May 2012 Commencement Speech

May 2012 Luther College Commencement Speech by Hans Brattskar

Why global climate change matters and what we can do to respond as 21st century citizens?

President Torgerson, faculty, parents and friends and foremost – graduates.

It is a great honor for me to be here with you today and to participate in this celebration of the achievements of the Luther College Class of 2012!

I was pleased to accept President Torgerson’s invitation to talk to the 2012 graduates about why global climate change matters and what you can do to respond as 21st century citizens.

As you can imagine, I have a lot to say on this subject - more than I could possibly fit into a speech that would keep you awake. So I'll make you a deal: at the end of my talk I’ll summarize everything in under 140 characters if you promise to clap politely and re-tweet my message to all your followers.
As graduates of Luther  you must be eager and ready – and maybe a little bit worried – about moving on to a job, or finding a job, or graduate school or other opportunities and challenges that await all of you. You must feel excited, perhaps overwhelmed, by a new responsibility to make good choices about what you want to do with your lives.

We live in a difficult, rapidly changing and wonderful world. It has been a few years since my wife Marilyn and I graduated from Luther and if there is one thing I have learned in all this time it is that little in this world is permanent except change. Change will come even more rapidly to the Class of 2012 than it did to my class of 1979. Your success in life will in many ways be measured according to your ability and willingness to adjust to changing circumstances.

And in this interconnected age, those changes are global in nature more than they ever have been before. International crises cause attention whiplash as we shift our focus from unemployment at home, war in Afghanistan, a new brand of terrorism, famine on Africa’s Horn, floods  in Asia, or even here in Iowa.  We have to face one crisis after another and it's easy to grow cynical or overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems, and just give up, stop caring, and go to the Whippy Dip.  

But it's exactly at those moments that I want you to remember that right now  - in many ways  - is the best time in history to be alive. We live longer than previous generations and with better health and education and more wealth than our forefathers.  Yes, there remain many local and global challenges that will require your skills, creativity and innovation to overcome.  Individual efforts, while important, will not suffice.  To deal with our world's problems, you will need to work together.
I've been asked to focus on one particular challenge that requires this type of collective action and that increasingly will affect all of us; namely global climate change.  And I will start out by stressing how proud I am to be a graduate of Luther College which has under President Torgerson’s able leadership - and with the inspiring initiative and passion of so many students  - emerged as one of this country’s leading colleges with regard to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For this work, Luther has been selected to receive a Second Nature Climate Leadership award. Congratulations to you all.

It has been difficult to provide the issue of climate change sufficient attention over the last four years as economic recession, high unemployment rates, rising food and fuel prices, armed conflict and terrorism, and deep poverty have dominated the world’s attention. And don't get me started on 30 Rock, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Twilight series.  But climate change deserves to be “up there” – at the forefront of our conscience. Let me tell you why:

First, an altered climate impacts our lives.  It never fails to amaze me how the Earth’s environment is one integrated system; the fate of the Amazon rainforest affects rainfall and harvests here in the Midwest. Climate change threatens these systems and thus our very way of life.

Second, many of our most difficult challenges—from poverty, devastating natural disasters, armed conflict and health problems–are linked in various ways to climate change.  

By the time the Class of 2012 reaches middle age, the global population will have grown from seven to nine billion people, and the demand for food and other commodities will have grown even more rapidly.  How can we secure a decent, prosperous, and peaceful life for all living beings on this planet? I believe that dealing in a forceful and effective way with climate change can give us the tools needed to handle many of our other pressing challenges.  Climate solutions will make our air cleaner, our cities more livable, our energy more renewable and our fields more productive.    
Most of us recognize these issues and understand that denial is not an alternative to forceful action. Still, trends are persistently terrifying. Greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change reach new peaks year by year. If we continue in this manner, the global average temperature is expected to increase by up to six  degrees within this century.

One of the areas Norway has prioritized for action is conservation of the world’s tropical rainforests. These forests are the lungs of the Earth. They breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen, and they’re home to an astonishing percentage of the world’s biodiversity: everything from Sumatran orangutans to birds of paradise.  

But rainforests are being burned and cleared to make room for cattle ranches, palm oil plantations, and illegal logging operations. This destruction is happening at a terrifying pace: every year, an area of carbon rich forest three times the size of the entire state of Iowa is wiped from the Earth.   That destruction causes more climate pollution than all the cars, trucks, ships, and planes in the world combined. At the same time, protecting tropical forests is one of the most affordable ways to reduce climate pollution. Our focus on forest conservation is helping Norway get more “bang for the buck” as we, like Luther College, strive to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint.

The Government of Norway’s commitment of $ 500million a year through our International Forest and Climate Initiative has instituted agreements with major tropical rainforest countries like Brazil, Indonesia, and Guyana.

