Below is the text of the Commencement address delivered by entrepreneur, philanthropist, and three-term New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg for the Institute’s 2019 Commencement held June 7, 2019.
As excited as all of you are today, there’s a group here that is beaming with pride and that deserves a big round of applause – your parents and your families.
You’ve been very lucky to study at a place that attracts some of the brightest minds in the world. And during your time here, MIT has extended its tradition of groundbreaking research and innovation. Most of you were here when LIGO proved that Einstein was right about gravitational waves, something that I – as a Johns Hopkins engineering graduate – claimed all along.
And just this spring, MIT scientists and astronomers helped to capture the first-ever image of a black hole. Those really are incredible accomplishments for MIT.
All of you are part of an amazing institution that has proven – time and time again – that human knowledge and achievement is limitless. In fact, this is the place that proved moonshots are worth taking.
Fifty years ago next month, the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the moon. It’s fair to say the crew never would have gotten there without MIT. I don’t just mean that because Buzz Aldrin was class of ’63 here, and took Richard Battin’s famous astro-dynamics course. As Chairman Millard mentioned, the Apollo 11 literally got there thanks to its navigation and control systems that were designed right here at what is now the Draper Laboratory.
Successfully putting a man on the moon required solving so many complex problems. How to physically guide a spacecraft on a half-million-mile journey was arguably the biggest one, and your fellow alums and professors solved it by building a one-cubic-foot computer at the time when computers were giant machines that filled whole rooms.
The only reason those MIT engineers even tried to build that computer in the first place was that they had been asked to help do something that people thought was either impossible or unnecessary.
Going to the moon was not a popular idea back in the 1960s. And Congress didn’t want to pay for it. Imagine that, a Congress that didn’t want to invest in science. Go figure – that would never happen today.
President Kennedy needed to persuade the taxpayers that a manned mission to the moon was possible and worth doing. So in 1962, he delivered a speech that inspired the country. He said, ‘We choose to go to the moon this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’
In that one sentence, Kennedy summed up mankind’s inherent need to reach for the stars. He continued by saying, ‘That challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and which we intend to win.’
In other words, for the good of the United States, and humanity, it had to be done. And he was right. Neil Armstrong took a great leap for mankind, the U.S. won a major Cold War victory, and a decade of scientific innovation led to an unprecedented era of technological advancement.
The inventions that emerged from that moonshot changed the world: satellite television, computer microchips, CAT scan machines, and many other things we now take for granted – even video game joysticks.
The world we live in today is fundamentally different, not just because we landed on the moon, but because we tried to get there in the first place. In hindsight, President Kennedy’s call for the original moonshot at exactly the right moment in history was brilliant. And the brightest minds of their generation – many of them MIT graduates – delivered.
Today, I believe that we are living in a similar moment. And once again, we’ll be counting on MIT graduates – all of you – to lead us.
But this time, our most important and pressing mission – your generation’s mission – is not only to explore deep space and reach faraway places. It is to save our own planet, the one that we’re living on, from climate change. And unlike 1962, the primary challenge before you is not scientific or technological. It is political.
The fact is we’ve already pioneered the technology to tackle climate change. We know how to power buildings using sun and wind. We know how to power vehicles using batteries charged with renewable energy. We know how to power factories and industry using hydrogen and fuel cells. And we know that these innovations don’t require us to sacrifice financially or economically. Just the opposite, these investments, on balance, create jobs and save money.
Yes, all of those power sources need to be brought to scale – and that will require further scientific innovation which we need you to help lead. But the question isn’t how to tackle climate change. We’ve known how to do that for many years. The question is: why the hell are we moving so slowly?
The race we are in is against time, and we are losing. And with each passing year, it becomes clearer just how far behind we’ve fallen, how fast the situation is deteriorating, and how tragic the results can be.
In the past decade alone, we’ve seen historic hurricanes devastate islands across the Caribbean. We’ve seen ‘thousand-year floods’ hit the Midwestern and Southern United States multiple times in a decade. We’ve seen record-breaking wildfires ravage California, and record-breaking typhoons kill thousands in the Philippines.
This is a true crisis. If we fail to rise to the occasion, your generation, your children, and grandchildren will pay a terrible price. So scientists know there can be no delay in taking action – and many governments and political leaders around the world are starting to understand that.
