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David Gelber '63

Thanks, Val, and good afternoon, everyone. First of all, and most important, congratulations to the Class of 2017.

This honor means a great deal to me.There aren’t many institutions on this planet that embody excellence as much as this one does. It’s been a treasured part of my identity and already is part of yours as well.

It’s tempting for commencement speakers, robed as we are, to play the role of Old Testament prophet. I’m gonna go with it!

Here’s my prophecy: the world is going to be a much tougher place for your generation than it was for mine.

I was here in the early 60s at the height of the civil rights struggle. It consumed me and most of my friends.

I was editor of The Phoenix, when the front page nearly always featured a story about the freedom movement: at black schools down south, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and a few miles up the road in Chester.

For many of us, getting arrested, spending a night or two in jail to make a statement against racism was more meaningful than getting a good grade.

Sewn into a rug in Obama’s oval office was the phrase: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Well, maybe. But looking back to the Sixties and considering where we are today, that arc hasn’t bent nearly enough.

Schools and communities still are largely segregated and income inequality has gotten worse. There’s been some good news, but my generation’s report card on social progress is at best incomplete. You have GOT to do much better than we have.

As a journalist, I’ve covered everything from Bosnia to Iraq, from AIDS to stem cell therapy.

It was only when I became a dad that I decided to focus on just one story: climate change.

When my daughters and you graduates are as old as I am now, you will likely be face-to-face with a threat capable of causing misery uparalleled in human history.  

The great majority of climate scientists are saying that if we continue to dump 40 billion tons of CO2 into the air every year, coastal cities like Miami may be under water and all coral reefs on the planet will be dead.

Droughts are turning fertile soil into sand and, as a result, tens of millions of rural people will be climate refugees, desperate to go elsewhere.

If we continue with business as usual, that’s the future my generation is leaving you.   

The good news is that YOU have a decent shot at changing that trajectory – IF we move from dirty energy to mostly clean energy by 2030.

That goal is within reach. If we get there in time, we’ll avoid some, though not all, of the effects of carbon pollution.

Most scientists and economists including many conservatives agree the most powerful remedy we have is to place a tax on fossil fuels equal to the very real costs they impose on us.

A price on carbon is not mere symbolism. It will remove the entitlement that permits the fossil fuel industry to dump toxins in our atmosphere for free.

It will drive up the cost of dirty fuel, encouraging producers and consumers to embrace low-carbon alternatives.

Pricing carbon can do for global warming what my generation mostly failed to do on race – make life better, first for poor and non-white communities – and, in the end, for all of us.

I’m proud that Val has taken a leadership role as an advocate for carbon pricing.

Sorry for bringing these grim forecasts to a day as joyful as this. But today is about your future, and this is what you’re up against.

I grew up a child of the generation that defeated Hitler and saved us from fascism.

Your challenge is no less daunting than theirs, perhaps even more. But here’s the silver lining: I assume most of you aspire to a purpose-driven life. 

One of those can be to help save the planet by finding real-world solutions to our dependence on fossil fuels.

Tough assignment. I wish you luck, wisdom and the strength to keep at it.

Watch: David Gelber '63