Prepared Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan Before the National Academy of Sciences and the World Economic Forum

Thursday, September 5, 2013
Washington, DC

As prepared for delivery

Thank you very much, Dr. Cicerone, for that kind introduction and, more importantly, for your leadership.

Your curiosity, your pioneering research and your commitment to opening eyes and minds has made a profound impact on a wide-variety of issues. And I thank you for your service.

I also want to note that when President Obama was first here in 2009 , he pointed out that both Dr. Cicerone and John Holdren—Director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy—graduated from MIT's Class of 1965.

Well, around that time, there was another student on campus who was getting his MS in computers and business. That student was my father. And in addition to getting his degree, he also met my mother, who was an employee at the University. 

So in a strange way, Dr. Cicerone and I have a shared history. He owes his education to MIT. I owe my life to the place. And I'm glad our paths have crossed here today.

In addition to Dr. Cicerone, I'd like to thank all those with the National Academy of Sciences and The World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Catastrophic Risks - on which I'm proud to serve as a member. Both have done great work to help the global community understand and address important issues facing people and our planet. 

Today's forum is an important part of this work - bringing together a diverse group of leaders to exchange ideas and perspectives. And I greatly appreciate this chance to be a part of the conversation.

Important Meeting, Important Moment

We come together at an important moment. For a long time, the scientific community has told the world that the climate is changing, posing an incredible threat to us all. And unfortunately, in recent years, we've seen these predictions become a reality.

The 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. We've seen devastation across the world from Hurricane Katrina here in the U.S., to the endless rain in Colombia, to flooding in Thailand.

It feels like storms that used to occur every 100 years now seem to come every few years—or in the recent case of Oklahoma City—within days of each other. And if nothing is done, the risks facing the world will only continue to grow.

So we've got to act now in order to prepare our communities for tomorrow. This is something President Obama has long believed and has made a priority of his agenda. 

Many of you know this firsthand because, as I understand it, he is the first President to address two annual meetings of the National Academy of Sciences. And he has reiterated his commitment to this work a number of times - most notably during his Inaugural Address earlier this year.

Standing before a crowd of more than a million people, with many more watching from around the world, he said: "We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."

Clearly, this is a President who gets it. He knows the seriousness of the challenges we face. He knows the urgency of the moment. And ever since he took office in 2009, he has been determined to do something about it.

President Obama's Climate Work

Under his leadership. the United States has doubled its use of wind, solar and geothermal energy. We've raised fuel standards so that by the middle of the next decade, cars will get double the mileage per gallon of gas. And in the bigger picture, the United States' carbon pollution is at its lowest levels in nearly 20 years.

So the President saw the need for action and moved swiftly in his first term to generate results. And he's determined to build on this progress during his second term. That's why, in June, he released his Climate Action Plan - the most aggressive initiative ever taken by a President to address climate change. And a key component of the plan is partnering with leaders like you from across the world.

As all of you know, President Obama has worked tirelessly to usher in a new era of engagement between the United States and our international friends. And addressing climate change is central to this work. 

This is a global challenge that requires global solutions. And all of us in the Obama administration want to continue to work with international partners to develop and implement these solutions.   

Personally, I have been proud to serve as a member of WEF's Global Agenda Council on Catastrophic Risks. My team at HUD and I have also enjoyed working with Chilean Minister Rodrigo Perez MacKenna, who is overseeing reconstruction efforts after the 2010 earthquake - and has been a great resource for us.

And earlier this year, HUD signed a Memorandum of Understanding with our Dutch counterpart to collaborate on a wide-variety of climate-related issues and initiatives. This kind of engagement is happening at all levels and in all areas of the Administration. And with the President's Climate Action Plan, we want to take it to the next level.

Together, we can cut global carbon pollution by using more clean energy and cutting waste. This will go a long way in creating jobs and shaping a healthier planet for future generations. But, this alone is not enough. 

We've also got to prepare our communities for the weather-related threats that are already being felt across the world because of climate change. Of course, this is the goal that brings us all here today.

