My Earth Day Message to America
President John F. Kennedy visits with his nephew, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.; RFK, Jr., presented his uncle with a salamander, "Shadrach." Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C. Photo credit: Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
Environmental protection binds us to our own humanity and to all of creation. The natural world connects us to the 10,000 generations of human beings who lived before us and ultimately connects us to God. God talks to human beings through many vectors: through each other, through organized religion, through the great books of those religions, through wise people, through art, music, literature, and poetry. But nowhere with such detail and grace, color, and joy as through creation. When we destroy a species, when we destroy a special place, we're diminishing our capacity to sense the divine, understand who God is, and what our own potential is as human beings.
On Earth Day 2023, I join the millions of people around the world celebrating our Earth, and I recommit to the solemn responsibility of caring for and defending the precious planet we call home.
Our sacred obligation as a civilization, a nation, a generation is to create communities for our children that provide them with the same opportunities for dignity and enrichment, prosperity, and good health as the communities that our parents gave us.
As President, I will tirelessly protect our environmental infrastructure: the air we breathe, the water we drink, our wildlife, the fisheries, and the public lands. Environmental stewardship will be a central goal of my Presidency, just as it has been for my entire life.
In 1961, when I was seven years old, I visited my uncle, President John F. Kennedy, in the Oval Office in the White House and presented him with a salamander to share my love and concern for the health of other species. It was that meeting that began my commitment to the environment.
When I started my career as an environmental attorney, I wanted to be in the trenches, engaging against the big polluters. I wanted to work with people who were not only most harmed by environmental injury, but who also were marginalized from the mainstream environmental community.
My first case as an environmental lawyer was representing the NAACP in a lawsuit against Ossining, New York, for trying to put a waste transfer station in the oldest Black neighborhood in the Hudson Valley. During that lawsuit, I learned that four out of every five toxic waste dumps in our country are in a Black neighborhood. The largest toxic waste dump in this country is Emelle, Alabama, which is 85% Black. The highest concentration of toxic waste dumps in this country is the south side of Chicago. The most contaminated zip code in California is East L.A. and at that time, 48% of Black youth had dangerous levels of lead in their blood, which led to dramatically reduced IQ, and also caused severe behavioral problems. What I learned from that case ignited a fire in me to spend the next 30 years fighting those kinds of issues.
In the early 2000s, I successfully sued the U.S. Navy to stop polluting one of the poorest communities in our country: the Black and Brown people who live on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, who are American citizens. I was even jailed for a summer in 2001 for protesting the actions of the U.S. Navy in Vieques.
For decades, I have worked alongside a blue-collar coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen on the Hudson River to reclaim the river from its polluters. The Hudson River is the oldest commercial fishery in North America. Yet, in 1966, the Penn Central Railroad began spilling oil from a pipe in the Croton-Harmon railyard. The oil went up the Hudson River on the tides. It blackened the beaches, and it made the fish taste like diesel so they couldn't be sold. The river even caught on fire, and turned colors, depending on what color they were painting the trucks at the Tarrytown GM plant. I joined forces with the community of Crotonville, New York, to monitor the river for illegal polluters. Over the next couple of decades, we brought more than 500 successful legal actions against Hudson River polluters. That model inspired the creation of the Waterkeepers Alliance. With more than 300 Waterkeepers in 47 countries, we're now the biggest water protection group in the world.
I have dedicated my life to protecting the precious resources of the Earth. Environmental stewardship will be a core objective of my Presidency. Environmental protection is critical to social and racial justice, to America’s economic prosperity, and to the survival of humanity.