Remarks at a Signing Ceremony for the Agreement to Enhance Post Air Quality Monitoring and Action Overseas with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Secretary of State
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Cathy, thank you. Thanks for your leadership very, very much on this, and thank you, all of you, for taking time to be here to share in this important announcement. And I am particularly pleased to be able to welcome my colleague, the EPA Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Gina McCarthy, over here to the State Department to join with me in this important announcement. And I am such a fan of the extraordinary work that she is doing and has been doing for such a long period of time, I might add. Some of you may know that long before she sat in her current chair, before she even joined the EPA here in Washington, Gina was an environmental advisor to not one, not two – not even a few more, but five – five – governors of Massachusetts. And I was representing Massachusetts in the United States Senate during most of that time, so we have really been able to work together to tackle some of the toughest environmental problems for a long period of time, and I have been able to see how incredibly effective and, frankly, forward leaning and constantly advocating this extraordinary woman is. So I am really, really pleased to be here with her.
Like Gina – I think we both share this but we’ve never really talked about it that much – we share, both of us, a lifelong commitment to this issue, to these issues, and they’ve been a priority for me in the United States Senate and they’ve remained a priority for me here as Secretary of State. In fact, as Secretary of State I’m blessed to be in a position where we can do things trans-boundary, because so much of the problem of pollution is trans-boundary. And so as we are gearing up to head into Paris this end of this year to deal with the climate change – potential of a climate change agreement, as we consider some of our own domestic programs and our role in the world, it is really critical for us to partner with other countries, and also to lead on a global basis.
Environmental challenges like climate change, overfishing, the acidification of our oceans, air pollution – none of these challenges respect international borders. They injure us all, however. They affect people everywhere. None of us are disconnected from these impacts, and certainly the environment writ large is not only not immune, it is at great, great risk today.
These challenges also have a profound effect on every human being’s health, and over the long term, they can jeopardize the future for generations to come. Kids today, particularly who suffer from asthma and from the remarkable impact of air pollution, are the first subjects. The greatest cause of children in the United States being hospitalized in the course of the summer is environmentally-induced asthma, and it costs us billions of dollars.
So the agreement that Gina and I are here to sign today is aimed at helping people to live healthier lives in countries around the world. It’s aimed at saving millions, certainly, if not billions of dollars in healthcare costs down the road. And it’s aimed at improving coordination between the United States and international partners on environmental challenges – coordination that is absolutely going to be essential if we’re going to meet the challenge of the threats that we face today.
The agreement is focused on a type of air pollution. It’s known as particulate matter. Specifically, it’s focused on the tiniest and most toxic particulate matter – PM, as we call it – out there – so-called PM 2.5. Now these are particulates of pollution, carried through the air, that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter. Just to put that in perspective for everybody, think about the width of a strand of human hair. The particulates we’re talking about today are thirty times smaller than that.
So somebody says, “Well, how can a particulate that is so small be dangerous?” Well, actually, it’s because of their size that they are so dangerous, because when we inhale them, which we do wherever we are, they travel through narrow passages in our respiratory tract all the way into our lungs. And this contributes to the kind of health conditions that you would only imagine – asthma, for example, is one but there are many others. There are studies linking it to heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, and lupus. There are – all of these are obviously serious conditions. Asthma alone, which I mentioned a moment ago in terms of children’s hospitalization, but broadly writ large costs about $50 billion a year to our healthcare system. And in too many cases, the debilitating effects that come with them are preventable.
So in the United States, thanks to the good work that the EPA has done, we have strong standards in place to prevent the levels of PM 2.5 in the air that we breathe from rising to unhealthy levels. And we also make it possible for people to keep on top of the PM 2.5 in their own communities. Fifteen years ago – when I mean on top of it, they get to know what’s happening, what are the levels. But 15 years ago, the EPA created a web-based platform called AirNow to give our citizens information in real time about the quality of the air that they’re breathing, and they can make an informed decision about whether it’s a good day to go for a run or whether they want to go outdoors at all or send their kids to a park to play.
