Our Daily Planet's Bright Ideas

Bright Ideas is a weekly featured opinion piece authored by policymakers, thought leaders & experts highlighting steps we can take toward a more sustainable future brought to you by people that know these topics best.

Can America Regain the Ability to Think Big?

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 moon landing. Image: NASA

By Miro Korenha, founder and publisher of Our Daily Planet

In 1961 President Kennedy announced before a joint session of Congress the audacious goal of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. He stated,

“These are extraordinary times and we face an extraordinary challenge. Our strength as well as our convictions have imposed upon this nation the role of leader in freedom’s cause. No role in history could be more difficult or more important.”

And indeed, they were extraordinary times. Just as the Soviet Union was accelerating its space program, the United States wanted the achievement of sending the first human to the moon to embody the core tenets of our national identity: the ability to think big, push the bounds of what’s possible and to use the ingenuity of our citizens to get us there. On July 20th, 1969, exactly 50 years ago today, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins achieved President Kennedy’s extraordinary vision and captivated the entire world with America’s historic achievement.

The era of the Space Race left young Americans feeling hopeful about what their government could achieve. Just as their parents’ and grandparents’ generation experienced during the New Deal, these young people trusted their government to act boldly in solving seemingly insurmountable problems. President Kennedy didn’t say that America would try to put a man on the moon, he said that we would do it and even after his assassination the triumph of the Apollo 11 mission was a defining moment of a generation.

I wasn’t born until nearly two decades after the moon landing so my sense of awe and pride has only been cultivated in school and through the anecdotes of those who sat by their TVs to witness the landing firsthand. My generation has been alive at a time of rapidly declining trust in the government and my entire life I’ve only experienced lawmakers and presidential administrations who just can’t seem to do big things. Sure, important accomplishments have been enacted in my 32 years on this Earth, but the messages of “caution” and “incrementalism” and “you can’t do it all at once” have defined the tone of these three decades.

I often wonder if my generation will have our own equivalent of the space race. When my children ask me “what was it like?” as I recently asked my own mom of the moon landing, I want to reply “it changed our world” as I detail how my peers and I helped enact the Green New Deal and reshaped the trajectory of our planet away from climate catastrophe. The transition away from fossil fuels to a more just, clean energy world is the legacy I want all Millennials to be able to share with their kids and grandkids.

I understand that the Green New Deal has a lot of detractors, including the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who labeled it “the green dream.” But what’s puzzling to me is that the people who today are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, are the same ones who think the best plan we have to curb climate change and ensure a habitable planet is somehow too expensive and unrealistic.

Here’s a history lesson: at the end of the Apollo missions in 1972, the U.S. had spent about $25 billion on the program, which is the equivalent of about $150 billion in today’s dollars.  And mind you, this was money spent on something that we didn’t need but rather something that wanted to accomplish.

During the Space Race, there was a staggering number of accidents, jet crashes, equipment failures, and explosions that cost hundreds of millions of dollars—failure was an expected part of getting to where we needed to go. In today’s world lawmakers are so afraid that if their idea crashes on the first try or doesn’t go exactly as planned that it’s a failure overall and that the political fallout will be too great to try anything similar in the future. Just look at what happened with solar energy company Solyndra after it defaulted on its loan which was backed by President Obama’s Department of Energy. Even though the loan program that funded the company made taxpayers billions of dollars through its portfolio, the “scandal” was used as an example by the political right to vilify the Energy Department and that made the government reluctant to invest in renewable energy after that.

If we’re going to stop climate change—one of the greatest threats humanity has ever faced—then we have to try things that are risky. Some ideas will fail while others will flourish to create incredible outcomes that will fundamentally change how we do things. I can’t tell you what happened to the generation that’s in power right now, most of them witnessed the moon landing and the other groundbreaking moments of the 60s and 70s and despite it all, managed to lose the ability to believe that America can achieve the impossible.

I want more for my generation because these are extraordinary times and we’re certainly facing an extraordinary challenge. Even if our parents have lost the ability to think big I want us to listen to their memories of the moon landing—a moment so beautiful that it stopped the entire world at the same time—and imagine how we might harness that forgotten spirit to alter the fate of the planet being handed down to us. A planet that Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins described as “so fragile out there” upon seeing it for the first time from space.

