Commencement Address: Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences



Video of this speech made available by Duke University.


May 13, 2006
Thank you. It’s great to be here. I’m looking out at all you graduates and I see all these people who love and support you—your friends and your families and even your professors.

I know you’ll be celebrating this weekend, and I’m delighted by your good cheer. But I’m also a little nervous. My specialty is climate change, and here I am, in the midst of all of your celebrations, having to talk about rising sea levels and droughts, and hurricanes. I must say, it complicates all the happy clichés I am supposed to offer as your commencement speaker. For example:

  • I am supposed to talk about how “the world is your oyster”—but I hope you like your oysters baked.
  • I am supposed to remind you to “stop and smell the flowers” on your way through life—but just don’t keep your car engine idling while you do it.
  • Lastly, I am supposed to advise you to “soar with the eagles”—but you should know that climate change has the potential to dramatically alter eagles’ habitat and migration patterns. So who knows where you’ll end up?

Yes, it is hard to talk about climate change on a day like this without coming off as a downer. Although, if you’re interested in working to avert catastrophe, the good news is that your services will be in great demand.

Seriously, I don’t really need to go into all these climate change details, because I’m sure you know that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are rising, and so are average global temperatures, and so are sea levels. I don’t need to tell you all the ways climate change is affecting life from the glaciers of Greenland to the coral reefs of Australia.

I know I don’t need to dwell on these points, because at the Nicholas School you’ve been exposed to many of the great names in environmental science. And living here in North Carolina, you may also have been exposed to a few other great names, like Charley or Isabel or Floyd or Bonnie or Fran or Bertha. Of course we can’t blame individual hurricanes on climate change, but we all know that the energy of hurricanes comes from the heat in ocean waters, and ocean waters aren’t getting any colder these days.

What makes the current situation with climate change even more difficult, of course, is the federal government’s response to it. Though we have only 5% of the world’s population, we produce 25% of the world’s greenhouse gases. And yet the US stands alone with Australia, Monaco, and Lichtenstein in opposing serious international action on this issue. I suppose you could call this group a “coalition of the unwilling.”

As environmental professionals, most of you will be grappling with climate change. Even if your specialty is wildfire management, or water allocation, or transportation, climate change is sure to influence your work. For your generation, I’m convinced it will be the dominant issue in environmental management—and possibly in business and public affairs and international relations as well.

And each of you will have a contribution to make. I say that partly because I know the extraordinary value of the education you’ve received here. But also because the challenge of confronting climate change is so broad in its scope that each of your unique combinations of interests, talents, and expertise will be invaluable in addressing this issue.

But perhaps most importantly, I believe in the power of each individual to bring about positive change. I’ve seen so many great advances occur in this way, sparked by the initiative of just a few people.

When I was at the Environmental Protection Agency back in the very early 1990s, members of my staff wanted to do something about global warming. The problem was that the EPA is primarily a regulatory agency, and we had no authority to regulate anything on the basis of climate change effects. We had no budget for it, and anyway, the administration was not interested in dealing with climate change.

So we began to develop a program that would “promote energy efficiency.” We had no budget or staff for that either, but I was able to divert some resources and personnel from elsewhere to get it started. We also had to overcome opposition from the Department of Energy, because officials there felt we were invading their turf—an example of the competitive spirit at its worst.

Our effort originally focused just on lighting and then on computers, which at that time were vastly increasing their share of American electricity consumption. It was a simple idea—to create a government label that manufacturers could use for products that met certain energy efficiency standards. The manufacturers liked it, because it helped them to market their more efficient devices. Businesses and consumers liked it, because it was a simple way to identify alternatives that would help the environment and lower their energy bills. Because only the most efficient products in each category could receive the label, it gave manufacturers a reason to continue improving efficiency. Once the program got started, its popularity and early success gave me the ammunition I needed to sell it to the administration. So we did eventually get a budget for it.

The program came to be called Energy Star. After a few years it was expanded to include most household appliances—you may have seen the Energy Star stickers on washing machines and televisions and refrigerators. Water heaters and exit signs and other building components were added too, and now even whole buildings can receive the Energy Star designation. Today, it’s explicitly described as a program to combat climate change, and the Department of Energy not only supports it, but has became a partner in administering it. In 2005 alone, the use of energy-efficient products bearing the Energy Star label prevented the emission of as much greenhouse gases as are produced annually by 23 million vehicles.

Of all the things I gained from my involvement in the Energy Star program, I think the most important was an appreciation of the power of individuals to make a difference. It still amazes me that it all came about through the ingenuity of a just handful of people who started this program with no resources other than their own resourcefulness.

Of course it wasn’t just resourcefulness, it was also their perseverance that made the Energy Star program successful. The importance of this kind of persistence, optimism, and good humor has been proven to me again and again.