This is an enormously helpful tool. It’s an empowering tool for parents, for individuals. And of course, it is particularly powerful if you live in the United States. But we have tens of thousands of U.S. Government workers who are employed in some 150 posts around the world. And in many of the cities where those posts are located, believe me, it can get hard to have regular access to reliable PM 2.5 data.
And so this is part of what led us to begin conducting air quality monitoring at our Embassy in Beijing, China a few years ago. It wasn’t easy. Our hosts didn’t like it particularly, but we did it. And because of the success of that program, we are today formalizing a shared EPA-Department of State effort to expand EPA’s AirNow system to diplomatic posts around the world.
In the coming months, AirNow will begin to operate in India. And shortly after that, it will expand to Vietnam, to Mongolia, and other countries. And as it expands to more and more posts around the world in different countries, this effort is going to provide Foreign Service officers, military men and women, and U.S. citizens living or just visiting abroad with better information about the air that they are breathing, so that they can make healthier choices and hopefully mitigate some of the harmful impacts that I mentioned.
There’s another goal here as well, and it’s important. We’re hoping that this tool can also expand international cooperation when it comes to curbing air pollution. Remember, the pollution that goes up in one country, even if it’s halfway around the world, comes to us at some point in time. And in many ways, it falls to the Earth or to the water in the form of acidified rain or other qualities that are damaging and dangerous to our agriculture and our aquatic systems.
Over the years, experts in the United States have developed a lot of experience in monitoring and improving air quality. We’ve cut air pollution by nearly 70 percent since the Clean Air Act was passed in the 1970s, early ’70s. And we want to share what we have learned with other countries in the world. As part of this new agreement, we’re creating a fellowship program that will send U.S. experts to our diplomatic missions abroad in order to train personnel, transfer skills, and build capacity for air quality monitoring, not only among embassy staff, but also through training and exchanges with interested host governments.
My friends, from the earliest days of the U.S. environmental movement, at least the rekindled environment movement that began really, can be demarked with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the 1960s – from the earliest days of that, we have learned that when people get to know more about the environment around them, when they understand how the quality of the environment affects the health of their families, they want to do something about it; they want to improve it.
I remember personally participating in the very first Earth Day back in 1970, and helping to go to schools and do teach-ins and explain to people what was happening in Massachusetts. And at the time, you could barely see across the street. You had incredible smog and air pollution effect in cities, in Los Angeles. You actually had a river in Ohio that is famous, the Cuyahoga, for lighting on fire. And it became a symbol to all of us of the danger to our environment. But those of you who are old enough to remember that time are aware that what happened with Earth Day was the beginning of a wave of grassroots activism that actually led to the creation of the EPA. We didn’t have an EPA until people came out and responded to this felt need. And with it came a wave of legislation: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act. All of these things happened because of this effort that came with the knowledge of what was happening to people because of what was happening in the atmosphere. It led to healthier communities, and not just in a few cities, but all across America.
We’re not the only country in which this kind of greater awareness has actually led to action. Interestingly, in recent years, China has gotten a better sense of just how dangerous the levels of air pollution have become, and their citizens are increasingly demanding action. There was a time when poor visibility in cities like Beijing was blamed simply on excessive fog. But today, in part because of expanded air-quality monitoring in cities throughout China, the Chinese Government is now deeply committed to getting the pollution under control. And last March, Premier Li Keqiang “declared war” – that’s a quote – on pollution. The mayor of Beijing, Wang Anshun, correctly deemed it a “life-or-death situation.” And in 2014, the National People’s Congress updated the environmental protection law for the first time in 25 years.
So the deep concern that the United States and China today share when it comes to curbing pollution has also led to unprecedented cooperation between our nations in addressing one of the greatest threats, which is climate change. In Beijing last fall, I had the privilege of joining President Obama when he stood in the Great Hall with President Xi to announce our respective, ambitious post-2020 mitigation commitments on climate, and to call other countries to come forward with their targets as quickly as possible.
