Administrator Gina McCarthy, Remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations, As Prepared
Thanks, Sherri. It’s great to be here. Let me start by lowering expectations; I’m at the Council on Foreign Relations, but I’m not a foreign policy expert. In fact, I’ve devoted my whole career to domestic policy. But the thing is, where the environment is concerned, it’s hard to know where domestic policy ends and foreign policy begins.
At EPA, the challenges we wrestle with are blind to borders. Pollution and environmental degradation, no matter where you find it, strain people’s relationship with the core elements that sustain life: clean air, clean water, and safe, healthy, productive land. And these elements are the foundation on which all other relationships are built, between individuals, societies, and nations. So I guess I can offer some cogent thoughts this morning.
Let’s start by imagining an environmental crisis so large, it can only be captured by a satellite picture; a crisis so compelling, world leaders heed the advice of world-renowned scientists—and sign a global treaty to protect all people, in all nations. No, I’m not talking about climate change—I’m talking about the decades-old battle to heal the ozone layer. I’m talking about the Montreal Protocol—what Kofi Annan called the “most successful international agreement of any kind.” Decades ago, chemicals in everyday products were destroying the ozone layer, the earth's shield against the sun’s cancer-causing radiation.
It was a challenge that plainly showed that our environment does not exist separately from our actions and ambitions—that humanity’s common denominator, demands a common concern for wellbeing, and a common understanding of shared responsibility. That is why I firmly believe that any conversation about relationships between nations, must include our relationship with the environment. And in that conversation—the most complex, urgent, and sweeping challenge we face, is global climate change.
The message I want to deliver this morning is two-fold: first—climate change fuels instability around the world, by amplifying risks to global health, security, and growth. We have to fight climate change by building it into those existing efforts. That’s what we mean by sustainable development. Approaching climate change in isolation narrows our ability to turn this global challenge into a global opportunity. Second—history proves that U.S. Leadership can unleash global progress. Attitudes in America are changing. People accept the science, and demand action. And EPA plays a vital role in U.S. Climate leadership and in delivering the president’s Climate Action Plan.
First—let’s talk about instability. On the global stage, the story of resource constraints and human conflict may have different characters, but the plot doesn’t change: strained resources fuel instability. That’s been true for as long as people have walked the earth. And we’ve seen that age-old drama play out today—take water scarcity in Darfur, for example.
From farming and tourism, to infrastructure and global health—climate risk increases resource risk, and that means increased instability. Don’t take my word for it. The Pentagon calls climate change a “threat multiplier.” President Obama’s National Security Strategy recognizes climate change as a gateway to more “natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts.”
About a year ago I went to Vietnam, and government officials expressed serious concern about the Mekong River Delta, where scientists say that by 2050, rising seas in the region could force 7 million people from their homes. To put that in perspective—the Syrian conflict has forced 3 million refugees to neighboring countries. Coincidentally, a report published by the National Academy of Sciences links the instability behind the Syrian conflict to a drought worsened by climate change. You get the picture.
So it’s no surprise that, according to the American security project, 70 percent of the world’s countries explicitly call climate change a national security concern.
As temperatures and tensions rise, so do insurance premiums, food prices, and the cost of doing business. What doesn’t rise, are tourist visits, investment dollars, job growth, and the opportunity to fight poverty. In short, another global risk comes to the fore—economic instability. Climate change injects volatility into the global marketplace. Volatility leads to instability, especially in economies that depend on agricultural commodities. Take coffee, for example, a temperature sensitive crop. Climate change puts the world’s coffee growing regions at risk. Blue chip, global companies like Nike and Coke see climate impacts disrupt supplies of water, cotton, and sugar. Scarcer inputs mean higher costs passed on to consumers.
The S&P has already warned that climate risk strains global credit. Put another way: growth depends on a safe environment, and a stable climate. We can no longer accept the false premise that pollution is somehow a growing pain of growth. If that is your premise, then the foundation of that growth was not built to last. It was wrongly designed—treating the environment as window dressing when it is an essential part of the brick and mortar of our lives and our economies. The good news is, there are existing technologies and low-cost strategies that can leapfrog old ways of industrialization.