Hurricane Sandy Task Force

More than ever, we need to make resiliency a global priority. Here in the U.S, in recent years, as HUD Secretary, I have seen up close just how devastating weather-related disasters can be in places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 

But in a deeply personal way, nothing prepared me for the damage done to my home region last fall by Hurricane Sandy. As many of you know, I'm a native New Yorker. I grew up there.  It's where my wife and I built our life together. And it was devastating to see places that have been so important to me impacted by the storm.

The town in New Jersey where I got married was hit hard. A family friend's business in Red Hook, Brooklyn was ripped apart. And most tragically, the daughter of another family friend lost her life during the storm.

Of course, these were just a few of so many tragic stories that resulted from Sandy. It's a storm that caused a lot of hurt and pain throughout the region, and all of us knew that the rebuilding process would be long and difficult.   

Thankfully, President Obama had long been committed to improving our nation's responses to natural disasters. In fact, early in his first term,he charged then Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, and me with the task of improving the federal approach to disaster recovery.

This work resulted in the creation of the National Disaster Recovery Framework, which is charged with putting teams in place to address both the short and long-term needs of affected areas after big storms. 

As a result, we were able to put over 17,000 federal responders on the ground within seven days of Sandy making landfall - work that made a tremendous difference during those critically important hours. However, the size and scope of the damage done by Sandy was unlike anything many of us had ever seen before. 

To illustrate my point: I remember being in New York City shortly after the storm - and talking on the phone with then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about the possibility of using military planes to simply get boilers back into hard-hit neighborhoods. Military planes for boilers: that's how serious things were. 

It was clear that extraordinary support for the region would be needed. And shortly after that call ended, my phone rang again: it was President Obama on the line. He asked me to chair a special Hurricane Sandy Task Force that would bring Cabinet-level focus on the work of rebuilding the shattered region.

Without a moment of hesitation - I said yes. And once the Task Force was officially established, we got to work quickly. 

Preparing for the Future

First, we worked to address the short term needs of the region. In particular, President Obama—working with state and local leaders—fought tirelessly to get Sandy Supplemental funding through Congress. He signed it into law in January, providing roughly $50 billion in funding to aid victims of the storm. 

To date, the Administration has helped nearly 270,000 people and thousands of businesses turn the page on this painful chapter. And we continue to work to get help to those who need it as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

But as we do this, we are also firmly focused on the long-term. That's because it is not enough to rebuild the region back to the way it was before the storm. That would just put communities at-risk of the same tragic outcomes when the next big storm arrives. 

Instead, our goal moving forward is to help the region build smarter and stronger than before. And we're working to achieve this goal in a number of ways. Namely, we are ensuring that science is the foundation of our work.

This is an obvious, common-sense first step. But unfortunately, often times these days, common sense doesn't always prevail. There are those who waste time ignoring science and denying climate change for political interests. 

But not President Obama. He is squarely focused on the people's interests. And when it comes to building stronger communities, research matters. Facts matter. Science matters. 

That is why the Task Force partnered with the best scientists to empower local governments, businesses and citizens with the knowledge they need for the future. 

People want to rebuild. They just need a little guidance from us in government to do that effectively. As one CEO who lost critical facilities due to flooding during Sandy said to me: "just tell me how high to rebuild." 

So, working with the scientific community and local leaders, we set out to answer this question, and more, with the Rebuilding Strategy we released last month. We issued 69 recommendations that will help the region rebuild and, in the bigger picture, serve as a model for communities around the world as they prepare for the future.

For example, as part of this work, the Administration designed a sea level rise tool that allows local planners and decision makers to click on a map and see projections of rising see levels as far as a century into the future.

With this knowledge in hand, communities can take the measures necessary to protect themselves from future floods. To complement this work - the Administration has already taken action to ensure that all projects funded by Sandy-supplemental dollars take into account future flood risks.

We also urge communities to make other critical infrastructure investments, from making the electrical grid smarter and more flexible, to helping develop a resilient power strategy for telephone and internet systems so people can communicate when disaster strikes.

