Al Gore, 45th vice president of the U.S., Nobel Laureate and author of An Inconvenient Truth, told Hamilton’s Class of 2011 that the climate crisis is “the most serious challenge that our civilization has ever faced,” and that while the grassroots movement in support of solving the climate crisis is the most powerful in the history of the world, “it will be the generation of you in this graduating class that will really bring about change.” Gore also addressed the political state of our democracy and how decisions made on false assumptions have led to major national challenges.
“When our nation was debating the wisdom of invading Iraq, public opinion polls showed, at the time the Senate took its vote, more than three-quarters of the American people genuinely believed that the person primarily responsible for the attacks of September 11th, 2001, was Sadam Hussein, the then ruler of Iraq. Whether you agreed with that invasion or not, I believe that all should agree that it is dangerous for a great nation to base important decisions on facts that are manifestly false because decisions by great nations can have long lasting consequences. Because of that decision, based on a false understanding of reality, we are still in Iraq today.”
Gore gave the address at Hamilton’s commencement on Sunday, May 22, in the Margaret Bundy Scott Field House where 500 students received bachelor’s degrees. He was awarded an honorary degree, along with Patsy Couper, a long-time Hamilton benefactor; Paul Lieberstein, co-executive producer, writer and actor in NBC’s sitcom “The Office” and a 1989 Hamilton graduate; and John Sexton, president of New York University.
In his address Gore said, “We have a debate in our nation as to whether the climate crisis is real. Every national academy of science of every major nation on the planet says it is. Every professional scientific association in every field related to the study of climate says it is. Ninety-eight percent of all climate scientists say it is. Mother Nature has weighed in. If you will think about the events of the last 12 months, 20 million people were displaced in a nuclear armed country when Pakistan suffered the largest flood in its history.” Gore cited examples of the effects of climate change on Australia, the Mississippi Valley, Texas and Russia, where they faced floods, fires and droughts.
Gore noted that “the scientists are now in a shift, theoretically saying that if asked, could these events could have occurred in the absence of a man-made global warning?; the answer is almost certainly no.” But how are we in our democracy supposed to establish the reality of the climate crisis with sufficient resolution to justify the bold and difficulty steps that must be taken in order to solve the climate crisis? Though some damage will be difficult to unwind, there is no doubt that we can if we choose to, solve the climate crisis.”
He said “the true solution depends upon exactly the kind of learning you have acquired here, and more precisely, the traditions you have acquired here to use the Rule of Reason, search out the best available evidence, and then engage citizens in a fair and reasoned discourse that searches for the best solutions.”
Gore recalled that 50 years ago he listened to President John F. Kennedy challenge the U.S. to put a man on the moon. “And I remember hearing so many who said ‘That’s impossible. That was an unwise challenge.”” Gore pointed out that when that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did set foot on the surface of the moon eight years later, the systems engineers who were cheering that moment “were an average age of 26, which means their average age when they first heard that challenge was 18.”
Encouraging the graduates, he said, “We have the capacity; you have the knowledge. We as Americans have the tradition and the resolve to do whatever we choose to do. There is an old African proverb that says ‘If you wish to go quickly go alone. If you wish to go far, go together.’ We have to go far quickly.”
Class of 2011 valedictorian Yuanxin Zhu (Shanghai, China) shared with the audience what she received from her Hamilton education. “At Hamilton I learned to think independently and critically, to appreciate cultural diversity, and to perceive things more comprehensively as I have matured. For me, the four years at Hamilton have shaped my thoughts and prepared me for the next phase of my life.
“As we are about to embark on the new journey ahead of us, we should remind ourselves of how fortunate we have been as students at a prestigious institution like Hamilton. Take a moment now to think about the young men and women who were not given a choice about their education during the Cultural Revolution in China, and think about those children around the world who still cannot go to school today because of poverty and war.
“…Let’s be grateful for living in a peaceful society that respects knowledge and rewards hard work. Most important, let’s work to make it possible for those who come after us to have the same kinds of opportunities we have had,” Zhu concluded.
Mary Phillips (Jamesville, N.Y.), recipient of the James Soper Merrill Prize, also addressed her classmates. Speaking of Alternative Spring Break volunteer trips in which she had participated, Phillips noted, “When I returned to Hamilton, it was with the firm belief that we are a top-tier institution not because of the size of our endowment or our beautiful, historic buildings, but because of the quality of our students.
“I urge all of us to remember the lessons our Hamilton years have taught us about community. First, choose your next community carefully, for we are profoundly influenced by the people around us. Second, do not forget your obligation to contribute. As you encounter injustice and inequality use your influence to create positive change.”
The Soper Merrill Prize is awarded to the member of the class “who, in character and influence, has typified the highest ideals of the College.” The winner is selected by the faculty.