So that’s a significant achievement. The United States and China, the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gasses – carbon pollution – two countries long regarded as the leaders of opposing camps in the effort to do something about climate change, have now found common ground on this issue. And because of that, the possibility of an ambitious and absolutely critical agreement in Paris actually is on the horizon.
This is the kind of cooperation that Gina and I hope to encourage here today. And make no mistake, it’s the kind of cooperation we’re going to need to see in order to be able to push back against these enormous challenges in all corners of the globe.
So I am really happy to be here with Gina to be able to take this step. We’re going to try and be as creative as we can to move on as many others as possible, but I could not – we could not – have a better partner, a more powerful advocate, a stronger, creative leader and a lifelong committed human being to the cause of the environment than Gina McCarthy, and it’s my pleasure to introduce her to you. Thank you. (Applause.)
ADMINISTRATOR MCCARTHY: We’re going to be signing two agreements: one is on the sharing of this really cool podium – (laughter) – because I spend most of my life staring – it’s okay, it’s as low as it can go – (laughter). We could wait for me to get taller, but that would be even significantly longer.
SECRETARY KERRY: (Off-mike.)
ADMINISTRATOR MCCARTHY: It’s okay, (inaudible). (Laughter.) Oh, jeez. (Applause.) That could be more applause than I get at the end of my remarks, so I should probably stop it at that. (Laughter.)
First of all, I want to thank you. I always call you Senator Kerry, so I apologize, Mr. Secretary. I will give you the raise and promotion by the time this period is over, but I spent so long referring to you under your prior title, and it has always been my honor.
SECRETARY KERRY: (Off-mike.)
ADMINISTRATOR MCCARTHY: It is amazing the work that you have done, both on the Hill when you were representing the great commonwealth, but the work that you are doing beyond that and today, and I want to thank you for that, and also Under Secretary Novelli, who we’ve worked together in a few capacities. And I am especially proud to be here representing the United States Environmental Protection Agency, especially the incredibly creative folks who have worked with everybody at State to make this event possible. I want to recognize our Office of Air and Radiation and Janet McCabe, who is our acting assistant administrator, as well as recognize Jane Nishida, who is our acting assistant administrator at our Office of International and Tribal Affairs, because their teams really have provided the impetus and the juice behind this. Because without their incredible science and technical expertise, none of this would have been possible in the United States, never mind an ability to be able to share these great tools and technologies moving forward with the international community.
And make no mistake about it, EPA is a well-recognized and respected international science agency, and our mission is solely to protect public health and the environment, and that’s for all Americans no matter where they work – whether they work in the U.S. or abroad. And here’s the bottom line of today’s actions – and I won’t reiterate all the eloquence with which the Secretary articulated the dangers of air pollution – but I will say that accurate and timely information on air pollution is absolutely critical today, as it was back in the ’60s when the environmental movement first started, to being able to really, squarely protect public health, not just for ourselves but for the people that we care about. And that actually knows no boundaries. There isn’t a person in the world or of any political persuasion or in any government that doesn’t want a healthy environment for their children and a future that they’re proud of to hand to them.
So today we’re announcing plans to expand what we call EPA’s AirNow program, using air quality data from U.S. missions to better inform Americans and government officials living abroad about the health risks associated with their local air pollution so they can keep themselves and they can keep their families safe and healthy. It is a simple exercise but a profound one all at the same time.
Now, the EPA AirNow program proves that information and transparency empowers us to reduce health risks associated with air pollution. And this program actually started as a small ozone mapping project, but boy, has it grown from the ’90s to today. And the program provides air quality data on ozone and fine particle pollution 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, from nearly 4,000 air quality monitors across the U.S., and now in China as well. And we will with this effort grow that considerably. The system takes all that data and then it color-codes it, because we don’t want everyone to have to be the scientist or the technical expert at EPA to be under – to understand what this data means for them. And it color-codes it based on the location of where you are and based on the severity of the associated health risks.
