Secretary Jewell Remarks from Climate Resilience Discussions at International Climate Talks in Paris

During First Week of Historic 21st Conference of Parties, Jewell Focuses on Efforts to Help Communities Prepare and Adapt to Impacts of Climate Change

Last edited 09/29/2021

Date: December 2, 2015
Contact: Jessica Kershaw,

PARIS, France – As part of the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21), U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell kicked off the week by delivering remarks and leading a panel discussion on what the United States is doing to help prepare communities and the ecosystems they depend on for the impacts of climate change. The discussion focused on U.S actions to enhance climate resilience and adaptation planning in areas as diverse as Alaska to the Pacific Islands, including the Republic of the Marshall Islands, for which Interior administers federal assistance.

At COP21, Jewell also helped announce a public-private partnership on forests that brings together the power of global supply chains with strong government commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, Jewell participated in a roundtable hosted by French President Hollande with African heads of state to discuss renewable energy and climate adaptation in Africa. And she led a second panel discussion at the U.S. Center on climate adaptation. 

Secretary Jewell’s opening remarks for the climate resilience panel, as delivered at the U.S. Center on December 1, are as follows:

It is a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for coming to the U.S. Center. Thank you for all of your interest in the very, very important topics that are being discussed around COP 21.

It is my privilege and pleasure to be up here with three distinguished panelists, and we're going to have, I hope, a very engaging dialogue. We will have time to take some questions from the audience on the topic of climate resilience, which is what we're here to talk about today.

I am honored to be one of a number of representatives of the United States at this conference. I will say that I'm a person that came from the private sector, 35 years in the private sector, and just under 3 years now in the public sector.

I was very committed to climate change, running the company that I was with before this job, and that was a company in the United States called REI or Recreational Equipment Incorporated.

We recognized that our business depended on a healthy environment, but that we were part of the problem in terms of our carbon footprint, and we set about changing that. But we realized we couldn't do it alone.

When I stepped into the public sector and took this job, addressing the issue of climate change was one of my highest priorities. I am very proud to work for President Obama, who has taken historic action on climate change.

There are two things that we know about climate change. One is no country is immune to its impacts – although we've got some examples that are pretty dramatic up here. But also no country can solve climate change on its own. We need global action to reduce our carbon emissions, and we also have to work together to build climate resilience, the topic of this panel.

We have been, in the United States, a leader in many ways, but we know we have a lot to learn from others, and we know we have a lot more that we can be doing. I look forward into getting into that a bit more today, and over the course of this conference.

When you think about the term “climate resilience,” resilience means, really, the power or ability to recover after being disturbed. I think it's very evident to the people in this room that we have disturbed our planet in a pretty profound way.

Also, resilience is a term that is realistic and acknowledges that climate change impacts are happening. It also is a hopeful term. It's rooted in the concept that we can do something about the impacts to make our communities and our ecosystems stronger.

I'll talk about, yes, the impacts that we're feeling, from the Arctic to the Pacific Islands and other points in between, because we need to grasp the scope of all these issues. I will say that my first actual international business trip took me from the North Slope of Alaska to the village of Kaktovik and Barrow. In Kaktovik, the runway was washing away because of coastal erosion.

Then I flew to the Marshall Islands. That's about 70 plus degrees north latitude to 7 degrees south latitude, where the runway was also washing away. It was a very, very powerful illustration for me in just basically one day to see the difference that we were seeing on the ground in the Arctic and in the Islands.

What I really want to talk about is what we're collectively doing to address these impacts. What's working when it comes to building climate resilience and what can we do better. The panel is going to share some wonderful perspectives, but before we get to that, I want to break down in three main areas what we are working on in the U.S.

First, it's about mainstreaming climate resilience, thinking about it in everything we do. That was a clear expectation for President Obama to each of his cabinet members and all of the agencies of the federal government that we have to prepare our communities for climate change, just as we are also taking steps to curb our carbon pollution.

We are working to mainstream this into every department's activities and every decision that we make. He directed all of us to develop plans, and anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to changing conditions. A few examples from the Interior Department are how we are focusing limited landscape restoration dollars on areas that have the greatest impact.

One of the biggest challenges we have in the United States, and I think it's true around the world, are invasive species. With climate change, we need to make sure that when our landscapes are damaged from extreme events – like wildfire, drought, floods – that we're able to plant native seeds, and we do it in an area where those seeds can thrive.

Like, in Valles Caldera, a natural preserve in New Mexico where I was just a few weeks ago, where we had a devastating fire. We're re planting native species, but we're putting them higher in elevation so that they will thrive. We have developed a seed bank to get the right seed in the right place, at the right time, which will help make our landscapes more resilient.

We're also paying attention to our landscapes broadly, saying what are the critical areas we need to protect? Water supply infrastructure would be one of those.

When you have a devastating wildfire, often times that's followed by flooding events, which will completely destroy a water infrastructure if you're not careful. So we are prioritizing where we do pre fire treatments and post fire remediation to protect that infrastructure.

