May 2010, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA
Well thank you very much. I am so thrilled by that and I appreciate the opportunity to come here and, not just to receive that, but to say congratulations to all of you. This is your day.
I gave a commencement speech one year at MIT and in doing research for it, I found that in their early years, their commencement speaker dropped dead right in the middle of the speech. Since it was more than 100 years ago, I figured it was okay to joke about it.I told them I was only the second stiffest commencement speaker that they had ever had.
You’d be surprised if I didn’t make at least brief mention of the one problem that I think is the biggest item of unfinished business on our agenda and that is the climate crisis. Just 40 miles west of here, I passed by there on the way up here yesterday from Middle Tennessee. You remember that coal ash spill? What it has in common with the spill in the Gulf of Mexico is it’s connected to our dependence on carbon-based fuels.
The biggest uncontrolled gusher of pollution, by far, is the global warming pollution we’re putting up there all the time at the rate of 90 million tons per day.
Your generation is going to be the generation that succeeds in completing this transition.
I remember as a very young boy, 13 years old, when I heard a challenge issued to our country by President John F. Kennedy calling for us to put a person on the moon and bring him back safely in 10 years. I remember how many people said, “That’s impossible to do. He shouldn’t have made that pledge.” but eight years and two months later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the surface of the moon. The day they did, a great cheering went up in Houston, Texas at mission control and the average age of those systems engineers cheering in Houston was 26, which means their average age when they heard that challenge was 18.
This university’s motto, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” The truth can be, indeed, inconvenient, but the single most important choice that any of us make as individuals and as a society is between the hard right and the easy wrong.
I believe in my heart that we are going to solve this crisis. I believe that this is the greatest opportunity that our society has ever had and I’m excited about the fact that from this day forward, you’re going to be a part of all of the great work that that our society is doing.
I say congratulations to you and thank you again for having me here. We’ve got everything we need to succeed, with the possible exception of political will but in the United States of America, political will is a renewable resource. Thank you and congratulations.