(If you have a moment, watch what the Apollo 11 flight looked like from mission control. Especially at about 7:16:00 where the astronauts see the Earth)

 

This is an excerpt of an Op/Ed that was first published in The Washington Post.  It is reprinted with their permission.  

Monica Medina, an adjunct professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, is an independent consultant and co-founder and co-publisher of the environmental newsletter Our Daily Planet.

When it comes to environmental policy, it’s hardly “America First.” In fact, according to Yale University’s environmental performance ranking, it’s America 27th, compared with other nations. Despite this inconvenient truth, President Trump this week boasted of his team’s hard work to ensure our country has “crystal-clean” water and air. The sham event had to be moved indoors thanks to epic storms and flooding in Washington. Good thing — otherwise lightning might have struck him for all his lies.

Trump took credit for protecting our most vulnerable citizens from pollution and for creating clean energy jobs by unleashing innovation and reshoring fossil fuel jobs. But here’s the truth: Like ruthless hit men, the president and his administration have systematically whacked many of this country’s most important environmental protections. It’s time to hit back with reality.

When it comes to crystal-clean air and water, the administration has knocked off 50 key environmental rules, including Obama administration rules to reduce coal power plants’ pollutionincrease car fuel efficiency and define which bodies are subject to the Clean Water Act. And the regulatory rollback is far from over; another 30 anti-environmental actions remain in progress.

Harvard University scientists estimate that the removal of these regulations will result in tens of thousands of premature deaths annually, as well as lost work and school days and destruction of property. Worst of all, the administration has turned its back on the most vulnerable, thwarting enforcement by dropping environmental inspections to their lowest number and referring the fewest environmental crimes cases to the Justice Department since 2001.

The dirty dealing doesn’t stop there. As for clean-energy innovation, Trump … mocked wind power, laughably claiming turbines cause cancer (actually, Mr. President, toxic pollution does that). The only thing he hasn’t managed to extirpate is the market success of renewable energy, the source of all those clean energy jobs he “created,” which has happened despite the president’s actions, not because of them.

Yes, the administration has cleaned up of a few waste sites, but officials have also jammed through new leases on federal lands for oil, gas and mineral development that will create hundreds more toxic messes. The few pristine areas remaining haven’t even escaped Trump’s crosshairs. The administration is preparing leases for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Arctic Ocean and has vastly reduced the size of national monuments protecting sacred Native American sites.  ….

And as for loving God’s creatures, the administration has loosened the key provisions of the law protecting species from extinction and allowed the importation of “trophies” of endangered species such as lions, giraffes, and elephants into the United States by big-game hunters.

Since his first day in office, the president has acted with absolute disregard for the well-being of all Americans but particularly children, the elderly and the poor. His administration has kowtowed to the chemical and fossil-fuel industries (reportedly wining and dining with them immediately after the president’s victory lap speech on Monday)….

Any environmental success the president can claim is likely the result of the hard work of prior administrations (Republican and Democratic) and a system of environmental laws and standards that he openly disregards and is actively trying to destroy. After bragging about how much he digs coal and loves to wipe out burdensome regulations, the only thing that’s crystal clear is that the president is lying to cover his dirty tracks.

You can read the full Op/Ed by clicking here.

No Better Time for a Forum on Climate Change

Photo: Saul Loeb

By Miro Korenha and Monica Medina, co-founders Our Daily Planet

Out of 4 hours of air time, just a mere 14 minutes and 10 out of 170 questions were devoted to climate change during both nights of this week’s Democratic presidential primary debates. Certainly, other issues are important but climate change has been deemed by experts as the “single greatest threat facing humanity” and regrettably was sidelined as a secondary topic despite growing support for a single-issue climate debate.

While this is still a vast improvement over primary debates in 2015 (where climate was hardly mentioned at all) it goes to show that the media’s assertion that climate change is a “ratings killer” plays a big part in how the moderators were willing to delve into the topic. Moreover, moderator Chuck Todd’s questions were largely focused on the cost and obstacles of implementing climate change policies instead of the immense risks and costs that would be incurred if nothing is done. While it wasn’t expressed outright, you could reasonably get the sense from the moderators’ questions that they indeed might buy into the notion that action on climate change comes at the direct cost of the economy.