Yet here in the United States, our federal government is seeking to become the only country in the world to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. The only one. Not even North Korea is doing that.
Those in Washington who deny the science of climate change are no more based in reality than those who believe the moon landing was faked. And while the moon landing conspiracy theorists are relegated to the paranoid corners of talk radio, climate skeptics occupy the highest positions of power in the United States government.
Now, in the administration’s defense: climate change, they say, is only a theory. Yeah, like gravity is only a theory.
People can ignore gravity at their own risk, at least until they hit the ground. But when they ignore the climate crisis they are not only putting themselves at risk, they are putting all humanity at risk.
Instead of challenging Americans to believe in our ability to master the universe, as President Kennedy did, the current administration is pandering to the skeptics who, in the 1960s, looked at the space program and only saw short-term costs, not long-term benefits.
President Kennedy’s era earned the nickname, ‘The Greatest Generation’ – not only because they persevered through the Great Depression and won the Second World War. They earned it because of determination to rise, to pioneer, to innovate, and to fulfill the promise of American freedom.
They dreamed in moonshots. They reached for the stars. And they began to redeem – through the civil rights movement – the failures of the past. They set the standard for leadership and service to our nation’s ideals.
Now, your generation has the opportunity to join them in the history books. The challenge that lies before you – stopping climate change – is unlike any other ever faced by humankind. The stakes could not be higher.
If left unchecked, the climate change crisis threatens to destroy oceanic life that feeds so many people on this planet. It threatens to breed war by spreading drought and hunger. It threatens to sink coastal communities, devastate farms and businesses, and spread disease.
Now, some people say we should leave it in God’s hands. But most religious leaders, I’m happy to say, disagree. After all, where in the Bible, or the Torah, or the Koran, or any other book about faith or philosophy does it teach that we should do things that make floods and fires and plagues more severe? I must have missed that day in religion class.
Today, most Americans in both parties accept that human activity is driving the climate crisis and they want government to take action. Over the past few months, there has been a healthy debate – mostly within the Democratic Party – over what those actions should be. And that’s great.
In the years ahead, we need to build consensus around comprehensive and ambitious federal policies that the next Congress should pass. But everyone who is concerned about the climate crisis should also be able to agree on two realities.
The first one is given opposition in the Senate and White House, there is virtually no chance of passing such policies before 2021. And the second reality is we can’t wait to act. We can’t put this mission off any longer. Mother Nature does not wait on the election calendar – and neither can we.
Our foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, has been working for years to rally cities, states, and businesses to lead on this issue – and we’ve had real success. Just not enough.
So today, I’m happy to announce that, with our foundation, I am committing $500 million to the launch of a new national climate initiative, and I hope that you will all become part of it. We are calling it Beyond Carbon. The last one was Beyond Coal, this is Beyond Carbon because we have greater goals.
And our goal is to move the U.S. toward a 100 percent clean energy economy as expeditiously as possible, and begin that process right now. We intend to succeed not by sacrificing things we need, but by investing in things we want: more good jobs, cleaner air and water, cheaper power, more transportation options, and less congested roads.
To do it, we will defeat in the courts the EPA’s attempts to rollback regulations that reduce carbon pollution and protect our air and water. But most of our battles will take place outside of Washington. We are going to take the fight to the cities and states – and directly to the people. And the fight will take place on four main fronts.
First, we will push states and utilities to phase out every last U.S. coal-fired power plant by 2030 – just 11 years from now. Politicians keep making promises about climate change mitigation by the year 2050 – hypocritically, after they’re long gone and no one can hold them accountable. Meanwhile, the science keeps moving the possible inflection point of irreversible global warming closer and closer. We have to set goals for the near-term – and we have to hold our elected officials accountable for meeting them.
We know that closing every last U.S. coal-fired power plant over the next 11 years is achievable because we’re already more than half-way there. Through a partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Sierra Club, we’ve shut down 289 coal-fired power plants since 2011, and that includes 51 that we have retired since the 2016 presidential election despite all the bluster from the White House. As a matter of fact, since Trump got elected the rate of closure has gone up.