We're also getting a lot smarter about where and how to rebuild after extreme weather events. Just last year alone, the U.S. had eight different weather events that cost in excess of $1 billion apiece. If you go back to 2012, of course, we had the devastating Hurricane Sandy, which we are in the process of addressing through $60 billion in investments to rebuild. But we're rebuilding a lot smarter.

We're incorporating climate risks into how we fund recovery around housing, transportation, and disaster response so that we'll be prepared for future storms, and it won't be as costly as they have been in the past. But more importantly, we did a competitive grant program to unlock the potential of the private sector and to unlock the potential of community partnerships.

One billion dollars went into that competition and we've seen a number of innovative projects. The Department of the Interior – which manages a lot of resources within the United States, about 20 percent – learned tremendous lessons from Mother Nature during the storm.

We matched LIDAR data before and after the storm. We knew exactly the elevations, and we could see the natural infrastructure of wetlands, coastal areas, and marshes absorbed the storm's fury. In New Jersey, twenty two miles of Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge alone took debris hit from think about boats and propane tanks all kinds of detritus washing up on the shore of that wildlife refuge.

But we have seen Mother Nature respond very effectively. We've learned that those green infrastructure investments that we make by keeping lands wild in supporting wetlands pays dividends in protecting the communities behind.

We, too, did a $100 million resilience grant to get communities to work together with us, and together with each other to do things like stabilize beaches and restore wetlands.

That was the first area. Second, we're developing and sharing actionable science. You can't manage what you can't measure.

There's a lot of science the United States develops. We do it in partnership with other countries around the world. Developing and sharing climate science tools is critical to the work that we do. Perhaps, Lynn [Scarlett], when we get to her contributions, we'll talk a bit about how her organization is using that.

Through, you will find multiple data sets provided by the federal government that are freely available and accessible. We believe strongly in open sourced data. We know it provides extensive information, but we also know that it might not be as easy to use as it could be. Our initiative seeks to stimulate private sector innovators to leverage these data sets to build accessible tools for the general public.

How many of you have used Google Earth? I got to believe everybody, just about. Well, Google Earth has got Google in the name, but the data is brought to you by the U.S. Government.

It's a good example of a private business using freely available data from the U.S. Government to provide a tool that we all use. Esri, another private company, is using lots of data, including NOAA's sea level rise, to help communities decide where to build out of harm's way.

We believe strongly on the sharing of that data around the world. I was just at the GEO, a Group on Earth Observations Summit, with over a hundred countries in Mexico City, to talk about the work that we're doing collectively on data sharing.

We've made high resolution topographical data available now around the world that helps countries track sea level rise and water shortages. Including FEWS NET, which stands for Famine Early Warning System.

There is a dramatic drought going on right now in East Africa. It is worse than the drought of 1984 that killed millions of people in Ethiopia, but it is having a much less devastating effect because of the early warning system that we had and the work that the worldwide community has done to respond. That's the second is sharing actionable science.

The third is partnering with communities. Because addressing climate change is the work of every city, every community, and every individual to do their part. We are learning from communities, and we're also working to empower communities to prepare and adapt. I think we'll have some examples up here.

There's a lot that a satellite image is never going to teach you. Like the deep, traditional knowledge, carried by people who have lived in these places around the world since time immemorial. We have two wonderful examples of that up on stage, with the Marshall Islands and the Arctic.

We're working to honor and capture that knowledge to strengthen our understanding of ecosystems and climate change. A great illustration of that, pulled together by the Alaskan Native Tribal Health Consortium is called Local Environmental Observer Network, or LEO.

It's a way for individuals, communities in Alaska to record abnormal events and trends. Like, where are the caribou migrating? What's going on with the weather? How is the permafrost melting? What's happening with the berries? What's going on with insects? We're seeing insect patterns change that are bringing disease, and really changing very much the health impacts in many areas.

That Local Environmental Observer network and engaging citizen science is making a huge difference. That's an effort that we are learning from, and we are hoping to expand throughout the United States, Canada, and other regions of the Arctic, including into Europe, as we are chairing the Arctic Council for the next two years.

One of the challenges, and we'll probably talk a bit about that, is resources. There's a lack of resources, and we need to work together to bring those resources to bear.

The Office of Insular Affairs, through the Department of the Interior, which serves U.S. Territories and Freely Associated States, like the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and other others, has made climate change adaptation our number one priority. We have held meetings in island communities to talk to their needs and to address how we can best use the resources that we have.

I'll give you an example from Micronesia. We worked with them on a grant to conduct a vulnerability assessment of mangrove forests. They're important to their culture. They provide medicine and food. They serve as storm surge barriers, and they are a natural carbon sink. So, that's one example of a small grant, with many more that we are working on.

We're also working with Alaskan Natives and American Indian tribes across the United States on seed funding to help tribes get started on climate resilience programs on their lands and their reservations. Including grants that we have done recently to Alaskan native villages.

That's a quick snapshot of the U.S. efforts to enhance climate resilience. We're mainstreaming it in everything we do, we're developing and sharing actionable science, and we're partnering with local communities.

We're proud of the efforts to date, but we know we have a lot more work to do. We have a lot to learn from you and from our panelists. I look forward now to engaging with our panel on what challenges and successes they're experiencing as we plan for and adapt to climate change.

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