In 1987 I was asked to head the EPA office that was addressing the depletion of the ozone layer. Interest in the issue had recently intensified because of new scientific studies, including the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica. Despite that interest, we faced a huge challenge, because so many countries were releasing ozone-depleting chemicals, known as CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons. With the divergent interests of so many nations, we faced many of the same roadblocks we face in addressing climate change today, including opposition from some industry groups.

We worked very hard to craft an intelligent policy to reduce the use of these chemicals. But it had to be cleared by a White House group called the Cabinet Council on Natural Resources, which coordinated major environmental policies. The Council was not enthusiastic. One member, Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, actually suggested that instead of curbing pollution, the government should protect people from dangerous rays by distributing enormous numbers of hats and sunglasses.

As discouraging as that was, we had to laugh at the absurdity of his proposal.When the Office of Management and Budget required us to estimate the cost of Hodel’s plan, we relished the chance to draw attention to this crazy idea by actually estimating the costs, which turned out to be very, very high. This silliness attracted more public attention. It even inspired a political cartoon by the legendary Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, depicting fish in hats and sunglasses.

Ultimately EPA and the State Department supported limiting the production of CFCs, while Hodel and his allies remained opposed. President Reagan had to break the deadlock. Coincidentally, Reagan had recently undergone several minor operations to treat a recurring skin cancer on his nose. I don’t know if it was his experience with the cancer, or just the overwhelming science and policy arguments, but when the two sides hashed it out, the president supported us.

From that point forward, the US went from being a foot-dragger to a global leader in controlling ozone-destroying chemicals. Late in 1987, we negotiated the Montreal Protocol, a treaty that had 24 original signatories who agreed to cut annual CFC production in half within about ten years. As more scientific evidence came to light in the following years, we expanded the treaty to include more categories of chemicals and more participating countries; now we are at 188 countries. In the face of the new science and public opinion and the regulatory momentum, private companies began to take action. DuPont agreed to phase out CFCs voluntarily, and made great headway in developing alternatives.

Though in hindsight the result may seem like a foregone conclusion, there were times during my work on CFCs when the situation appeared grim. The same is true with most other issues I’ve been involved with. But I’ve come to believe that pessimism is not just unpleasant—it’s impractical. Few great human triumphs were motivated or orchestrated by pessimists. On the other hand, if you can defeat defeatism, your potential is unlimited.

And the world needs your optimism. Because, let’s face it: the permafrost is neither permanent nor frosty. And soon, if we’re not careful, the rainforests will be neither rainy nor forested.

In our alteration of the Earth’s climate, scientists say we may be approaching a tipping point. Our stable climate can be provoked to a certain extent, but at some point it may, rather suddenly, reach a new, less hospitable equilibrium. Then it may be impossible to return to the old one.

But if we are approaching a climatic tipping point, then we’re also approaching a political tipping point. The effects of climate change are becoming too apparent, the science too solid, public concern too intense. We may still be in the hats-and-sunglasses phase of US policy toward climate change, but it won’t last forever.

Recently the governor of Montana has joined governors of many other states in raising awareness of climate change. Montana is a conservative state, not known for its environmentalism. But the glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park are melting, and scientists think they’ll be gone entirely in 30 years. I believe the scientists. But I also believe America’s policy of willful disregard toward climate change will melt away long before the glaciers do.

In the absence of federal leadership, Montana is not the only state that is acting. Virtually every state has a program or policy in place that directly or indirectly is resulting in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Dozens of major corporations have made substantial voluntary commitments to help control climate change, and many favor a regime of compulsory emission reduction. As we saw in the effort to control ozone depleting chemicals, voluntary efforts are picking up in anticipation of federal action. As we continue to advocate for that federal action, the private sector and the nonprofit sector and international institutions are developing structures that will facilitate trading in greenhouse gas pollution credits, as well as other mechanisms for implementing binding emission reductions.

Corporations and local governments, in other words, are ready for the federal government to get serious about confronting global warming. Ultimately, solving the problem of climate change will need to involve not just politicians, but engineers and consumers and universities and every sector of the economy. Members of your class will do a great deal to bring this vast project along. Your work, and the work of others, will help us to revolutionize how we generate and consume energy, and how we manage our relationship with the natural world.

As you leave here to confront these challenges and embrace these opportunities, my final admonition is that you take the time to enjoy yourselves. Throughout my years in government, I got to the office early, and I worked very hard. But unless I had a meeting with the Administrator, or the Secretary or the White House, I made sure to leave the office by 4:30. Most of my time away from work I got to spend with my children, and I don’t think anything else in my life has meant more to me than they have.

At the time I started my career, many professions still were staffed predominantly by men. It was sometimes said that women who wanted to have families couldn’t be successful professionals. I like to think that in government, I helped to demonstrate that women—and men too—could have a serious career and also have a family and a life outside of work. For me, my life outside of work has always been a source of strength and inspiration, and I hope yours can be that for you.

So, yes, the world is your oyster. Have fun. Laugh often. Visit Glacier Park while the glaciers are still there. And spend time with the people most important to you.