To be fair to MSNBC, 2 nights with 10 candidates (and their large personalities) was a herculean task to produce and was compounded by the fact that candidates rarely stuck to the 30-second response time limit. For many Americans, it was the first time they heard the bulk of the 2020 hopefuls speak yet the candidates were looking to create viral moments instead of engaging in true discourse as the format of the debate did not allow for it.

All this meant that climate change was the true loser during the first round of the Democratic debates. Aside from Governor Jay Inslee who is running his entire campaign focused on climate change, most candidates didn’t delve into the specifics of how their climate plans might protect Americans and help us transition to a clean energy future. The American people deserve more than this, they deserve a forum where candidates can deliver their message on climate change action without having to worry about hitting all the other talking points on their list. Simply put, we need a genuine conversation about climate change and preferably one between candidates and the Americans that will be most affected by its ravages: young voters.

At Our Daily Planet, we have been thinking about this for a while and wanted to establish an opportunity for candidates to get back to the battle of ideas rather than the battle of Tweet-able personalities when it comes to an issue as critical as climate change. We read our readers’ comments, saw their tweets, and especially listened to what our student and GenZ readers were saying when they were asking for someone to create a space where an earnest climate change discussion could occur. It’s for this reason that we reached out to the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy to partner on an event that would make students the central component of a town hall on climate issues and allow them to ask the questions.

Climate Forum 2020 will not only allow candidates an opportunity to discuss their vision for addressing and limiting the effects of climate change but it will facilitate a dialogue between those vying to become the next president and some of the most engaged and impassioned American voters. Thirty-second answers just don’t cut it when it comes to an issue as urgent as climate change—one that scientists have told us we have roughly a decade to address in earnest before we witness irreversible consequences. We’re the last generation that can do something about climate change and we haven’t any time to lose, yet we must also remember that the first step of any bold climate plan begins with a conversation between a candidate and the electorate that has the power to put him or her into office. We’ve set the stage for this groundbreaking conversation, now we hope that the candidates do their part and show up ready to share their vision for a habitable planet.

How Do the Democratic Candidates Stack Up on the Climate Crisis?

By Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

The first of the Democratic debates will take place this week. The Democratic Party refuses to hold a debate focused on climate change, and the candidates are likely to get only one question – if that – on this important topic. The New York Times asked all the candidates this week if they think we can beat climate change – and you can see their answers here. But the real question is how do they plan to do it if elected President?

We looked at their web sites, public remarks, and various interviews and compiled a “cheat sheet” of their positions on a series of climate change issues organized by debate night – you can see them below. We broke it down for you so that the candidates who have put together a serious plan on addressing the climate crisis stand out.  The charts are easy to read — if there is a check mark in a box they have stated a position that is supportive of climate action — if it is empty it means they have not that we could find or they oppose.  It is as simple as that.

In the top tier of candidates who have seriously considered what to do about the climate crisis are Governor Inslee, who is running primarily on the issue of climate change, Vice President Biden, who put together a very comprehensive plan, Beto O’Rourke and Senator Warren who have fairly comprehensive if more issue-specific plans, and little known candidates John Delaney and Senator Bennet, who have more “moderate” but detailed plans. There are many candidates who have not said much beyond expressing support for the Green New Deal, but who have significant records in Congress to run on. In this category, we would put Senators Sanders and Booker, Representative Gabbard, Governor Hickenlooper, and Mayors De Blasio and Buttigieg. For the rest of the field, it is hard to know how much of a priority the climate crisis is, and what they would actually do if elected.

Considering all the issues under the climate crisis umbrella, general support for the Green New Deal framework and rejoining the Paris Agreement are two topics on which most of the candidates have taken a position – and thus do not provide much differentiation between them. In our view, the “Top 5” issues to consider when assessing the seriousness of the candidates are:

  1. Does the candidate put a date on when they want the U.S. to be carbon neutral, and does he/she say how much they are willing to spend to get there? And how aggressive is each of those things?
  2. Does the candidate look beyond clean energy — is he/she willing to put in place policies that will make needed changes across many sectors of the economy and society?
  3. Does the candidate have a climate security plan beyond rejoining the Paris Agreement?
  4. Does the candidate have a proposal on environmental justice, reigning in pollution generally, and conserving our parks and natural resources, as well as protecting frontline and vulnerable communities?
  5. Does the candidate believe that displaced workers in fossil fuel industries deserve public support, and will he/she take the “no fossil fuel contributions” pledge?