So in a wonderfully creative way, we’ve said that green is good, red isn’t. (Laughter.) People get that, right? And there are lots of colors in between, which means there’s a moderate level of air pollution, so that people across the country can take no more effort than to turn on their local TV broadcast and take a look at the color that they’re showing, or they can go in their own app – if they didn’t take my phone and not let me bring it in, I would have popped it up for you. (Laughter.) There is an EPA smartphone app that’s – AirNow. Go check it out, because that way you can take action. And I know that the Secretary mentioned that information is so important, but really, there are elderly people who should not be outside on certain days taking a walk. It threatens their ability to breathe. It threatens their ability to protect themselves if they’ve had cardiac problems. They want to know what air quality is outside. There are so many kids – in fact, one in 10 in the U.S. – that have asthma today. Their parents don’t want to send them out in the playground on a high-ozone day. They want them inside where their health is going to be protected. This is what this data empowers people to do – to make healthy choices for themselves and their families.
And when we put these air monitors to measure air quality at embassies across the world, it will help other nations not just recognize that there is an urgent need to protect themselves against the dangers of air pollution that this will identify, but there is an opportunity to do that working with the U.S. We are not going to provide this information and walk away. We are going to do what we always do, which is follow it up in partnership and collaboration with technical assistance. We’re going to help them understand how they can do what we have done and have the success across the U.S. to reduce the kind of air pollution that at one time was choking our cities, and continues to challenge our health even at the levels that we have been able to achieve.
So that is what happened when we went to Beijing. The Secretary wasn’t wrong. Was it a helpful step forward in China when we first unveiled our embassy and made that information available to all of our staff? No. But what happened was that they took action. They realized that there were things that they could do. And when I went to visit two weeks after the embassy had the monitor on there, I was not the most popular person. (Laughter.) When I came back two or three years after that, all of a sudden I was visiting the Beijing air quality monitoring center, and it was filled with up-to-date equipment because monitors had been established; information was publicly available; it wasn’t people in the U.S. pressing their smartphones, it was people all across Beijing popping that cell phone, seeing what the air quality data was, knowing that they could rely on it, knowing that the science was there. And one of the most interesting things was when I read the technologies that were being used in Beijing to gather that data and to report on it, U.S. companies were everywhere.
So this isn’t just about public health. It’s about continuing to grow our economy and produce the kind of technologies that we have uniquely been able to produce and take advantage of those overseas.
So it will help all of us. Five years ago we launched AirNow-International in Shanghai, and we made further studies in other cities around the world, and a few weeks ago we announced that AirNow-International is going to be in India. We came out of the President’s recent trip knowing that this was an issue of importance to the President, but also to India as well, and our experts will be taking off in a few weeks to get this program started.
And let me finish by saying that this never would have happened if it were not the commitment of the EPA staff as well as the staff in the embassy at State who understood that they had an obligation. And the President talks about this a great deal, about our moral obligation to our children. Well, you folks – Mr. Secretary, your folks understood that they had an obligation to their embassy staff and that they were going to meet that obligation by moving forward with this commitment. But they also understood that our ability to work with other countries on air pollution opens up doors to strengthen diplomatic relationships. It grows partnerships in ways that are personal. We get to know the people we’re working with, and everybody that we work with in other countries is striving for the same thing. It is our mission to protect their own public health and the environment.
So I could not be more proud and thankful to everybody who has worked on this and the leadership here to be able to make today possible. And I’ll be very proud to sign this agreement. Thank you. (Applause.)
SECRETARY KERRY: With that, we will sign the agreement.
(The ceremonial statement of intent was read and signed.)
SECRETARY KERRY: I said Gina’s not passionate enough.
ADMINISTRATOR MCCARTHY: No, no. (Laughter and applause.) We don’t have a big budget. (Laughter.)