Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Fred Hansen began his speech yesterday by challenging his audience to "think differently about environmental issues."
"We think we are communicating, when in fact we are repeating what we've said before but just a little louder," he said.
Rather than looking to the past or the present to solve environmental issues, Hansen advocated "looking forward, projecting an extreme picture and then stepping back to help solve the problems we have today."
"No one can predict the future," he admitted, but "by looking at the future, we are better prepared for it."
Hansen was optimistic about the EPA's progress. "I am exceedingly proud of what we've accomplished in the past five years (during the Clinton administration)," he said.
Hansen listed some statistics about automobiles to show the urgency of pressing environmental issues. "The number of licensed vehicles exceeds the number of licensed drivers," Hansen said. There has been a 2.3-percent increase in auto use this past year, which is greater than the population growth rate, he said.
While the use of automobiles for commuting has decreased since the 1970s, "chain trips" – trips to school, the grocery store, the dry cleaners – have increased dramatically in recent years, Hansen explained.
He added that Americans spend 1.7 billion hours in traffic per year and use about 2 billion gallons of gas. To put these statistics into perspective, Hansen noted that Americans spend more time in traffic than they do reading to their children.
Hansen said one of the problems with environmental discourse is that, "We analyze problems quite well according to the cost of something to the economy." Hansen added that people today neglect the societal costs caused by a lack of action.
Appealing to the audience to help change the social climate, Hansen said, "You in the academic fields need to help us develop more analytical tools (to help solve environmental problems). We need fundamentally a different generation of leaders," he said.
In response to a critique from an audience member that the EPA focuses too much of its attention on health issues, Hansen answered, "We want to look broadly at ecological issues as well as health issues." However, he added, "We have not done as good a job to quantify ecological issues as we have done with human health issues."
The reality of the situation is that "when people relate to environmental issues, they do it through human health issues," Hansen said.