In our view, any candidate who now or in the future takes a pro-conservation/pro-climate action position on all five of these issues deserves an “A” on addressing the climate crisis. But without a debate or town hall type forum, we may never know the answer for many of the candidates. On questions that are this important to both the electorate and our country’s future, that is a real shame. In the meantime, here is our cheat sheet. We will continue to fill it in as the candidates take positions on these topics so that it will be a resource for all the voters who care about them. And if we missed something in these charts, please let us know and we will fix it.

To Go Deeper: Here are links to the plans of the candidates who have them: Marianne Williamson, John Hickenlooper, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Michael Bennet, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Elizabeth Warren.

*The Biden Campaign asked Monica for advice before they rolled out his plan and she gave it. We thought you should know.

Millennial Spotlight: Jenny Hogrefe of KIND®

Jenny Hogrefe is the Wellness and Sustainability Manager at KIND Snacks. KIND is a food company with a mission to spread kindness and create snacks made with nutritionally-dense ingredients that avoid secret ingredients, artificial flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners.

ODP: How did you choose your career in corporate sustainability?

JH: I was raised in a very “environmentally aware” household so being mindful of my impact was part of my upbringing. As cliché as it sounds, all it took was watching An Inconvenient Truth for my passion for environmental issues to crystalize. I came to realize that if there is no planet, trying to advance other causes would be pointless so I decided to channel my passion, energy and skills towards advocating for the environment/preserving our natural resources, and haven’t looked back since. I landed at KIND because I have always liked the idea of working “on the inside” as a change agent, helping to advocate and advance more sustainable, ethical practices.  What I love about this company is that while we’re a very healthy, well-run business, we think of KIND as a not-only-for-profit, striving to not only get healthy snacks in the hands of millions of people, but also meaningfully contribute to the world and society at large.

ODP: As a Millennial do you think you bring a unique perspective to your workplace as issues like climate change and global pollution will have an outsized impact on your generation? 

JH: Every time I hear this narrative I try to challenge it. Not because it isn’t true — climate change/pollution will impact future generations more deeply than the older generations alive today — but because it suggests that climate change has not already arrived. It has — we are witnessing more extreme weather events across the globe, with no signs of slowing. Whether that’s the record high temperatures, sea level rise, Arctic sea ice decline, a warming ocean, I could go on — there is a ton of evidence that climate change is not some far off-event. Generally, I find that our generation is more dissatisfied with the status quo and that lines like, “that’s just how we do things” have much less resonance with us. Many of us feel an innate responsibility to evolve beyond business as usual, probably because we realize it is not going to serve us in the long-haul.

ODP: What keeps you hopeful when it comes to the fate of our planet? There’s certainly a lot of doom and gloom but what prevents you from giving up?

JH: It’s the people doing the good work, fighting the good fight and developing real solutions that keep me hopeful. I enjoy listening to the Climate One podcast, which often centers on people who are driving solutions forward, as well many of the features in Our Daily Planet. A couple of people who really stand out to me, and who I deeply admire for their advocacy and leadership are:

    • Rhiana Gunn-Wright, architect of the Green New Deal
    • Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist who has galvanized millions of other young people, encouraging them to raise their voices and advocate for climate solutions
    • Katharine Hayhoe, the climate scientist and evangelical Christian who is helping prove that climate science and religion can go hand in hand  
    • Annie Leonard, head of Greenpeace USA and creator of the Story of Stuff. I had the pleasure of watching her speak at The New School last summer (you can watch here), it was a thought-provoking talk that left me energized
    • Jay Inslee, bringing climate change to the forefront of a presidential campaign — showing the intersection of the issues Americans care about and the realities of climate change, and challenging the DNC to put the issue where it deserves to be: front and center on a debate stage

Talking Renewable Energy with Cloverly Co-Founder Dave Folk

Dave Folk is the co-founder of a company called Cloverly which calculates the carbon impact of common internet activities — like e-commerce shipments, rideshare, and on-demand deliveries — and then purchases carbon offsets to make those activities carbon neutral. Cloverly shows the buyer, in real time, the source of the offset and through its algorithm matches customers with the closest source of renewable energy for localized impact.

