Carol M. Browner, Commencement Speaker
May 17, 2009
Thank you for that introduction and President Gearan, Trustees, Faculty I thank you for today's recognition and honor. To all of the parents, grandparents, step-parents, and role models in the audience: Congratulations on all the work you have done to make this day possible for your graduate.
It is a privilege to share the stage today with Jane Ray Gerland and Reverend W. James Gerland, folks who have dedicated their lives to this community and to honor Dixon Kunzelmann whose story we hear today.
And now, to the graduates: Congratulations! This is your day, you deserve the honor and the recognition and it is a real pleasure to be here with you. Now, it is true that you graduate at a difficult time for the American economy. But difficult times can also create times of opportunity. As the tides of recession begin to recede, we have the opportunity to change the future, to open a new energy frontier and build a clean energy future. We have the opportunity to position America as the global leader in clean energy, to build a future in which America is energy independent; free from the influence of regimes that are hostile to our interest and our values. A future where we attack the pollutants marring our water and air, and a future in which we prevent the worst effects of global warming. Now there are those who argue now is not the time to explore a new frontier, there are those who say it is better to cede the future for the present. I would argue that now is exactly the time that we must fix our eyes on this frontier because it is only by looking to this frontier, by transforming our economy into a clean energy economy that we will build a lasting foundation for sustained economic growth.
Recently we celebrated the 38th anniversary of Earth Day and there are some here today, like me, who can remember a very famous photograph of the Cuyahoga River burning, so polluted that itself combusted - a river on fire. That photo compelled Americans across the country to join together to say that we had to protect those things we share: our air, our water, our land. There was proud public support and a bipartisan consensus in the Congress that we had a moral obligation to protect the health of our communities, our families, and the World. And we have made real progress; we got rid of lead and gasoline to protect our children’s mental ability, we banned chloraflora carbons that caused the hole in the upper ozone layer and allowed dangerous cancer-causing sun rays into our environment. We capped sulfur dioxide and greatly reduced the destruction of forest caused by acid rain. During my tenure at the Environmental Protection Agency, we set the first every fine particle standards and required that all diesel fuels sold be clean, preventing thousands of premature deaths a year. In each instance there were naysayers, those who said it would cost too much, it couldn’t be done, we didn’t have the technology. But in each case American innovation and ingenuity proved them wrong; we found a way to solve the problem faster and for far less money than we originally anticipated.
President Obama has called for a multifaceted energy approach that will transition our economy from one dependent on oil and pollution to a new economy that runs on clean energy, is energy independent, and environmentally responsible. The president likes to say the first country that makes renewable energy - the profitable kind of energy - will lead the 21st century. We know this, and yet the rest of the world has gotten a jump on us. The sunlight that hits the U.S. in one day could power our country for an entire year, but Europe and Asia have taken the lead in solar energy and Germany wind power now supplies 3% of electricity, Spain 11%, Denmark 19%, the U.S. just 1%. Batteries for plug-in hybrids of the future are rolling off Korean assembly lines and China has made an unprecedented push in electric car research and development.
There was a time when America produced the pioneers of new energy frontiers. In the late 19th century when Thomas Edison opened the Pearl Street Power Plant in Manhattan, he pioneered an electricity delivery system that gave American industry what they needed to lead the world. If Edison were still with us he’d be all too familiar with our current delivery system. We need a new energy future, we need an energy future that will also allow us to reduce the greenhouse gases that contribute to Global Warming. As the President has said, rolling back the tide of a warming planet is a responsibility that we have to ourselves, our children, and to all those who will inherit God’s creation long after we are gone.
We have asked Congress for legislation that will put a cap on Carbon pollution and incentify businesses to adopt clean energy strategies. Next week the House of Representatives will begin a debate on that legislation. In my 8 years as the head of the EPA I’ve had the distinct honor to work with some of the World’s best engineers, and we all enjoy the benefits of their work: cleaner air and cleaner water. But, you know what, there’s not one among them that can reverse the impact of sea level rise. To fail to act now to reduce greenhouse gases is to leave to future generations not simply a river on fire or a hole in the ozone, but a permanently altered planet. Teddy Roosevelt once said, “It is true of the nation, as of the individual, that the greatest doer must also be the greatest dreamer. So, in the face of this great challenge it is our charge to do better. Let’s dare to dream of a nation where the excess solar energy of our deserts, the wind potential of our great plains, fuel our homes, our cars, and businesses. Let us commit ourselves to a future where the businesses that sustain our planet are rewarded and those that danger our Earth are held accountable.
My father came to this country a high school dropout. He was a truck driver and he joined the United States Army and he served active combat in Korea. And because of that he got Veteran’s benefits. And with those Veteran’s benefits he went to college, he went to graduate school, he became a college professor, and our family bought our first home. My father used to say to me, he became a teacher because he wanted to give something back to a country that had given him everything. I chose government service because I also wanted to give something back. As you leave this prestigious institution, I would urge you to consider public service. It doesn’t mean that you have to be a teacher or that you have to choose a job in government. It does mean that you have to find a way to roll up your sleeves, reach out, and touch someone else’s life to make your community and this country a little bit better. It will make all the difference in your life.
I am frequently asked, "So what was your plan to get to where you are today?" As if I could have figured out which job to take right out of law school that would lead me to serve in one President's cabinet and for another in a newly created position in the White House. Well, let me tell all the graduates here, I didn't have a plan. But what I did do was always look for those jobs where I could be passionate about what I did every day. Work about which you are passionate will only make your work that much better. And so my wish for you today, on your day of graduation, is that you will, too, find a career motivated by passion. Stay focused and remain open to the possibility of success in unexpected places, and remember what the great American thinker Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: "Life is a great bundle of little things."
Thank you and congratulations.