Furthermore, our recommendations strive to shape a resilient region that makes housing units more sustainable, improves the insurance process so that those in need can get assistance quicker and better supports small businesses after a disaster hits. 

Of course, in addition to our suggestions about what to do, we are also interested in how this work gets done. Namely, we stress that it needs to be a locally driven, regional approach. 

First of all, local leaders know best what the needs and opportunities are in their respective regions - therefore, they should be on the frontlines of any development agenda. 

Secondly, it is important that different jurisdictions work in concert towards shared goals. One example is New York Harbor, which stretches along both New York and New Jersey.

Any action in one state will impact the other - and vice versa. So with this and other projects, it's critical that we think regionally about the implications and connections between different efforts.

That's why the Task Force created a regional forum to coordinate and determine the effects of large-scale and interconnected infrastructure projects. The goal is for communities and agencies to look at each project and its connections - so we can understand the implications of the projects, and ways to save money, improve effectiveness and accelerate the pace at which projects are built.

This regional coordination process is crucial, and I have committed my department, HUD, to lead this process going forward. And we will continue to connect local leaders with the best science so that they can make the most appropriate decisions for their communities.

Public and Private Partnership - Rebuilding By Design

In addition, we want to connect communities with the most innovative ideas around the world. So, we've launched Rebuild By Design, a multi-stage regional design competition created to develop innovative projects to protect and enhance Sandy-affected communities. 

The goal of the competition is to attract world-class design and engineering talent, promote innovation and develop projects that will actually be built.

Once the best ideas are identified, HUD will incentivize their implementation using funds made available through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program - as well as other public and private funds

This effort started with:

  • the federal agencies that make up the Task Force;
  • two states;
  • the City of New York;
  • the Rockefeller Foundation; and
  • New York University's Institute for Public Knowledge - all of whom set the goals and objectives. 

Later in the process, we partnered with 5 other major philanthropic funders:

  • JPB Foundation;
  • Deutsche Bank America's Foundation;
  • the New Jersey Recovery Fund;
  • the Hearst Foundation;
  • and the Surdna Foundation—as well as a coalition of the Municipal Arts Society, the Regional Plan Association and the Van Alen Institute.

After we put the call out for applications in June, we received proposals from roughly 140 potential teams from over 15 different countries. 

We are talking about world-class engineers, architects, designers, scientists and more. 
10 teams were chosen to enter the next stage of the competition—the start of a three-month research and analysis process, which is where they are now. Their goal is to identify key regional design opportunities in the Sandy-affected region. 

From there, teams will turn their analysis into plans and projects and form coalitions with local and regional stakeholders to not only be innovative - but also secure support from local leaders to implement those projects on the ground.

To be clear: we are not just looking for great, abstract ideas. With federal funds, we are supporting efforts that will make a real difference for people and their lives.

In total, over the 9 months the competition will take place, hundreds of people from all over the world, from the public and private sectors, will have invested time, money and intellectual capital to rebuilding the region.

It's an exciting competition and I look forward to updating all of you as it moves forward. 


As I close, I want to stress that the Hurricane Sandy Task Force isn't about looking backwards or just improving responses to the next big storm.

What it calls for is a fundamental shift in the way communities approach future development, a blueprint that can be useful for other areas around the world. With every decision and every project, the global community must take into account the growing risks caused by flooding and climate change.

It's in the interests of families so that they are kept as safe as possible. It's in all of our economic interests because so much of the world's economy exists on coastlines. It's critical for any area's competitiveness because businesses need to know that their operations are safe from weather risks.

In short, it's critical for the United States, the world and for all of our futures. That's why I appreciate all the work that you have done in this area.

It's been a pleasure to work with many of you over the years. And, I look forward to working with all of you for many more. 

Together, we can coordinate a global assault on climate change. Together, we can prepare our communities to deal with the natural disasters already being felt. And together, we can shape a stronger and healthier planet for generations to come.

Thank you.


Content Archived: February 24, 2017