ODP: Before founding Cloverly you worked in marketing for an electric utility, what need did you see for a company like Cloverly to democratize how people can buy carbon offsets? What did it take for you to leave a secure job and found this start-up? 

DF: It always felt somewhat esoteric to participate in that market; and we saw that there were very few companies effectively making it simple and easy for the average person to decrease the carbon impacts from modern conveniences like e-commerce. Environmentally conscious consumers want to lower their carbon footprint, but sometimes that’s not easy. Cloverly decreases the friction for those customers looking to buy offsets, and we hope that by making it easy more people will participate. You often need to take risks to make a difference, but if we believe that we can truly have an impact than any risk is worth it.

ODP: As a Millennial, you’ve grown up in the midst of a rapidly warming and changing planet. Did the urgency of climate change at all affect the career path you chose? 

DF: It’s really the desire to have purpose in my work that’s driven my career decisions. I feel like our generation doesn’t mind looking at the status quo and asking: “is there a better way to do this?” The solutions that will help us mitigate climate change are opportunities to do things better, and that’s a great purpose to get up in the morning for.

ODP: Cloverly provides data about the specific local renewable energy projects that folks who use your platform are supporting. Why was it important for you to provide such a granular piece of information?

DF: We want to bring transparency to what has often been an opaque market. If you’re choosing to offset your purchase online with Cloverly we want you to know exactly where the carbon offset or Renewable Energy Credit came from, when it was created etc. This is table stakes for us, and how we believe the market should operate.

 

Millennials Putting Their Money Where Their Mouths Are

 As NBC News explained, “ESG investing” (environmental, social and governance), “SRI” (socially responsible investing), “CSR investing” (corporate social responsibility) or simply “impact investing,” is a concept has been around for years, but Millennials are charting new territory when it comes to doing good with their money. A rising group of Millennials is changing the way investors utilize their capital – for them, making a social impact is just as important as making a positive return.

By The Numbers:

What Can Impact Investing Do? Impact investments are made with the intention to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return. Instead of forcing an investor to choose between wanting to make a difference and wanting to make money, unlike past mechanisms for social change like charity, impact investing synergizes the two. Watch this video to learn more about the specifics of what impact investment can achieve. 

Rising Returns: The 8th Annual Impact Investor Survey ran by the Global Impact Investing Network found that since just 2016, impact investment deals have gone up 58%, from $22.1 billion across 7,951 deals to $35.5 billion across 11,136.

Sustainable Development Goals As a Guide: In 2017, 76% of respondents across a spectrum of 225 investors said they tracked or planned to track their investment performance using the SDGs set forth by the United Nations. 

Why Millennials?: As Forbes explained, “The younger generation may see billionaires such as Bill Gates and the legendary Rockefellers as inspirational business people, but they may question the old guard style of first spending precious time trying to make billions of dollars and then endeavoring to better the lives of others. The concept of impact investing, or pursuing both a financial return at the same time as a positive social impact, allows young people to strive toward both simultaneously.”

Why This Matters: The growing impact investment market provides capital to address the world’s most pressing challenges in sectors such as sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, conservation, microfinance, and affordable and accessible basic services including housing, healthcare, and education. This commitment to implementing social change combined with the estimated $30 billion intergenerational wealth transfer soon to go to Millennials over the next 30 years speaks volumes to how beneficial this new type of investor consciousness could be for the health of our society and our planet.