Second, we will work to stop the construction of new gas plants. By the time they are built, they will already be out of date – because renewable energy will be cheaper. Cities like Los Angeles are already stopping new gas plant construction in favor of renewable energy, and states like New Mexico, Washington, Hawaii, and California are working to convert their electrical systems to 100 percent clean energy.
We don’t want to replace one fossil fuel with another. We want to build a clean energy economy – and we will push more states to do that.
Third, we will support our most powerful allies – governors, mayors, and legislators – in their pursuit of ambitious policies and laws, and we will empower the grassroots army of activists and environmental groups that are currently driving progress state-by-state.
Together, we will push for new incentives and mandates that increase renewable power, pollution-free buildings, waste-free industry, access to mass transit, and sales of electric vehicles, which are now turning the combustion engine – and all of its pollution – into a relic of the industrial revolution.
Fourth, and finally, we will get deeply involved in elections across the country, because climate change is now first and foremost a political problem, not a scientific quandary, or even a technological puzzle.
Now, I know that as scientists and engineers, politics can be a dirty word. I’m an engineer – I get it. But I’m also a realist so I have three words for you: get over it.
At least for the foreseeable future, winning the battle against climate change will depend less on scientific advancement and more on political activism.
That’s why Beyond Carbon includes political spending that will mobilize voters to go to the polls and support candidates who actually are taking action on something that could end life on Earth as we know it. And at the same time, we will defeat at the voting booth those who try to block action and those who pander with rhetoric that just kicks the can down the road.
Our message to elected officials will be simple: face reality on climate change, or face the music on Election Day. Our lives and our children’s lives depend on it. And so should their political careers.
Now, most of America will experience a net increase in jobs as we move to renewable energy sources and reductions in pollution. In some places jobs are being lost – we know that, and we can’t leave those communities behind.
For example, generations of miners powered America to greatness – and many paid for it with their lives and their health. But today they need our help to change with technology and the economy.
And while it is up to the federal government to make those investments, Beyond Carbon will continue our foundation’s work to show that progress really is possible. So we will support local organizations in Appalachia and the western mountain states and work to spur economic growth and re-train workers for jobs in growing industries.
Taken together, these four elements of Beyond Carbon will be the largest coordinated assault on the climate crisis that our country has ever undertaken.
We will work to empower and expand the volunteers and activists fighting these battles community by community, state by state. It’s a process that our foundation and I have proved can succeed. After all, this isn’t the first time we’ve done an end run around Washington.
A decade ago no one would have believed that we could take on the coal industry and close half of all U.S. plants. But we have.
A decade ago no one would have believed we could take on the NRA and pass stronger gun safety laws in states like Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. But we have.
Two decades ago, no one would have believed that we could take on the tobacco industry and spread New York City’s smoking ban to most of America and to countries around the world. But we have.
And now, we will take on the fossil fuel industry to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. I believe we will succeed again – but only if one thing happens and that is: you have to help lead the way by raising your voices, by joining an advocacy group, by knocking on doors, by calling your elected officials, by voting, and getting your friends and family to join you.
Back in the 1960’s, when scientists here at MIT were racing to the moon, there was a popular saying that went: if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem. Today, Washington is a very, very big part of the problem.
We have to be part of the solution through political activism that puts the screws to our elected officials. Let me reiterate, this has gone from a scientific challenge to a political one.
It is time for all of us to accept that climate change is the challenge of our time. As President Kennedy said 57 years ago of the moon mission: we are willing to accept this challenge, we are unwilling to postpone it, and we intend to win it. We must again do what is hard.
Graduates, we need your minds and your creativity to achieve a clean energy future. But that is not all. We need your voices. We need your votes. And we need you to help lead us where Washington will not. It may be a moonshot – but it’s the only shot we’ve got.
As you leave this campus I hope you will carry with you MIT’s tradition of taking – and making – moonshots. Be ambitious in every facet of your life. And don’t ever let something stop you because people say it’s impossible. Let those words inspire you. Because just trying to make the impossible possible can lead to achievements you never dreamed of. And sometimes, you actually do land on the moon.
Tomorrow start working on the mission that, if you succeed, will lead the whole world to call you the Greatest Generation, too.
Thank you, and congratulations.