Celebration of 40th Anniversary of Earth Day

Special Briefing
Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Washington, DC
April 22, 2010

MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Department of State and happy Earth Day to one and all - and to happy Bring Your Children to Work Day here at the Department of State. I don’t see any cub reporters in the audience.


But anyway, to begin our briefing today we thought we would honor the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Under Secretary Maria Otero oversees all things connected to preserving the environment and the earth that we all share and rely upon, so we thought we’d start off with a statement and any quick questions. She just got off an airplane coming back from the Middle East so we won’t keep her here very long, but we’ll begin with Maria. Thank you very much for joining us.


UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Thank you very much, P.J. Good afternoon, everyone.


As you’ve heard, I’ve just returned – literally just returned – from a weeklong trip to the Middle East where I met with government officials to discuss water challenges unique to that region. So it’s very timely that I’m able to join Assistant Secretary Crowley and all of you on Earth Day, especially given my discussions regarding this pressing environmental issue in the Middle East.


As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the United States is reaffirming our commitment to addressing these challenges with sustainable solutions through local, regional, and global efforts. Under the President’s leadership, the United States has reengaged in international climate negotiations, and we are aggressively working to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We are also elevating environmental issues such as water in our diplomatic relationships, and we are forging new partnerships to better engage the private sector and other important stakeholders.


Central to all of this work is our emphasis on building local capacity so that community and national governments are better prepared and motivated to address environment issues, from water scarcity and sanitation to urbanization and green development. Secretary Clinton’s message on Earth Day underscores her personal commitment to this realm of foreign policy.


I’m pleased that in addition to elevating environmental issues in our diplomatic efforts, the State Department is also practicing what it preaches. Last year, we challenged our 60,000 employees worldwide to lessen the environmental footprint of our diplomatic work, and this year we are launching the Greening Embassy Forum to share what we have learned.


In my capacity as co-chair of the Department’s Greening Council, I also considered it a personal victory when we were able to convince the Secretary’s staff to convert to double-sided printing. Now we print on both sides of the paper. It’s a seemingly small change, but it is something that has an impact. So our major diplomatic efforts on climate change and water, to our daily conservation on paper, this Administration is taking our environmental responsibility seriously. We are committed to creating a better earth for future generations.


We have come a long way in 40 years since the first Earth Day, but much work remains to be done and our global imperative is more pronounced today than ever.


Thank you.


So there’s time for a few questions. Yes.


QUESTION: What can you tell us about what did you achieve in your talks in the Middle East countries you visited?


UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: In many ways this trip was partly fact-finding, and it was also an opportunity to speak at all levels of the government on the issue of water. So not only did I meet with prime ministers in Jordan and Prime Minister Fayyad from the Palestinian Authority, but also with many of the ministers of water and irrigation, and in the case of Israel and Palestine

with the water authorities. So much of the discussion was to look at the problems – specific problems that are important to the Middle East, which is, as you know, a part that has enormous scarcity in its work, but also where the sharing of sources of water, both rivers and aquifers, is very much at the core of how they can plan their work in the coming years.


So much of the discussions centered around how we can – how they can create increased efficiencies in the area of water use, especially in agriculture, how in the case of Israel that desalination plants that they have created – and I visited the one in Hadera that is desalinating enough water to constitute close to 25 percent of the fresh water supply of the country, all the way to looking at some other ways in which waste water treatment can be carried out and leakages in water systems can be addressed. So there’s all kinds of things that need to be done and can be done to address this issue. And so these were some of the discussions and some of the conversations that we had with the different officials.




QUESTION: Just to follow up on Samir’s question, very often the Palestinians complain that more water is going to the settlements, the Israeli settlements, than going to the West Bank. What did you hear specifically from Prime Minister Fayyad regarding that, and if there’s any specific project that you discussed with the Palestinians?


UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Yes, I not only discussed this with Prime Minister Fayyad, but I also visited a pump station in the West Bank in which there is a need to – where one could see what water is coming in and what potential problems there are.


One of the areas of difficulties is ensuring that the Palestinians have the equipment and the permits that they need in order to be able to dig wells and to carry out the activities that they need. And so we had very good discussions around those issues with the water authorities of Israel and Palestine, which, incidentally, operate through a joint water committee – or commission that enables them to work together on some of these issues. There are concerns, there are challenges, and there are difficulties. But clearly, there is room to be able to move forward and to progress in this area – in this area of water. But there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done.


QUESTION: I realize this is slightly off topic, but in your other role as a coordinator for Tibet, there is the earthquake quite recently. There has been appeals from exiled Tibetans for the Dalai Lama to be able to go to the affected areas. What’s the U.S. take on that? Could that be a positive step? Is that a realistic possibility?


UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: To be quite honest, I’ve been gone for this past week and I really have not looked at that issue and have looked at those considerations. That’s certainly something that I will take note of and assess as we look forward.




QUESTION: Madam, as far as this Earth Day is concerned, where is the – what is the bigger hurdle or big problem, or which country or where? Which area do you think there’s room to – that the U.S. can work together and have a message for those countries?


UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: You mean regarding Earth Day?


QUESTION: Yes, ma’am.


UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Well, Earth Day, if you recall, was really only celebrated in the United States 40 years ago, and now it’s being celebrated around the world. I understand that over 500 million people participated in Earth Day yesterday, compared to the 20 million that participated the first day. Our embassies throughout the world carry it out, important events collaborating with the different – in the different countries in doing events related to Earth Day, which included schoolchildren, universities, public lectures. In the case of Italy, I think our members of our – high-level members of our Embassy and the mayor went to clean one of the old neighborhoods – Trastevere, I think. And so there have been a series of different events that have taken place that I think demonstrate in the countries that we work in our commitment to environment in all of its manifestations and our desire to really make sure that we ourselves are contributing to greening everything that we are doing in our own work.


The last --


QUESTION: We heard yesterday that the State Department – the State Department program, you will be offering bicycles to officials to move in – to go to meetings in Washington.


UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Yes, there are a number of initiatives to help high-level officials, or anybody in the State Department, to be able to be greener in the way in which they transport themselves, which, by the way, not only is the suggestion made that bicycles be made available but there’s also a suggestion that people use the stairs instead of the elevators as you go up and down some of the flights.


So there’s a wide array of different suggestions being made. I would just say that the intranet website for the State Department today asks everyone that is interested to take a green pledge, which includes a whole series – maybe 30 different activities that one can take from turning off the lights all the way to biking to work that would contribute to a greener planet. And of course, within all that, are the commitments themselves made by State Department in the way that it constructs future embassies and uses LEED as the way to build in a much greener way.


QUESTION: So we’re talking about climate change – in a way, as far as Earth Day is concerned. And --


UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: What we are talking about is decreasing our footprint to the extent possible. And as the State Department, we are discussing not only the policy of this country as a whole in reducing its carbon emissions, but also looking very concretely at the ways in which we can decrease that at the State Department.


MR. CROWLEY: Maria, thank you.




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PRN: 2010/496