 

The Week Ahead: June 17th-23rd

Hope everyone had a great weekend and got to celebrate their dads. We’re so glad you’re starting your Monday morning with us, here’s what should be on your radar for this week:

Capitol Hill: On Wednesday the House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on “Restoring Community Input and Public Participation” during the oil and gas leasing and development process. On Thursday the Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing to explore the Trump Administration’s efforts to roll back Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards and carbon pollution regulations from light-duty cars and trucks.
Politics: On Tuesday, President Trump is expected to officially announce his second campaign at a rally in Orlando, FL. While it’s not likely that he will mention the climate crisis in his speech (as many other Democratic candidates have done), we hope he does!
Celestial Happenings: The Summer solstice is on Friday, read what you should know about the longest day of the year.

ICYMI: Just in time for Juneteenth (happening on Wednesday), prosecutors dropped all criminal charges filed against a group of eight government officials implicated in the Flint water crisis–one of the most public examples of environmental injustice in America. Prosecutors promised a new trial.

 

Never Forget by Akhila Bandlora

Last week Our Daily Planet had a chance to meet some of the remarkable young activists of Sea Youth Rise Up as they gathered in Washington D.C. to bring awareness to ocean conservation issues impacting both their local communities and communities around the globe. Akhila Bandlora, one of the 2019 delegates, wrote the following poem to present during her trip to Washington and we thought it captured so poignantly the essence of the youth environmental movement that our world is currently witnessing. We hope you’re moved by her words as much as we were.

 

never forget

i.
the girl with sea foam fingers writes letters
on napkins left on beaches like loose change,
words stumbling down staircases of five-seven-five haikus:
i want an ocean,
the one mama whispers of,
when she eats, sleeps, prays.
she ties them to the webbed foot of a seagull, and sends it off to the governor:
“we are the tide and we are coming.”
he laughs and the girl watches him corrode:
shoo the seagull, lull it to sleep with plastic wrappers and bottles, throw the napkins away to land up exactly where the girl found it, and dips his pen into the seagull’s carcass to sign a bill
for a factory to dump their industrial waste into the ocean
— the ocean, a man made trashcan.

But, The girl’s eyes are seismic; the world shifts.

ii.
It’s 1972,
the year oysters pearl, fish jump, and crabs claw;
the girl trades her haikus for ballads, her flat chest
for fruit cup breasts, their apathy for her unrest
the sailors; they call her a woman.
she gargles the sea in her mouth to remember why she’s fighting,
pulls trash left on beaches and from washed up animal carnage,
dumps it on the governor’s desk–
“the tide is here; we are here.”–
chants reduce, reuse, and recycle outside the homes of oil-guzzling men,
she leaks into classrooms, and salt water ferments the walls,
teaches her children how to protect;
the world watches her,
until its eyes cataract,
teeth chip,
lips parch,
and ears burst.
And finally, it listens–
births the Marine Mammal Protection Act,
MPRSA, the ocean dumping act,
holds the UN Convention on the law of the sea–
All promises to defend.
she smiles,
whistles to the whoosh of the waves,
and shows her children how to protest;
The fight is far from over.

 

iii.
It’s 2019,
where climate change is an alternative fact,
the ocean an afterthought instead of a forethought;
but it’s still her first thought.
her bones are soft like coral,
hair long like coast and gray like gravel,
voice throaty as a frog’s;
her battle ending,
the war still raging.
her children, we revolt
when our president pulls out of the Paris Agreement,
elects a denialist to run the EPA,
cuts its budget by thirty percent,
we community we young people we fight
we, together, grab conch shells and march on,–
“The seas are rising and so are we!–
the woman braids kelp through her hair,
washes her body with the sea,
tells us to never forget,
and we say we never will.

 

Akhila Bandlora, a rising senior, is an environmental activist from Phoenix, Arizona. In 2018, Akhila won fromthebowseat’s gold award for poetry, and officially began her environmental activism. Her work includes helping organize Arizona’s Youth Climate Strike, serving as a Creative Writing Finalist for the Genius Olympiad, and joining Earthecho International’s Ambassadorship Program. Additionally, Akhila’s delved deeper into environmental justice, realizing how the pursuit of environmental rights is often synonymous with social and racial justice.

If We Face the Truth, Everything Is Possible

Photo: Harvard University

By Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

Graduation speeches are often pablum – containing well-meaning advice and platitudes of wisdom that are easy listening but also easily forgotten.  This week I (Monica) heard not one, but two speeches that transcended the ordinary graduation fare, providing important perspective and inspiration that is most needed and welcome at this moment in time.

