability to participate in the push towards sustainability in their own communities. It allows them to contribute their local experiences, their personal observations, and their indigenous knowledge, which can be tapped locally and globally for better results. People around the world have already begun to use connection technologies to achieve sustainable development goals, and you will hear many examples over the next few days. But we know that these efforts have only just begun to tap the great potential that this resource holds for the issues faced by people in different settings around the world. We should challenge ourselves to find creative new ways to apply existing technologies, and look ahead to emerging technologies and their potential impacts.
As many of you know, the EPA just turned 40 years old. The history of environmental protection in the last four decades has been – perhaps more than anything else – a history of innovation. Everything from cleaner power plants and more efficient vehicles, to greener, safer chemicals and new strategies for protecting our resources. Technology and innovation will continue to be key pieces of how we grow and address the world’s emerging challenges.
Right now, some of the highlights include: The Air Now program, which gives real time data on air quality, putting that information in people’s hands so that they can take the necessary actions to safeguard their health. We have formed an interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The innovative idea behind that is actually common sense: we are working to make sure our housing and transportation and environmental investments work together. But that partnership is also exploring innovative techniques for designing the communities of the future. Another great example is our Apps for the Environment Challenge. The EPA has challenged citizens to use the data we provide to the public to design interactive, useful apps that help users protect their health and the environment. Those are just a few current examples, and I hope that this conference raises even more new ideas that we can put to use.
One of my top priorities in all of this is ensuring that our innovations serve every community. We can – and we must – ensure that these efforts benefit our most economically challenged and environmentally polluted communities. Without smart planning that focuses on those needs, the transition from rural to urban areas that is happening across the globe might only worsen those circumstances. Disadvantaged communities, women, minorities and youth are often left out of decision making and access to new technologies. Communications technologies have proven effective in helping these communities gain access to information, better jobs, and improved quality of life.
In my travels as administrator, I have been to parts of the world where it seemed like everyone had access to a cell phone, but not everyone had access to clean water. The opportunities are there to use that technology to make a difference. This administration has made clear that investing in communities, youth, and women is investing in the world’s future.
Connection technologies have the potential to help bring together stakeholders from across the spectrum. This is something we’re counting on in the Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability that the US and Brazil formed last year. Our two nations are working to promote sustainable urban development by drawing a straight line between community needs, government policies, private sector project development, and financing institutions.
In other words, the Joint Initiative is much more than a partnership between two governments. Brazilian and US officials are collaborating with environmental experts and city planners, connecting with US and Brazilian companies that specialize in sustainable innovation, and working with financial institutions to capitalize growth that will create jobs in the US and Brazil, while blazing the path for cutting-edge urban sustainability. Through it all, we will be learning the best practices that can be translated to cities around the world. Through broad public and private collaboration – made possible through new technology – we can show the world how to build 21st century urban communities, where the environment, health, social inclusion and economic prosperity all go hand-in-hand.
Accountability is also an important part of what new technology offers us. Good environmental governance involves everything from government-to-government initiatives on technical assistance and information sharing, 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. 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. When communities are better able to articulate and broadcast their needs to a wider audience, it helps both governments and non-government entities do their jobs.
New technologies provide many opportunities to make that happen. We have new capacity to make laws, regulations, and compliance assistance readily available on the internet and mobile phones. We can provide easy ways to report violations and download information on pollutant releases. And we can crowdsource information on corrupt practices – for example India’s online “I paid a bribe” platform that has helped combat corruption.
Finally, we must also be aware of the potential negative impacts of changing technology – specifically the creation and disposal of discarded electronics. E-waste is a growing problem around the world. But we are working to change that. And as is often the case, the solutions to this technology challenges can be found in technology itself. We see the possibility for social media to play a key role in raising awareness and spurring action around this issue. I know the power of that awareness. I have seen first-hand the economic, health and environmental consequences of discarded electronics, and the burdens e-waste dumps can put on nearby communities. But I’ve also seen companies working to safely and profitably recycle electronics – creating jobs and avoiding the growth of a serious pollution threat. There are possibilities to spark new economic activity through safe materials reuse and recovery. Consumers – using social media as their platform – are already inspiring improved R&D product design. And we can create jobs in economically distressed areas, and relieve the health and environmental burdens of discarded electronics in many of those same places.
We are expecting innovation from all sectors of society, and in most cases from citizens and communities and our private sector partners. Our challenge is to find creative ways to apply existing technologies, and to look ahead to emerging technologies and assess their potential impacts. 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.
I look forward to working with all of you. Thank you very much.