That’s the second point I want to make: climate action isn’t just a moral responsibility we must accept—it’s an economic opportunity we can seize, to sharpen our competitive edge, strengthen international ties, and catalyze global action. Just take a look at what I call EPA’s ‘air-monitor-diplomacy.’ A few years ago, we put an air monitor on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and posted air quality data online. We did it so American diplomats could know when air pollution reached dangerous levels—and could protect themselves and their families. Well, it worked—and then some.
It informed the Chinese public about air pollution risks. And it gave the Chinese government an opportunity to respond—by more effectively capturing data and cutting pollution in ways that align with climate and economic goals. Our embassy air monitor is a textbook example of soft diplomacy. It shows when America extends the environmental olive branch, it can blossom into stronger international cooperation, like the historic joint climate announcement we made with China. And it also shows clearly that no nation can afford to ignore public health risks. That’s why I joined Secretary Kerry a few weeks ago to announce the expansion of our air monitoring program. What works in China can work in other countries, too.
And from a development standpoint, climate action doesn’t mean we have to cast aside our responsibility to confront poverty—just the opposite: climate action protects those most vulnerable and can lead to more inclusive economies. I recently met with Vatican officials who are working with Pope Francis on a new encyclical on climate change. Pope Francis and many faith leaders across the world see climate as a moral obligation. They see an opportunity for clean energy jobs of the future—for the millions of poor and disenfranchised who’ve been left behind.
On the development front, many nations—including the U.S.—are pledging money to the Green Climate Fund to promote low-emission, climate-resilient development. That’s an important undertaking; but we need to broaden our thinking even further because we can’t just rely on the GCF. Climate needs to be front and center at the G8. President Obama and Secretary Kerry continue to make that point clear. We need to use a wider lens. Climate, energy, and economic progress lives in the linkages between pollution and global economies.
So we know the risks. We know the opportunity. We know our moral, civil, and international obligation to act—so what are we doing about it? President Obama made a courageous speech in June 2013.
He announced a national climate action plan to cut domestic carbon pollution, build resilience to impacts we can’t avoid, and lead the world in our global climate fight. Over the last six years, U.S. Emissions have declined by a larger magnitude than any other country. The U.S. aims to cut carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025. EPA is playing a central role in that progress. With unprecedented advice from states and the power sector—we’re setting first-ever standards to cut carbon pollution from power plants.
A modern economy needs a modern energy system. Our rule embraces that spirit. It’s not about end-of-pipe pollution controls—it’s about driving investments in renewables and efficiency. It’s about advancing our ongoing clean energy revolution—which unleashes innovation and creates jobs. The global climate fight is a marathon relay race—there’s a lot of ground to cover, and we need everyone to run—EPA’s action gets the U.S. sprinting out of the gate.
This is what climate leadership looks like. This is what progress looks like. This is what investment, innovation, and reinventing a global economy looks like. Businesses understand that investments in climate action are investments in global economic competitiveness.
Despite clear evidence, clear economics, and clear advice from the smartest people on the planet, narrow-minded interests hang on to the past. They cling to business models rooted in century-old technology and a century-old understanding of pollution and public health. Climate deniers can put their heads in the sand, but that doesn’t change the world around them.
Banks like Citi Group are investing hundreds of billions of dollars in climate and clean energy financing. Even energy companies are weaving climate costs into operations—because CEO’s see the value of action. Shell Oil internally prices carbon at $40 dollars a ton. The value of less-polluting energy projects directly translate into value for our health and climate. Successful economies invest in where the world is going—not where it’s been. And that’s good for American companies—because the global demand for clean technology doubles as a demand for American technology.
When people question our chances against climate change, they must be forgetting where we’ve been. When holes in the ozone layer threated all nations—it took all nations to reverse course toward safety. But it was us—the United States of America—that paved that path to recovery.
It was an American university that uncovered the problem—and American industry that innovated solutions. It was American leadership that forged a global market for better, safer products—and American companies that sold solutions to the rest of the world.
With climate change, the source of pollution may be different, the scope of our challenge may be different—but the principle that compels us to act is the same. This time, the stakes are higher, but once again, we will lead.
Madeline Albright famously called America “the indispensable nation.” Nowhere is that more true, than our environmental leadership—in development and diplomacy. In protecting global health and promoting global growth. In this century—when it comes to climate action—we truly are the indispensable nation.