Former Vice President Al Gore gave the “Class Day” address for Harvard College on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his own graduation.  It was, not surprisingly, a sermon and a call to arms for the graduating class in which he decried “attacks on known facts, science, and reason as strongman-like tactics to gather power and weaken democracy.”

Most interesting was Gore’s sense that today is a more troubled time than the late 1960’s – the civic turmoil and polarization of the Vietnam War and the President’s dishonesty didn’t approach the challenges of today.   In his view, the checks and balances built into the U.S. government have weakened considerably since then, with more “compliant” judicial and legislative branches, and the viral speed of the internet and social media spread falsehoods and “alternate” facts in seconds.

In key part, Gore said, “Veritas — truth — is not only Harvard’s motto … but it is also democracy’s shield. And the right to pursue truth is the most fundamental right of them all, and that right is now at risk. And as a result, freedom itself is at risk, more so now than it was 50 years ago … We have to restore the role of reason and logic and rational debate.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel struck a similar chord in her speech at the Harvard University-wide commencement in which she emphasized the importance of telling — and facing — the truth.  She said we must “be honest with ourselves.” And then Merkel said the most simple truth of all, “That requires us not to describe lies as truth and truth as lies,” she said to a standing ovation.  You had to wonder whether the President’s ears might be burning.

The Trump Administration’s decisions of late gave this message special urgency.  It became known this week that the Environmental Protection Agency granted a permit to build a new factory in Wisconsin based on the false conclusion that air quality in the region was good enough to allow another source of pollution unabated.  The Administration also required that future climate analyses performed by the government not take the long-term impacts of climate change into consideration. And they have pulled funding for studies of the long term health impacts of pollution on children and other sensitive populations so that we will not know their true toll on these citizens’ health and well-being.

This reminded me (Miro) of my mom’s accounts of working as an economist for the Soviet government in Ukraine and being asked to manipulate data so that her work fit the agenda of the government versus portraying reality. This was a common practice in the Soviet Union and demonstrates the danger of what happens when science and facts clash with politics.  Historically, despite which president or political party was in power in Washington D.C., the research and data of the United States government have always been trustworthy and relied upon by the rest of the world. We cannot allow our status as an arbiter of rigorous scientific information to be jeopardized in this era or any other.

And yet despite the dark times both described, Gore and Merkel were optimistic about the future.

Gore cited the power of technological advances that have made renewable wind and solar power cheaper than fossil fuels in the U.S. and in many parts of the world.  He recounted his deep faith in the power of people to change the world — even fundamental societal changes of the magnitude needed to slow global warming. And then he issued a challenge to Harvard to “face the truth” of the “moral choice” surrounding the University’s financial interest in fossil fuels, calling for divestment just as the University disinvested from South African companies during apartheid and from tobacco companies twenty years ago.  He spoke truth to power for all the students to see, with all the University’s leaders in attendance.

Merkel’s remarks were even more inspiring as she recanted how she felt when the Berlin Wall fell nearly thirty years ago, something that was unimaginable even months beforehand.  She learned from that experience that “anything that seems set in stone or inalterable can indeed change.” And she told the students that even when they inevitably encounter seemingly impenetrable walls in their own lives, whether physical, social, intellectual, or cultural, they must work to break them down.

And as if describing the climate crisis as another kind of wall, Merkel said “ We can and must do everything humanly possible to truly master this challenge to humankind,” said Merkel.  And then, facing her own truth, she said, “each and every one of us must play our part (and), I say this with a measure of self-criticism, get better…. I will, therefore, do everything in my power to ensure that Germany, my country, will achieve the goal of climate neutrality by 2050.”

Merkel reminded the students that, “individual liberties are not givens. Democracy is not something we can take for granted. Neither is peace, and neither is prosperity,” Merkel said. “But if we break down the walls that hem us in, if we step out into the open and have the courage to embrace new beginnings, everything is possible.”  As she closed, Merkel implored the graduates to go out into the world and “tear down walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness, for nothing has to stay as it is.”

The challenges we face today, both with our government’s lies and the climate crisis it refuses to see, are just walls we must break down.  And if we do, anything is possible.