There has been  initial success in this effort. Brazil has reduced deforestation by more than two thirds over the past decade – cutting climate pollution by more than any other major country. Instead of investing in clearing forests, Brazilians are investing in making their agriculture more efficient.

Of course, government action alone is not enough: each of us must do our part, and that is as true in the Midwest as it is in Brazil or Norway.  With determination, you can help accelerate progress. Consider this example.  Two 15 year old Girl Scouts from Michigan learned that Girl Scout cookies use palm oil, one of the major commodities tied to deforestation and climate pollution. They reached out to other Girl Scouts around the country, their elected officials, and environmental groups and soon helped persuade the companies that bake Girl Scouts cookies to switch to forest friendly ingredients and this in turn convinced the people who ship palm oil to insist that palm oil suppliers around the world clean up their act.  If two Girl Scouts from Michigan can change the world for the better, then so can you.  

Of course, these are big challenges and they can indeed seem too intractable to solve. I see some of you shifting in your seats, looking skeptical.  Maybe you're thinking, "Norwegian dude, I know climate change is a big deal and all but: This is graduation.  It’s supposed to be a celebration."  And it is.  It's a party celebrating your degree and your accomplishments, but also your awesome potential to make change in the world.

I do remain a huge optimist and believe that the class of 2012 can look forward to a wondrous  future if we make the decisions and choices that are required and are able to look at the issues of sustainable economic growth, political stability, poverty reduction and climate as parts of a whole.


As I see it, effective action against climate change -or any difficult challenge-must involve every level of society and is built around three pillars:

First, success often requires a change in attitude. As citizens, if we want to meet the climate challenge, we need to realize that the state of the environment indeed affects our society and welfare. You need to see through and dismiss those who represent special interests at the expense of our common interests. Climate denial is not an option.

Second, you have to TRY SOMETHING, you have to DO SOMETHING. Here at Luther you did that on climate change.  You made an ambitious commitment to carbon neutrality, and with your wind turbine , your innovation, and your follow-through, you are making it a reality. Luther College can be proud to be at the vanguard of global educational institutions that don’t just think about the environment or study it, but take concrete measures to protect it.  

Focusing on results is one of the many things that unite the American Midwest and Norway: we are no-nonsense peoples, impressed far more with real action than flowery rhetoric. We may not have sunny beaches, we may not be centers of high fashion, but we get things done.

We need more of this down-to-Earth practicality when it comes to facing challenges, including the existential issue of climate change. Too many governments, too many corporations, and indeed too many people are content with vague commitments to “green.” At Luther, you have held yourselves accountable to your goals and your values to make this institution a global leader in the fight against climate change. As you leave Luther, I hope you will work together to ensure that same accountability for your country and the world’s great institutions.

Third, creative application of new technologies. Commitment and hard work without inspiration are just a grind. We need to generate energy in enormous volumes and with greatly reduced or no emissions. And if you think it's not doable, remember that when I graduated from Luther in 1979, the internet was almost unheard of and cable TV was a novelty  Back then, your phone was a "Smart Phone" if it had touchtone instead of rotary dial.  Our capacity for innovation is almost endless and the pace of innovation continues to accelerate.  If you set your minds to it, the world will run solely on renewable energy by the time you are my age.

Finally, we need to realize the complexity of the issue. Climate change does not recognize geographical borders. We need to work together to find common solutions among countries and societies. We don't just need scientists and politicians, we need everyone, with all your skills and talents.  Were you the guy who threw parties here, and knew absolutely everyone?  You can be the person who brings people together to find common ground.  I'm not kidding!  Were you the young woman who aced language classes?  You can build bridges and be the one who helps bring exciting new solutions to faraway lands. Do you text or tweet like crazy? You might be the person who figures out a way to bring crowd sourcing to bear on solving a problem no one person had been able to address.   

You are going to have an opportunity to help create the society you wish to live in. And I suspect coming from Luther College that will include a climate friendly society.  I hope you  see this as a chance to contribute: Be aware of your power as a voter,  consumer, family and church member, friend and colleague – be a consistent and relentless force in all of your roles in life! Change the real world in a real way- not just on Facebook.  If you care about the fate of the planet, don't just change your status, change the status quo.

Class of 2012, I encourage you to engage the global challenges of our time but especially climate change. Your hearts, minds and skills are exactly what is needed to overcome  what is becoming the most complex challenge in modern history

Here’s the point.  Climate change is real; it's happening right now and getting worse. The stakes are very high and we have an individual responsibility to respond. But to succeed we must act together. Thank you for the honor of addressing you today.  So here it is - the Twitter version of my message : Congratulations.  Be optimistic, think big, and stay engaged; you can make a difference, so go change the world.